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Self-Driving Homes

Page history last edited by rsb 3 years, 11 months ago

This is a part of my tiny homes database that grew into an idea and therefore needs it's own page.  It's genesis was the realization that standards-compliant relocatable homes are going to need to become available as climate change kicks humanities ass.  Containerize all the things...




Lots of ideas here, but very few calculations.  This is yet another fun distraction for me. Next step is to redesign the entire city of Mountain View as "low-rise" semi-superblocks, do some math and work on the rack designs (Including elevators! Fun! :) )


If you want a debate on moving from single-family homes to low-rise/mid-rise affordably - read the comments on this much better, more serious article.  If you instead want to have fun with futuristic ideas for urban planning, give this article a shot.



Semi-Super-Blocks and Self-Driving Homes - the idea:

The goal: take cities from single or double story homes with one car per resident, to multi-story (low-rise or mid-rise) racks of homes with zero cars per resident, in a way that is financially beneficial to the residents, the landlords, to developers, and the city, while increasing quality of life for the residents, reducing energy use, and adding green space.


The trick: getting from one story to four stories without adding cars.  The move away from single family homes is a pivotal moment in the development of a neighborhood, and I think one that could benefit from bravery and imagination on the part of city management.  Discouraging mega-homes, mega-complexes, and car use requires investment and cohones - but it would pay off in spades.


O.k. hold on, I want to skip to the part where he explains why this is even remotely possible.

Concept art of Kasita Rackable homes (pictured are nine removable, rackable homes, in a home rack):



This Self-Driving Homes idea (probably bad naming) is about mobility, configurability, and re-use.  It combines the crazy idea of Rackable Homes:



and the crazy idea of Self-Driving cars:



with the not-crazy idea of super-blocks:



and some mods to government behavior.


So, lets think this through a bit (but leave some of the hard parts as an exercise for the reader, of course :) ).




Here is a map of my neighborhood as two semi-superblocks - the streets marked in black are closed to car traffic, but open to necessary city traffic or self-driving trucks as needed.  The superblocks are semi-superblocks because they don't need to be rectangles and they don't need to block every street off to auto traffic permanently - they just need to do as much as they can to reduce the need for autos.


At least half the plots on each block could be more profitably turned into racks for rackable homes.  There is an average of 20 plots per small-block in this area, and 200 plots per semi-super-block.  


Where necessary, a few streets are left open into the superblocks for civilian auto traffic (shown in pink).  The rest are closed to auto traffic:


Characteristics of Super Blocks:


Reduced Auto Traffic and increased Safety:


Hey, look, no cars!  Aside from city emergency services or scheduled daily delivery services (UPS, FedEx, and USPS probably get a once a day code to the gates at a certain time), it's safe to walk and play in the streets.  The gates, when opened, sound a notification, and the speed limit is two miles per hour, blinky lights required.  (corrolary: residential parking is greatly reduced - see also: the high cost of residential parking )


Increased green space:


We only need two narrow strips of concrete on the roads for tires.  Other than that, tear up the roads and plant some ground cover.  Driveways are completely reclaimed as space, and become green spaces.  The narrow strips are also bike lanes in each direction.


When the city can afford it, they can buy a couple central small blocks to turn into community space.


Increased walkability and increased Community:


It's safe to sit outside your home and kick it.  It's safe to rearrange blocks so that the units all face inwards as is common in asia.  Less noise, less pollution.  Want to work on an art project or play football?  You have the space right there.


Available for Power-Sharing and Power-Resale:


I have a few ideas along these lines:


I am guessing that cities could get a little emergency power system for each superblock, paid for in full by charging electric cars.


To do that they would have to negotiate some roof space on home racks, and the ability to run power lines to a battery system.


Here is how it could work:


Cities would set up their own "superblock power grids" for solar power sharing within superblocks, running power cables along existing poles - participants could share solar power and push the overage to central battery storage systems within the super block.


