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.

The company wants to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks." PRNewsfoto/Kodiak Robotics

The Interstate 45 freight corridor between Houston and Dallas now serves as a testing ground for self-driving cargo trucks.

Silicon Valley startup Kodiak Robotics Inc. recently began sending its autonomous 18-wheel trucks on trips between Texas' two largest metro areas, co-founder and CEO Don Burnette says. The trucks are carrying paid cargo, but Kodiak won't identify the customer or customers. The company also won't say how many trips the trucks are making each day.

The Texas initiative represents Kodiak's first foray into commercial deliveries. Wired.com notes that pretty much every player in the autonomous truck sector has conducted tests in Texas or is carrying commercial loads in the Lone Star State, which boasts more than 2,300 miles of interstate highways.

For its part, Kodiak aims to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks."

According to a 2016 report from the Texas Department of Transportation, nearly half of all truck freight in Texas goes through the I-45 corridor's 11 counties. In some spots, trucks make up more than one-fourth of the traffic in the corridor, which runs 276 miles from Galveston to where I-45 intersects with Interstate 20 in Dallas County, the TxDOT report says.

"The importance of the I‐45 freight corridor to the movement of goods extends beyond Texas because much of the freight originating or passing through the corridor is destined to other domestic and international markets," the report says.

For now, Burnette says, two people are aboard each Kodiak truck traveling between Houston and Dallas — a safety driver and a safety engineer.

"Dallas will be our home base for testing and operations for the foreseeable future," Burnette says. "Kodiak plans to continue refining and testing its trucks until the last truck-involved accident happens on public roads."

Kodiak's Dallas office, which opened in March, employs eight people. The company plans to relocate soon to new office space in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, Burnette says.

At this time, Kodiak doesn't plan to hire any workers in Houston, he says.

From its base in the Dallas area, Kodiak envisions expanding its service to routes throughout Texas, but it's focusing solely on the Houston-to-Dallas route for the time being, Burnette says.

Kodiak picked Texas for its truck tests, in part, because of the "warm welcome" extended by Gov. Greg Abbott, TxDOT, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and other segments of the public sector, he says.

In addition, Burnette says, Kodiak chose Texas "because of its great people, freight-rich economy, reasonable regulatory structure, and robust infrastructure."

In 2017, Texas enacted laws enabling driverless vehicles, including long-haul trucks, to operate on the state's roads.

"Texas is a leader in the testing and implementation of connected and automated vehicles, and Kodiak's willingness to partner with academia and public agencies to ensure safe deployment of new technology will add significant value to our transportation system," Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, says in a release.

Burnette, co-founder of Otto Trucking LLC, a self-driving truck startup purchased in 2016 by Uber Technologies Inc., and fellow entrepreneur Paz Eshel established Kodiak in 2018 to "redefine" long-haul trucking through self-driving technology.

Kodiak says its autonomous technology is designed to ease pressures facing the trucking industry, including a shortage of drivers and high turnover among drivers, while improving highway safety, fostering business efficiency, reducing traffic congestion, and cutting down on harmful emissions.

"Long-haul trucking is primed for autonomous technology," Kodiak says in a post on Medium. "Highway driving is more structured and predictable than urban driving. This means there are fewer decisions for drivers to make and [it's] a better fit for autonomous vehicles."

"As hard as it is to navigate city streets, autonomous vehicles are much closer to being able to drive on more structured interstate highways, which have no jaywalking pedestrians, no aggressive cyclists, and no runaway pets," Kodiak adds. "That's why we've focused on building technology specifically for long-haul trucks driving on highway routes, often referred to as the 'middle mile.'"