Briegmann wonders if the driverless (autonomous) car would lead to reduced congestion, but also greater sprawl?
Robert Bruegmann via Bloomberg
The driverless car might well substantially alter all the equations: the division between public and private, the collective and individual. Transportation policy has never been as clear as the polemics on the subject would suggest. The taxi, for example, has long shared characteristics of each. In recent years, the divide between public and private transport has been further eroded with the Zipcar (ZIP), Super Shuttle and other on- demand vehicles such as Personal Rapid Transit, a system of small automated vehicles running on guideways. A pioneering and successful example of PRT, constructed in the 1970s, can still be seen in operation in Morgantown, West Virginia.
What the driverless automobile might do is further break down the distinctions. Suppose an individual can summon a vehicle on demand — a small capsule like a golf cart for doing errands in the city, for example, or something more like a van to transport a track team to another city — and that vehicle can go directly from starting point to destination. The flexibility this system could provide might well reduce the incentive for owning an automobile, which has to serve all purposes, is expensive to buy and maintain, and in most cases spends most of its time taking up valuable space in a garage or parking lot.
If the driverless car reduces congestion by maximizing the use of existing highways and taking passengers farther and faster with greater comfort, it could lead to even more dispersed cities. But it could also have the opposite effect.
Given the large amount of space devoted to roads and parking in American cities, even minor increases in collective use of vehicles could lead to less need for new pavement and parking and to higher residential and commercial densities. This would reinforce a trend that is already visible, as new development at the far suburban edge of most urban regions is currently being created at higher densities than in the past and there is a great deal of infill in city centers and close-in suburbs.
Although the driverless automobile, like almost every technological advance, will undoubtedly bring on a great many new problems, it could also help ease several existing problems caused by the automobile, notably traffic fatalities and congestion.
My bet is that the transition will follow an S curve of adoption, with very different models at different stages. At first, when less than 15% of the population use auto-autos it will be like today’s electric cars: a personal choice, but basically leading to only small changes in the ecosystem: for example, very few chargers at strip malls and offices. It is only after the early majority start to adopt auto-autos that things will really change, and I bet it will unfold fastest in cities.
Bruegman mentions taxis as vehicles that have elements of both public and private transportation. What happens, though, when taxis are autonomous, and no longer require taxi drivers? First of all, they become much much cheaper. Let’s imagine that 50% of the expense of a taxi is the human driving it. So taxi fares could — would — drop by at least half, and probably more, including the tip!
In such a scenario, those living anywhere with a high enough population density to support taxis would have very strong motivations to not own a car, much more so that today, even given taxis, Zipcar and other public transport. In areas of lower density, even those where taxis are not really viable in large numbers, taxis would become much more prevalent.
My sense is that this would allow for a strong incentive for people to move from lower to higher density areas, along with the added benefit of not requiring parking for the no-longer necessary car.