Put it in park

Self-driving cars are en route to Houston — here's what that means for the city's parking garages

METRO is launching a self-driving car pilot program. What does that mean for all our parking garages? Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

As the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County gets ready to rev up its test of autonomous vehicles at Texas Southern University, a question looms over the commercial real estate sector in Houston: How much change will be driven by the no-driver trend, particularly as it relates to parking?

In an interview and a recent blog post, Rand Stephens, managing director of the Houston office of commercial real estate services company Avison Young, says it's difficult to envision that self-driving vehicles will make parking garages and lots in Houston obsolete.

Rather, Stephens says, some parking garages and lots will become "staging areas" for autonomous vehicles where they can wait for their next trip, be recharged, and be maintained.

Stephens adds that street parking is poised to transform into zones for dropping off and picking up people, and for deliveries of groceries and other goods. "Instead of vehicles sitting all day in one spot," he says, "they will be on the move from spot to spot."

Other parking structures, however, will simply be razed to make way for office or residential high-rises, Stephens says. Adaptive reuse of parking garages isn't feasible, he says, as that could prohibitively cost as much as $90 to $100 per square foot.

One bump in the road for commercial real estate developers will figuring out how to put up buildings that can accommodate traditional parking but that later might need to adapt to self-driving vehicles, according to Stephens. He notes that suburban office buildings typically offer a ratio of four parking spots for every 1,000 square feet of space.

"I think forward-thinking tenants, developers, brokers, architects, and engineers will design interim solutions with lower ratios," Stephens tells InnovationMap. "They'll really take the time to understand the occupants' commuting patterns and steer away from one parking space for one person."

On the horizon, though, are even more dramatic changes for parking in Houston and elsewhere.

A 2017 report from the Urban Land Institute and Green Street Advisors LLC, a commercial real estate research and advisory firm based in Newport Beach, California, predicted driverless vehicles and ride-sharing services could eliminate the need for half of U.S. parking spaces — as much as 75 billion square feet. Under that scenario, Houston would lose nearly half (close to 5.1 million square feet) of the roughly 100,000 parking spaces at garages in the Central Business District.

While we likely won't see parking garages and lots in Houston vanish anytime soon, we already are witnessing the rise of driverless vehicles.

In March, grocery chain Kroger revealed self-driving delivery vehicles would hit the streets this spring in four Houston ZIP codes. Kroger's Houston market is the second stop in Kroger's pilot program for autonomous delivery vehicles.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is gearing up to test a self-driving vehicle at the Texas Southern University campus. The first phase of the pilot project will kick off June 5.

During the summer session at Texas Southern, an EasyMile EZ10 Gen-1 bus will run along the campus' one-mile "Tiger Walk" — closed to public traffic — at up to 12 mph. The battery-powered vehicle can accommodate six seated passengers and six standing passengers.

Although the shuttle will drive itself, a trained operator will be on board at all times to monitor it, METRO says. Rides will be provided at no cost, but Texas Southern students, professors, employees, and visitors will be required to swipe their METRO Q-card and sign a liability waiver before hopping aboard.

"This pilot puts us on the path of testing the technology in a mixed-use traffic environment," Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer at METRO, says in a news release.

If the $250,000 first phase succeeds, the second phase — on tap for this year's fall semester — will extend the route to a nearby rail station and possibly offer a connection to the Texas Medical Center's TMC3 research campus. METRO says the second phase would require third-party funding.

Last year, California-based Nuro, a self-driving car tech company, launched three pilots in Houston. Courtesy of Nuro

Houston — with its sprawl and winding roads broken up across various neighborhoods — is particularly challenging when it comes to self-driving car navigation. And that's exactly why Nuro, a California-based tech startup that's raised over $1 billion in funding, decided to focus on the Bayou City for its autonomous vehicle delivery pilot programs.

"Houston is our first full-scale operations city," Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, tells InnovationMap. "All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston."

Last year alone, Nuro launched three pilots in six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights. The first of which was a partnership with Kroger in March, followed by the announcement of autonomous pizza delivery from Domino's in June. Last month, Nuro announced its latest delivery partner was Walmart.

Lawal explains Houston's appeal to Nuro in a few ways, but the challenging landscape is key. Nuro cars are learning from the narrow, tree-laden streets of West University or the pedestrian-heavy, ditch-lined paths in the Heights.

"There's a ton for us to learn, but it's a great microcosm of the United States in a number of different ways," he says.

In addition to its diversity within its street types, Houston, named the most diverse city in the country, represents an ideal customer base, says Lawal, a Houston native himself. Houstonians are open minded about new experiences.

"If you think and look across Houston, the average commute is over 60 minutes for people to get back and forth," Lawal tells InnovationMap. "As we surveyed across major cities we were interested in, Houston stood out as a place where customers said they don't want go to the grocery store if they don't have to or get in their cars again to pick up their pizza."

The third reason Houston was a great market for Nuro is the amount of regulatory support the state of Texas has — Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the Texas Connected and Autonomous Vehicle task force a year ago — as well as the support at the city level.

"It's been a welcoming environment from the mayor's office down for us to be here," Lawal says.

Since entering the Houston market, Nuro's local operations have grown to over 100 employees. The company still has software operations out of California, and some work being done in Arizona, but the Houston is the largest — and growing as the company seeks new partnerships with more stores with a goal of eliminating errands once and for all.

"The way that we think about this is that this new technology and our mission of accelerating robotics for everyday life, is we will bring the people what they want," Lawal says when asked about what types of stores Nuro is looking to partner with.

Eventually, Lawal says, the plan would be to have every errand be delivery optimized with Nuro technology — from big-box stores like Walmart to your local florist.

"Our goal is to have a platform that retailers can connect to in order to provide easy and inexpensive delivery," he says.

Currently, Nuro's technology is still in learning mode. Nuro's fleet of Prius cars with staff onboard are driving up and down Houston streets mapping and taking notes on a daily basis. The company also has bots, called the R2 fleet, that are designed to be unmanned.

These bots are smaller than normal cars and are completely electric. Rather than being designed to protect passengers inside like traditional automobiles, the R2s are designed to be safe for people outside the vehicle.

"It's a new way of thinking about transportation and what our vehicles can and should do," Lawal says.

2020 is the year of these R2 bots, and some areas can expect to see them in action — specifically focused on Domino's pizza delivery — in just a matter of weeks.