Monday, July 31, 2017

Unless We Share Them, Self-Driving Vehicles Will Just Make Traffic Worse - by David Roberts

A carbon-free, autonomous car is still a car; it still takes up space.

After decades of relative stagnation, the world of transportation is on the cusp of multiple revolutions.  The biggest three:
  1. Electrification:  a shift from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs)
  2. Automation:  a shift from human-piloted vehicles to automated vehicles (AVs) that drive themselves
  3. Ride-sharing:  a shift from privately owned, often single-occupant vehicles to fleets of shared cars, vans, and small and large buses
There has been a great deal of discussion about how these revolutions will proceed.  (I have written about them here; Vox’s Tim Lee wrote about them here.)  Among the questions are how fast they will develop and how they will interact with one another and with current infrastructure.

Urbanists, who have been fighting for decades to shift the focus of urban planners away from cars to a more holistic vision, with a wider variety of transportation options (“multimodal”) and more land devoted to pro-social uses, are particularly interested in these interactions.

For urbanists, these coming transportation revolutions might portend heaven — fewer cars, less parking, more places for biking, walking, and gathering — or they might portend a hell of more cars, more vehicle miles traveled, worse congestion, and more sprawl.

Which of these two futures comes to pass, or what mix of the two, does not depend on technology.  It depends on us — our willingness to discuss, debate, and plan for the future we want.

This need for planning runs counter to the persistent strain of anti-government, anti-regulation ideology in the US.  The whole notion of designing a future, rather than trusting “the market,” sticks in many Americans’ throats.

But as a new study makes clear, we’re going to have to get over that.

Three Revolutions in Urban Transportation (Credit: ITDP) Click to Enlarge.
A new study compares three transportation revolutions
At the heart of the study are three scenarios, running out to 2050.

In the first, business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, there are no revolutions.  Privately owned, low-occupancy ICE vehicles continue to dominate, meeting the surging growth in demand in the developing world.

In the second, two revolutions (2R) scenario, electrification and automation take off.  EV sales rise from 750,000 in 2016 to 5 million in 2020 and rocket up thereafter.  Full automation becomes commercial around 2020 and takes off in 2025.  In both cases costs fall rapidly and automated electric vehicles (AEVs) dominate new car sales by 2040.  Oh, and the electricity sector mostly decarbonizes (an important caveat!).

Meanwhile, ride-sharing does not take off and most cars remain privately owned and low occupancy.  Because automation makes personal vehicle travel easier and more convenient, there is a 10 to 15 percent increase in overall vehicle travel and no reduction in the number of cars on the road.

In the third, three revolutions (3R) scenario, electrification and automation take off and ride-sharing is prioritized, alongside a suite of policies that encourage multimodal urban transportation, resulting in “an ‘ecosystem’ of public transport and ride-hailing services that are harmonious and complementary.”  Private ownership declines precipitously, the average occupancy of vehicles (especially in places like the US, where it is typically low) rises, and the number of cars on the road plummets.

Obviously, none of these scenarios is likely to play out as described.  It is impossible to predict how policy, technology, and social change will develop and interact, especially in a time of such tumult.

But the scenarios can serve as signposts, rough indicators of the consequences of various choices.  And they can tell us a lot about the political economy of the changes to come.

Read more at Unless We Share Them, Self-Driving Vehicles Will Just Make Traffic Worse

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