No need to interact with the regular grid.  We are talking small amounts of power here - small, light return cables from each house.  All that is needed is for the state to buy in and allow the construction. 


The cables go to....:


The Superblock Battery System:


This is a central battery system within the superblock.


A) A place from which residents or the city can draw emergency power.


B) A nice central hop-off point for reselling to the public grid, if allowed.




C) A charging system for electric cars that park on the border of the superblock ( the funds could be used for maintenance of the superblock grid, green space, or free beer, as the city chooses )


When I have time (read: never) I will re-zone all of Mountain View as semi-superblocks and calculate power savings.  



Self-Driving Homes:


Self-Driving Homes are rackable homes, plus the delivery and installation infrastructure required to move and reconfigure them.


Characteristics of Self-Driving Homes:




Tearing a building down?  No problem - keep every single unit - just pull them and plug them in somewhere else.  You can even dissasemble and re-use the rack.  The alternative: send an apartment complex to landfill.




Moving to a different rack or somewhere in the country?  Want to turn your unit into an RV?  No problem.  Just have a truck pull your unit and throw it on a trailer or deliver it.


Spatial configurability:  


Spatial and Financial configurability is handled fairly well around the world with apartments today, but it's worth mentioning as a feature of rackable homes because we have an opportunity to standardize physical connectivity and financial arrangements.  See: any apartment building in new york where people buy two apartments and blow out a wall.


Want to build a duplex out of a single family home?  A triplex?  A nine-plex three stories high?  No problem.  Just order a rack and a truck to arrange the units and connect them.  Want a zig-zag-shaped home?  Just rent the zig-zag of units around you.  This, of course, relies on standards for rackable homes that define how to connect them within racks.


Another cool thing about the rack is that the owners of home units don't have to worry about issues with the rack.  How many people have walked away from their condos when water damage destroyed a common wall to the entire building?  Racks are different, which brings us to....


Financial configurabilty:


I think there is a little more flexibility here than with existing buildings.  The rack, the slots in the rack, and the home units within the slots are all rentable, leasable, and ownable.  You could own a rack, live in one unit (which you lease), and rent out 8 other slots.  You could own one home units, rent two home units, lease three slots in the rack, and connect all three units to form an L-shaped building.


Residents view


What's normal today?: - no mobility - unaffordable, unwalkable cities


It is normal for the average person in my neighborhood to spend 3.5K (or more) to rent a two bedroom apartment.


At that price, the average person cannot have their own, private space - to customize the way they would like.  They have to share in a communal type environment.  


They also can't buy, because they can't pay the down on a million dollar home, which is what it costs to buy here (at least).  


They also have zero intention of staying here, because it's expensive, and they are really here to go to Stanford and work at Google or some startup for about 5 years before they leave town or strike it big.  I'm just sayin', that's the truth.  Only the millionaires stick around.  Not much of a community.


They also hate parking.  Parking increasingly becomes an insane proposition as density increases.  Apartment complexes are actually *required* to have at least one spot per apartment, and renters often bring more than one car to the city.


Alternately, renters can commute into town - which is a worse form of lunacy due to the poor public transit system.  


Rant On/ Getting into cars, and commuting, will be one day viewed as pure lunacy - the most dangerous thing that most people of our time ever did - the most harmful to themselves and the environment - and generally a messed-up waste of time and human energy that could have been spent on public transport.  Lets just accept that everyone who is not crazy should want to minimize their commuting.  It's been proven to make people miserable. /Rant Off


So to summarize: What's normal is that cops, plumbers, teachers, nurses, and even IT guys in Mountain View, need to commute for hours in order to do their job (including circling for parking).  None of the people I have met in this situation are happy with it.  Those that do not commute, pack into communal living environments, which is fun if you are in your 20s and single.  The streets are unwalkable, noisy, smoggy, and packed with the death machine of our time: cars.  


What's the vision of normal with self-driving homes?


