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Will robocars be heaven or hell for our cities?

August 15, 2016
One taxi cab with quite a few self-driving cars in the city.
One lone taxi cab surrounded by quite a few self-driving cars in congestion.

Robin Chase wrote an article wondering if robocars will improve or ruin our cities and asked for my comment on it. It’s a long article, and I have lots of comment, since I have been considering these issues for a while. On this site, I spend most of my time on the potential positive future, though I have written various articles on downsides and there are yet more to write about.

Robin’s question has been a popular one of late, in part a reaction by urban planners who are finally starting to think more deeply on the topic and reacting to the utopian visions sometimes presented. I am guilty of such visions, though not as guilty as some. We are all seduced in part by excitement of what’s possible in a world where most or all cars are robocars — a world that is not coming for several decades, if in our lifetimes at all. It’s fair to look at the topic from both sides, as no technology is 100% good.

When I first met Robin, she was, like most people, a robocar skeptic. She’s done pioneering work in new transportation ideas but the pace of improvement has surprised even the optimists. I agree with many of the potential negatives directions that she and others paint; in fact, I’ve said them myself. Nonetheless, my core position is that we can and probably will get tremendous good out of this. While I want city planners to understand these trends, I think it’s too early for them to actually attempt to guide them. Even the developers of the technology don’t quite know the final form it will take when it starts taking over the transport world in the 2020s. Long-term planning is simply impossible at this stage — it must be done not with the knowledge of 2016 but with the knowledge of 2023. That approach — the norm in the high tech world, where we expect the world to constantly change underneath us — is anathema to governments and planners. When Marc A. said that software was eating the world, he was telling the world that it will need to start learning the rules of innovation that come from the high tech, internet and computer worlds.

Instead, today’s knowledge can at least guide planners in what not to do. Not to put big investments in things likely to become obsolete. Not to be too clever in thinking they understand the “smart city” of 2025. They need to be like the builders of the internet, who made the infrastructure as simple and stupid as they could, moving innovation away from the infrastructure and into the edges where it could flourish in a way that astounded humanity.

Congestion

We will get more congestion in the start. Not because of empty vehicles cruising around — most research suggests that will be around 15% of miles, and then only after everybody switches. We’ll get more congestion from two factors:

  • The early cars, especially the big car company offerings, will make traffic jams more tolerable. As such, people will not work as hard to avoid them.
  • Car travel will be come much better and much cheaper; far more people will be able to use it, so they’ll travel more miles in cars than they do today.
  • For some, longer commutes will be more tolerable so they will live further from work. That won’t increase congestion in the central areas (they would still have driven those roads if they lived closer to work) but will increase it in the more remote places.
  • The tolerance for longer commutes may increase “sprawl.”

The good news is that the era of the ubiquitous smartphone brings us the potential for a traffic “miracle” — the ability to entirely eliminate traffic congestion. I first made that remarkable claim in 2008 in my article on congestion. I have a new article in the works which expands on this and makes it easier to understand. The plan is a rare one for me, because the city is heavily involved, but mostly in virtual infrastructure rather than physical. Virtual infrastructure needs to be the new buzzword of the city planner, because only virtual infrastructure is flexible enough to adapt to a changing world.

While this, and other plans to eliminate congestion won’t actually arise very quickly, the reason is not technological, it’s political. So the rise in congestion for the reasons cited above has a silver lining — it will push the public to be more accepting of entirely new ways of managing traffic.

The other way we can attack congestion is through the potential to make vastly superior group transit. Today’s transit sucks. It uses more energy than cars, provides slow and limited service from station to station (not door to door) in limited areas. When it does work efficiently, at rush hour, people travel standing, packed like sardines. People hate it so much that they spend over $8,000/year on vastly more expensive car ownership, the 2nd largest expense in most households. Robocars offer the potential for very appealing group transit which takes people efficiently from door-to-door in luxury vans on their schedule and along fast routes. Truly appealing transit might greatly increase ridership at congested times.

Robin suggests her Prius could drive around for $1.50/hour rather than park and that will make things worse. Perhaps if people make the same mistake it could, but when you look at it, you realize it costs closer to $20/hour to have a car drive around, and the fuel is just part of that. (Most auto web sites rate the Prius as costing 50 cents/mile, and at 25mph that’s only $12.50 per hour but in reality urban miles tend to cost more than highway miles so I like hourly rates. The Prius is rare though in that it uses less fuel in city miles.) Certainly no rational actor would do this. In addition, as more cars are shared, parking will become plentiful, particularly since a car no longer needs to park right where it dropped you off, but can instead request price bids on the “spot market” and find space going spare not too far away, which will certainly be available for well under $1.50/hour.

Unemployment

Fewer people will drive for a living. At the same time, there are more bank tellers today than in 1970. They just don’t cash your cheques and give out withdrawls much anymore. This topic deserves a great deal more verbiage, of course, but the kicker is this: These professional drivers are killing several thousand Americans every year while doing their jobs. Only doctors kill more. While the economic disruption is not an illusion, there is no way you can justify artificially preserving a job that is killing so many people. It’s a bit like arguing everybody should smoke so that tobacco farmers don’t lose their jobs.

Shared cars & parking

This will be huge, at least the part about sharing rides. Sharing cars for solo rides does not reduce miles driven or the number of cars made, but it does vastly reduce the amount of parking needed. Sharing rides reduces everything. I go much further in my vision to bring ride sharing to the level of dynamically allocated self-driving vans which replace today’s mass transit with something much more desired by the public and much more efficient at the same time.

I do hope the city parking lots are turned into parks mostly. The privately owned lots will get other uses, though downtown multi-floor lots are a bit harder to change.

Energy grid

It’s true that a major move to electric cars might require more electric capacity. Though they will charge mostly at night when power is cheap (though not solar.) One thing that many people don’t realize we won’t need is charging infrastructure. The great thing about robocars is they go where the energy is. The robocar will drive to the transformer substation which is packed with charging points — you don’t need to put charging stations in parking lots or houses.

However, at least today, electric cars are not cheaper than gasoline ones. The electricity is dirt cheap — under 3 cents/mile. The problem is at today’s battery prices, the battery depreciation is 20 to 40 cents per mile, much more than gasoline. Fortunately, there are optimistic signs about cheaper batteries and longer lasting batteries which could fix this.

But as robocars shrink — especially to one person vehicles for solo riders — they will become much cheaper than today’s cars, and also much more efficient. More efficient than the cars, but also all US transit systems. At a cost of around 30 cents/mile, car transportation will be available to billions more than can afford it today, and certainly to almost all Americans. That has its congestion downsides.

What should cities do?

As noted above, it’s more about what they should not do. I am rebuilding my recommendations here, but my current list includes this:

  • Avoid regulation until you know what players can’t be trusted to do, and then fix only that.
  • No more light rail or other single-use right-of-way. Stick to plain, bare pavement which can handle everything.
  • Create “transfer points” for carpools, robotaxi and robovan services to quickly — really quickly — transfer passengers between vehicles. These are useful for robocars, smartphone carpooling and even today’s transit.
  • Don’t require new buildings to put in tons of parking if they don’t want to.
  • Make as much of your infrastructure virtual as you can. Encourage lots of data networks in the town, with the newest (5G and later) protocols in 2020.
  • If installing dedicated ROW for transit, make sure it can be converted to use by robocars in the future so the capacity isn’t wasted most of the time. If making tunnels, make sure stations are “offline” so that other vehicles can pass stopped vehicles, and make ramps for access by approved vehicles from the street.
Brad Templeton, Robocars.com is an EFF board member, Singularity U faculty, a self-driving car consultant, and entrepreneur... read more


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