How connected, self-driving vehicles could change building design

September 14, 2016 Steven Voll

It’s time for building owners, operators and city planners to address how buildings may have to change with the rise of autonomous vehicles.

My teenage son can’t imagine a world without WIFI and is confused when I mention cassette tapes were commonly used to hold music. I suspect his children will be confused 20 years from now when he mentions that “cars used to have steering wheels.”

The automotive industry is changing fast. Until recently, CAVs (connected and autonomous vehicles) seemed like high-tech prototypes of the distant future. But they’ve actually been in development for many years. And to my pleasant surprise, that research and development has been ramping up this year.



For example:

  • Google has been testing autonomous driving software for 7 years, racking up 2.4 million kilometers (1.5 million miles) of testing. In May, 2016, Google and Fiat Chrysler Automobile partnered to develop a fleet of 100 self-driving prototypes based on their Pacifica Minivan.
  • In January, 2016, Ontario became the first province in Canada to allow automated vehicle testing on public roads.
  • Mercedes claims that 60% of Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are open to using CAVs. (Mercedes also claims that if 50% of the vehicles on the road in the United States were CAVs, there would be 1.88 million fewer collisions each year, but that’s another story.)

In addition, Stantec is involved in two research projects. East of Concord, California, GoMentum Station is the largest CAV testing facility in the world. And Active Aurora in Edmonton, Alberta, provides the opportunity for organizations to test and evaluate new and emerging connected vehicle systems, applications and services.

The future of buildings?
As a driver, the impact that CAVs are having on the automotive industry—how cars are designed, tested, and manufactured—is amazing. And even though the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t released guidelines for self-driving technology, most testing and research focuses on roadways.

But what about building design? How will buildings have to adapt to accommodate CAVs?

While we don’t exactly know how CAVs will change our building practices, we’ll have to consider the possibilities very soon and deal with the transition period where both human-driven and autonomous vehicles share our roads, buildings, and infrastructure. Here are a few possible scenarios.

I see CAVs making commuting faster, safer, and cheaper. They’ll also turn commuting time into work time. This means more people will commute into cities, which will reduce urbanization pressures on large cities.

As CAVs evolve, I see opportunities for building owners to attract more users, tenants, and staff to their buildings by incorporating CAVs into building design and renovations. For example,

  • Buildings could communicate with arriving vehicles (visually and electronically) to let them know where available parking and charging stations exist and the best route to get the vehicle occupants to their ultimate destination within the building, or to direct them to the main entrance if they are simply being let off.
  • As shared CAVs increase in number, more building users will simply be dropped off at buildings (rather than having to park), so building designs could include easily accessed drop-off spaces or greenspaces that can be modified as car sharing increases.
  • Utility infrastructure could be designed to allow CAVs to recharge while at the building (electricity, natural gas, hydrogen, etc) and perhaps even feed power into the building during peak load times (to reduce electricity demand charges) and/or during utility power loss to provide backup power. Given that the CAV vehicles will be lighter (due to lightweight materials and a much reduced need for crash safety), they will consume less energy and require less energy to recharge.
  • Parkades could be minimized. Owners who still prefer large parkades could design them to accommodate other future uses. Design consideration should include avoiding sloped surfaces, installing adequate ducting for future utilities, providing outside light to cascade down into underground areas through skylights and mirrors, and designing for lower loads.
  • Proper consideration to vehicle access and CAV requirements for optimum operation (like lighting) should be considered.
  • Building egress and fire safety considerations need to be re-considered. However, those landlords that adopt these elements early will see reduced construction and maintenance costs associated with parking and increased client/user traffic as CAVs become reality and their owners/users look for buildings that can effectively and efficiently welcome them.

Questions project teams should explore
Although the exact future is still unknown, building owners, urban planners, and designers must start asking the right questions to make sure buildings are ready for CAVs. For example,

  • Will CAVs evolve into personal pods for 1-2 people, remain similar in size to current vehicles (4-8 people) or migrate into commuter vehicles for 20+ people like buses? Will the vehicles be rented (like taxis) or owned? The impact on the number of vehicles on the roads and the routes of these vehicles is significant, including how much parking (surface or garage) will be needed and how these vehicles access a building – possibly an automated valet type area. Can some/all of the areas dedicated to parking be converted to income generating spaces? Can the anticipated reduced weight of the CAVs and the reduced number of parking spots in buildings allow the use of new, innovative, lighter building structural members?
  • How will buildings communicate with these vehicles to ensure safe and efficient movement?
  • Trends indicate that CAVs will mostly be electrically/battery driven so facilities will need to provide charging stations and this will have impact on power supply/utility requirements and possibly back-up power needs also. Will solar or renewables be added to the building to supply charging power?
  • Will employees work from vehicles (given they no longer have to drive and will be fully connected) thus reducing the need for office space, or given that commute time can be work productive time, will more employees come to an office to work? What type of office space will be needed? Will office and public spaces grow in larger centers but demand for housing continue to grow outside these centers? Will the office truly be on wheels and can stop at the most convenient spot for all meeting participants?
  • Will these vehicles require special consideration to snow clearing, lighting, line markings, landscaping, site lines, and colour use?
  • What type of buildings will be needed to store, maintain, and repair these vehicles?

I am excited about being part of Stantec as we address these questions and help create these new smart buildings that my son and his kids can enjoy – and then build upon.



About the Author

Steven Voll

With experience in energy, electrical systems, programmable logic control systems, supervisory control and data acquisition, and motion control, Steve Voll has successfully managed and implemented a diverse range of projects.

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