I'll try to think through a few scenarios:


Scenario 1:


A cop, who lives in a self-driving home in Portland, gets a job with the MVPD.  The city of Mountain View has a program to pay the cops moving fee.  


The cop decides to take that offer, and when he starts at his new job, his home is already in a super block where the city wants him to walk the beat.  And the beat is a heck of a lot nicer - patrolling superblocks on foot is both necessary (cars are disallowed unless it's an emergency) and probably more enjoyable (most of the roadway can be converted to green space aside from a couple of tracks for emergency/service vehicles - and some roads can be completely eliminated).


At 100K-200K for a 40 foot container-sized home, the average, hard-working person, can afford to buy.  So if that cop doesn't have a home already, he can get a loan based on his salary to afford a rackable, self-driving home.


When the cop gets a promotion, he rents the next home in the rack, doubles his space, and is now part-owner, part renter of a family-sized space.  When he has kids, he rents more space, or buys more space, depending on his needs.  Divorced?  Shrink it back down to one unit (and take a second job). 


Scenario 2:


A self-driving homeowner who has lived in Mountain View for a while, decides to move to Truckee for a few years and consult.  


She pulls out her phone, pops open airbnb, and finds a rack space where she would like her home to appear.  The homeowner secures anything that might get damaged in shipping, grabs her backpack, walks out her front door, and down to the train station.


A self-driving truck with a crane comes to grab the home, unrack it, and deliver it to the destination.  When the truck arrives at the edge of a superblock, a city worker is there to meet it, verify it's mission, and lower the posts that block off the street.


A day later, the owner sips a coffee as they watch their home installed in Truckee.   Maybe she goes skiing on the artificial snow.


A few years later, she does all this in reverse.  Back in Mountain View, she bikes across the city without fear of being hit, because she can make it from end to end through superblocks, with controlled signals in between.


To summarize:


We added a whole lot of low-income housing.  Now, at 1K plus expenses, a cop can afford to move back into town and walk his beat - so can a carpenter or a plumber or an IT guy. 


And they can move OUT when they want to - that flexibility is power - it's freedom.


Landlords view


Imagine you are a landlord.  You own a duplex in mountain view, CA.  You could level it, and put a rack up for a dozen homes (3 deep and four stories, or some other configuration).  As in the example of the Kasita, it's like a vertical trailer park for 40 foot, two-bedroom, shotgun-style homes.


Rather than charge 4K to rent each of his duplex units, the landlord now charges 1K for each tiny home unit - making an extra 4K per month (total theoretical assumption, but lets go with it).  This probably pays off nicely in 30 years.

Renters pay rent, water, gas, electricity, repairs, and any other service they consume, just like anyone else in the world.  


The landlord takes care of the rack and the property - that's it (no calls for broken toilets!).


The bottom line is the bottom-line for landlords.  To increase the bottom line, there is no way for landlords to build, but up.  Density is the answer, as usual.  Superblocks and rackable homes make for more revenue, and a healthier city.


Landlords would probably kick this idea off with the city.


City's View


Imagine you are a city overrun by cars.  The city would have to agree to the aforementioned landlords plan to build a self-driving home rack.  Should they agree, they would zone that plot for "self-driving homes", and allow the rack to be built.  The conversion of the city to self-driving homes and liveable semi-superblocks would begin.


The city would not only restrict the size and resource consumption of the homes (it only makes sense at 40-foot container size anyway) - the city would add the restriction that no cars can be owned by the residents of self-driving homes.  Sorry, but you have to bike, walk, use public transit, or self-driving car services, or uber and lyft with human chauffers, or a limo or taxi or whatever.  No one is going to own cars in 50 years anyway.  You'll thank us. 


The city gets two to twenty four cars off the road, depending on the situation, and increases use of public transport.


