Self-Driving Cars Will Improve Our Cities. If They Don’t Ruin Them.
Robin Chase


Thank you for this great post. I couldn’t agree more — we need a broad public discussion about how we want to use autonomous vehicles, how we want the future with AVs to look like, and, most importantly, how we can shape the autonomous future we envision. In contrast to a broad discussion, the debate is currently driven by technologists and mainly focuses on obvious and short-term aspects like safety and efficiency improvements. You mentioned many very good points in that regard. As I have done some work in that field, I’d like to add a few more aspects to the debate:

(1) The debate about AVs usually assumes that demand is static. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. What happens when traveling gets easier and more convenient is well known: People travel more! Now let’s consider vehicles, that make it possible to work or even sleep while on the road. It’s very likely that people are willing to take on more and longer trips than they did in their conventional cars. Assuming static demand while the attractiveness of travel increases significantly thus is largely illusory.

To add to this point, and as you say in your post, people will also come up with new use-cases like pizza-pickup, again leading to an increase in vehicle miles traveled. With these effects in mind, the AV might not be the magic solution to our traffic problems — it might even cause more traffic.

(2) We have often heard the argument that sharing helps to mitigate these effects. For traditional as well as for autonomous cars, sharing can help to get vehicles off the road. However, less cars does not mean less vehicle miles traveled. Autonomous vehicles will redistribute themselves emptily to get to the next customer. Research shows that rebalancing trips can increase vehicle miles up to 50%. Put in other words, we would have less vehicles traveling more miles in total.

This would be different if AVs are used in a smart way, for example to feed public transportation. The often cited critical ‘last mile’ could be covered by AVs and we could make use of mass transit to efficiently bring many people from station to station. Another way to reduce vehicle miles traveled, is to increase the occupancy of vehicles. If three people share a ride, instead of traveling with their own cars, the number of vehicles and thus the number of vehicle miles traveled is reduced by two thirds.

Despite of the theoretical benefits, of using AVs in a smarter way, many people seem not to be too enthusiastic about giving up the private space they currently enjoy in their own cars. So it will be crucial that we we build vehicles, and design services, incentive systems, and infrastructure in a way that makes a shared use-case attractive to the user.

(3) I totally agree that the landscape of our cities will change — similarly to the way elevators changed the way we built cities. But in addition to regaining urban space, I am seeing another likely effect on cities: Urban sprawl. AVs will make commuting easier. If you can catch up on sleep on the way to the office, a two-hour commute might suddenly not be as much of a pain anymore. This allows people to move out of the city to areas with lower housing prices. The result: De-urbanization and sprawl, and all the negative effects that come with it, including an increase in land use and a decrease in energy efficiency in delivering goods and transportation. We have to think about policies that prevent these developments and promote city planning that allows for living in close proximity to one’s workplace. This might dramatically reduce mobility needs and help to make our cities more livable.

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