Driverless cars could make our lives better – or worse. The better we plan for their impact, the more we improve our prospects. But are we on the right track now?
Robin Chase sees two possible driverless futures: a heaven and a hell. In the first, autonomous vehicles make travel inexpensive, simplify commutes and encourage resource-sharing. Through smart planning, congestion is reduced, and we move more efficiently in cities with redefined transit and increased shared spaces. Then there’s the darker scenario, where autonomous vehicles degrade public transportation, single-rider trips increase and each of us dispatches our own cars to run our errands. Despite the promise of AVs’ increased efficiency, congestion spirals out of control. Now Chase is working with cities and other organizations to push for the more heavenly scenario. However, she fears we’ll instead continue along the status quo. When she asks What the Future, she sees one simple, central question that will define the fight.
GenPop: You asked, “Do you need a vehicle in order to get to work?” Why is that an important question to ask?
Robin Chase: What I learned from Zipcar is that if you need a car to get to work, you will own a car, and you will therefore have all the sunk costs behind you. And for each and every trip you make in your life, which is a huge diversity of trips potentially, your cheapest and most convenient option will be the one sitting in your driveway. So that one decision – the one reality of “I need a car to get to work” – dictates every other transport decision.
GenPop: And if the vast majority needs a car, we’ll keep building our cities and suburbs to accommodate those single-person trips, right?
Chase: People are thinking that self-driving cars will just replace private cars. They aren’t recognizing that we have this opportunity to completely transform things. We could be using shared vehicles which will be a snap and easy to use. If we make them electric, then we’ll also have clean cities. And if we’re thoughtful about it, we will be able to repurpose the public common street space and parking everywhere in ways that will make our cities better and more livable. We need to plan rather than do it piecemeal, without thought, and ruin a one-time opportunity. We’re on the edge of a really big transformation.
GenPop: Are ride-sharing services pointing us in that direction?
Chase: I have been totally intrigued by uberPOOL and Lyft Line. They managed to turn some of their taxi service into real shared trips and get people familiar from a behavioral standpoint with [the notion of] “I open an app and I push a button and I buy a seat in a car to go from origin to destination in real time for much less money.” [It] is a really interesting behavioral change. In the future we will see more private public transportation.
GenPop: Currently 78 percent say they definitely need a car to get to work. How do you expect that number to change?
Chase: With better solutions available, that number would be trending down. We can realign mixed-use built environments with better public transit, better walking and biking. In the future, for cities it might be 6 percent of the people who definitely need a car to get to work. In some suburbs maybe it’s going to be 15 percent of people.
GenPop: We split our U.S. sample into “car people” and “non-car people.” Eighty-one percent of the “car people” said they definitely need a car to get to work, compared with 70 percent of the “non-car people.”
Chase: Interpreting this feels like a chicken vs. egg problem. If I’m a non-car person, I choose to live in a city near a subway stop. But if I like driving my F-150 pickup because I love big cars and big motors, I’m probably going to live someplace farther out. What we really need to know in order to interpret those numbers is whether the respondent lives in an urban, suburban or rural zip code.
GenPop: You clearly see a future where vehicles are autonomous and vehicles are shared. It could create a reduction in overall vehicles although I’ve heard some people say it might actually lead to an increase in vehicles and congestion.
Chase: I think we’re teeing up the “hell” as most likely – unless the groups I’m working with manage the reality which is, “You don’t want that to happen, so here are the things you have to work on.” But the status quo will definitely lead us toward dramatically increased congestion because we continue to underprice the true costs of air pollution, congestion or curb access.
GenPop: I have been asking a lot of panelists what the odds are of some sort of culture war developing around our right/freedom to drive our own cars.
Chase: Here’s something I learned from Zipcar and dealing with the naysayers who said this will never work. People are driven by their wallets. They say, “I’ll never do that thing.” And then it turns out to be cheaper and more convenient and they do it. I believe economics will drive the rapid adoption of self-driving cars. And I believe it will drive the transformation of shared self-driving cars in cities and, likely, suburbs, because buying a seat in a shared car is cheaper than renting the whole car for the trip. I say as many times as I can that our policy around autonomous vehicles needs to be based on population density. The need to curb low value trips during peak times is completely correct for dense urban areas. But in Montana there should be different rules. It might just come down to the addition of congestion pricing wherever congestion exists.
GenPop: Will we wind up outlawing driving ourselves?
Chase: We’re not going to outlaw driving cars for so many years. Don’t worry about it. You can drive your own car. And by the time laws change and you can’t, you will be filled with joy at your cheaper, easier shared-vehicle life, and you won’t have a second qualm about.