In my perfect world, the city would want to create super-blocks designated only for self-driving homes, and buy some units for the city, offering them at 1K plus expenses to all the cops - forcing them to walk the beat to get to work.   Maybe they would even make a 50-year plan to build out superblocks in the city, and buy a unit on the edge of each block to facilitate transport.


Superblocks make this work way better because:


1) These homes are made for a NO CAR ZONE - I'm sure city planners and urban planners have better terminology than no car zone.  What needs to be done is to increase density *without* increasing traffic.  Superblocks force people away from cars, improving public transit and setting an example of a better way to live.  Rackable homes make increasing density in a superblock easy.


2) Superblocks are WAY more livable, with streets partially turned into public space (You could halve the roads and allow only for the occasional automated delivery or construction truck - I'll draw a picture).  This should raise the value of land, and increase the space available for trees.


Questions and Answers:


Q: How is this remotely possible?  After all, homeowners put their life savings and hundreds or thousands of hours into their homes, making homes that are exactly right for them.  They are NOT giving that up.


A: I see that you didn't try to argue that people won't give up cars, because we made something better, and we all know that cars are horrible compared to auto-autos.  The answer lies within that omission.  


Of course no one will ask homeowners to give up their single-family homes.  But landlords that own single family homes will act in their interest, and if that interest is strongly aligned with society by a new project, well then can we end up with a mix of single-family homes and Rackable homes in semi-superblocks that benefits everyone.


Getting homeowners to switch is only possible if we make rackable homes vastly superior to typical single family homes.  That can happen over time.  That's what's left to do, but the seed is there - IF you combine them with superblocks - see above for financial and spatial configurability, increased green spaces, and more livable environments.  I think we're really close with this idea.  Be my guest and run with it - it's an exciting challenge in a new space that is ripe for innovation.  (My name for the combination of superblocks and rackable homes is Self-Driving homes, but that's probably a crummy name.)


Finally, the idea of Self-Driving homes can take off right away in new developments, or any area that a city can convert to superblocks (or in China, where they still just do stuff).


Q: Why not build skyscrapers instead to replace your one-story buildings?  


A: See re-use and livability above.  Also because density rarely increases at that rate.  We should start with superblocks of rackable homes at maybe two to four stories high as an intermediate step.  If more density is needed, landlords can sell and a developer can build a rack that is much taller, or just build a traditional mega-apartment building that cannot be re-used.   If you are just after population density, you should copy Magnasanti, then everyone will be happy, or at least too sick to resist.


Q: How can these things possibly be stable?  A rack of apartments?


Note that shipping containers stack 8-10 high on ships and travel rough seas with no welding, just the latches they come with - a rack is probably not needed for stability, but it will add stability to bring us up to earthquake code.  A rack is also necessary for services, plumbing, electrical, etc.


As a bonus idea within this answer, imagine a very tall rack - say from a gutted very tall steel structure - it could include a "unit elevator".  The Unit Elevator would be an x-y arm with a unit-extractor that could pull or push any unit into or out of place, and lower it to the ground.  Pretty neat, huh?


Q: But what about city politics?  Politics are pretty dark in the US right now.  By reputation, local politicians take kickbacks from developers to make mcmansions, rezone land, and tear up railroads.  Realtors and Developers are huge donors to a government entirely controlled by huge donors.  I gave up on politics a while back, though.  Is that cynical?  Or realistic?  


A: The answer to the politics question is: who knows?  *IF* self-driving-home-semi-superblocks make way more revenue and are way more livable than traditional single-family-home-blocks, then this should be possible.  If enough money is available, and if politicians behave as they are reputed to, then I assume that developers and city politicians will somehow "obtain" any extra revenue, motivating them to carry out this work.  If building mega-apartment buildings and adding massive numbers of cars produces more revenue, then you can't have superblocks and self-driving homes without a city management that has chutzpa - and courage is hard to find in US politics these days.


However, a whole lot of the residents who own single-family homes will not go along with superblocks, or with the idea of leveling their mcmansion and building a rack of tiny homes in it's place, one of which they live in.  So, an intermediate step is probably needed...


