Will Autonomous Cars or Public Transit Win the Future of Driving?

Two roads diverged in a cyberpunk city ...

By The Editors

The Future of Driving: Self-Driving Cars vs. Public Transit
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25 March 2016

With autonomous vehicles (or AVs, for the acronymically inclined) staggering into the market over the next decade, the question remains: How will they alter transportation infrastructure?

The real issue is space: more bodies, more problems. But the potential of AVs to reduce traffic and replace, or merge, with public transit is a nuanced dialogue.

Here’s our attempt to parse it.

When will this become an actual conversation and not just a hypothetical one?

Google predicts self-driving cars will hit roads by 2020. But the sharing economy — think Uber 2.0 — is expected to be the market majority here. By 2035, there should be about 54 million self-driving cars (of various types) in use. It won’t be until 2050 that a full rollout of thoroughly self-piloted cars will be the car industry standard.

Progressing to complete automation will take time. The US Department of Transportation has designated the stages of development from level 0 to level 4. Zero represents a human driver having complete control. Four is where all safety functions and inputs are controlled by the vehicle. Research and development is currently pegged between a 1 and 2, allowing control of at least two primary functions at limited intervals.

Will more AVs be better or worse for the environment?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based think tank, predicts that fleets of AVs will eventually replace nine out of 10 automobiles. According to a simulation conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, energy costs in Lisbon, Portugal — a moderate-sized European city that serves as a good benchmark — that would add up to an 80% reduction in energy costs thanks to ride-sharing and fewer miles traveled. Similar observations were recorded in New York, New Jersey, Ann Arbor and Singapore.

That said, larger, privately owned AVs traveling longer distances could actually double energy consumption outside of cities. Unless public AVs were hypothetically dispatched on an interconnected network, which could lead to high-speed highway corridors, accelerating commute times and allowing people to live farther outside of cities.

If AV companies are mimicking the role of public transit, is the latter needed?

Probably. We’re certainly buying fewer cars, autonomous or not. Studies administered at University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor suggest that car ownership is declining: in fact, 30% of households don’t own a car in six out of 30 of the largest cities.

A transportation research board held in Washington analyzed future transportation infrastructure. Their primary concerns were about space. There’s also the fact that income is generated through private transit, and if there were a competitive marketplace offering the same service, why would cities need to bankroll a public initiative? Stubborn public transportation bureaucracies would entangle progress because of labor union disputes and rigid city mandates (not unlike what’s going on between Uber and taxi unions all over the world at the moment).

Alright, so which one’s more practical? AVs or public transit?

In dense regions, no matter how economical AVs are, they take up space. It’s more efficient to shuffle a glut of people into one vessel than to clutter streets with a fleet of micro-machines. With limited space and smaller cities growing at an unprecedented rate, local government will be forced to erect a more robust public transit system that incorporates subways or above-ground railways. And as technology advances, denser cities will also need to continue streamlining their public transit networks.

Small-scale public AVs will service metropolitan centers but a wider-scale highway of fully self-governing automobiles pushes estimation to 15 years from now. And privately owned services require less government sponsorship than high-speed projects (like Elon Musks’s hyperloop) that go beyond beyond buses or rails.

Other predictions estimate a hybrid of AVs and public transit, providing limited connections to standard bus and rail lines and/or coverage during peak hours.

In other words, public transit isn’t threatened by an AV darwinism, because the one invariable is how to fit people in a tight space: pragmatism is the ultimate denominator.

—Eric Brown

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