Q: I'm from out of town, and visiting a friend in a city with mostly semi-superblocks, how do I do that?


A: I think in that case it's like any big city.  No one drives.  Take public transit.  If you drive to manhattan, or san francisco, you are going to have to park your car a good distance from your destination, on average.


Basically, small cities of superblocks are like big cities that have only paid parking available - they discourage car ownership.  Paid parking structures will exist, but they won't be cheap.


An intermediate Step


Semi-Superblocks - one street at a time.


Super-blocks across the entire city, with public transit running to every corner every 10 minutes, should be the goal.  When I have time (again: never) I will work out the cost/benefit of self-driving bus delivery to every corner of every semi-superblock in my city every 10 minutes.


That goal is super ambitious, so in most cases, it would have to be whittled away at.


That's still a great way to do it!




* Almost every road we close to regular car traffic benefits quality of life.

* There is a positive better than linear benefit to closing roads that connect to blocks to one another.


Semi-Superblocks could still be useful with some portions of some roads remaining open.  Super-blocks get easier to build but less and less super every time you stretch a road into them.  Some trade-offs would need to be made.  


A few things can help with this:


1) The better the public transit and/or self-driving car infrastructure is in your part of the world, the easier it is for tenants to eschew cars.


2) Accommodating the elderly would require carts be made available, for transport to the edge of the superblock (possibly electric carts as a form of public transpo for the elderly in these areas.)


3) If the city was really motivated to keep cars around, they could buy a plot on an edge of the superblock and build a parking structure for tenants.  That would be sad, though.


4) The Superblock Battery System encourages electric auto-autos to park on the edges of superblocks, making it easier to get around for residents who need flexibility.


Don't Sweat the Automation on Day One


Most useful drudgework gets automated at some point, so the automation of delivery is just something that would happen eventually.  However, delivery of homes doesn't need to be automated right away to make this work.  I suspect the cost to move a home would be high (several thousand dollars), even if automated, but not nearly as high as a manual move in the long run.


Self-driving trucks are not particularly controversial at this point.  The cranes required to lift a 40-foot container home on or off the truck, are simple enough and can be carried by the truck.  The crane required to lift a container four stories high needs to be carried by another, different truck.  Altogether, this will take some time to automate, but the basic tech is what we do with shipping all over the world today.


Zoning Process


I don't know how zoning works in the US.  People who do can feel free to skip this.


What I do know is that the zoning process, in the US, would need to be collaborative.  We don't have anything like superblocks today (Asia already has something similar in their architecture so it would be easier there).  Our system is also incredibly slow.


Prior to going full-bore into a superblock conversion, one city in one state would have to allow a trial to happen.  Based on successful demonstrations, other states could then allow cities to declare their desire to build superblocks.  


The city would outline the process for converting an area to a semi-superblock.  That process would just sit on the books and the city would await proposals from landowners and residents.


From there, landlords and residents could get together and propose plans.


There would be no point in bringing a plan to the city that is not signed by the landlords, and vetted by them as a desirable mechanism.  


The city might have to arbitrate with tenants, bring in developers (where they get their cut, I assume) and set the timeline for the development.


All in all, it would take a lot of courage for states and cities to take this on, given that the development of self-driving-semi-superblocks would take longer than one election cycle.  Other countries might have an easier time with this than the US.  I'm sure this whole thing would be easier in China.


What's Needed To Make This Happen?


  • Standards for rackable homes and, ultimately, racking/unracking cranes.
  • Some advancements in self-driving trucks, eventually.
  • Cities (and states?) need to grow balls (at least one of them does to prove it out), and write sensible zoning laws that value density and livability over preserving home values and "character".  It's an easy choice for the masses, but not in the tiny city council.


If you like this idea, you will probably enjoy my worst case scenario short story on climate change.


So, just an idea.


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