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The Murky Future of Driverless Vehicles

Predictions for their widespread adoption and the impacts they will have vary wildly. It will be up to government to sort out the issues.

(AP/Tony Avelar)
There is little doubt that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are going to transform our transportation landscape. But predicting the timing of the arrival of self-driving vehicles into the mass market, and the manner and magnitude of their impact on our communities, carries considerable uncertainty.

Forecasts are all over the map. The rosiest ones are coming from producers, whether auto manufacturers or technology companies getting into the mix. All have an obvious vested interest in predicting early adoption. "I think almost all cars produced will be autonomous in ten years," Tesla CEO Elon Musk opined in July at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. In another decade, he added, "there will not be a steering wheel." (Musk did clarify that he was speaking solely about vehicle production and added that it will take 25 years for the majority of vehicles on the road to be autonomous.)

Tesla and Musk, of course, are far from alone in working to make widespread adoption of AVs a reality. Scores of companies are engaged. In August, California authorized Samsung to test self-driving vehicles on public roads, making it the 39th company on the state's list. With that much investment and activity, there's little reason to doubt the plans of companies like Ford, General Motors, Waymo (Google's self-driving-vehicle sister company), BMW and Volkswagen to begin selling self-driving cars to the public in the next few years. But what are the implications for the broader transportation system, and when will the effects be seen?

There are a host of factors at play, including regulatory approval, customer acceptance and safety, as well as the impacts of self-driving vehicles on congestion, mobility, affordability and access. Unlike the near consensus on the arrival of the first AVs in the consumer market, there's a wide range of opinion among a growing corps of researchers as to their rates of adoption and widespread use in communities.

For example, James Arbib and Tony Seba, the authors of a paper from the RethinkX think tank, used a modeling tool to predict that within 10 years of regulatory approval 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be by on-demand AVs owned by fleets, not individuals -- a new business model they call "transport-as-a-service." So while individually owned internal combustion engine vehicles will still represent 40 percent of the vehicles on the road, Arbib and Seba predict that they will account for just 5 percent of passenger miles. A much more conservative view comes from McKinsey & Company, which in a report issued last year predicted that, at best, 15 percent of new cars sold in 2030 could be fully autonomous.

Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, also sees slower customer acceptance of AVs. He thinks higher vehicle costs will be a major factor. "The car itself will cost another five or ten thousand dollars, at least for the first decade or so," Litman explained in a recent interview. "Just like when air bags, or automatic transmissions, or other things first came out, there was a significant price point." He painted a picture of going to a car dealer who says, "The standard model, the human-driven model, is going to cost you $30,000, or you can pay extra for the autonomous vehicle features that will cost $40,000." How many vehicle purchasers are going to pay another $10,000 to get a vehicle that can drive itself?

There are two other prime factors at work: safety and traffic congestion. Safety is the biggest selling point for AVs and will speed up their adoption. On the negative side, AVs could end up increasing congestion. Allowing "drivers" to work, sleep and be entertained en route could make longer commutes attractive, with a net effect of putting more vehicles on the road. And on-demand AVs in continuous motion, circling "on hold" for extended periods rather than parked, also could worsen congestion.

Given the breadth of issues to understand, it is good news that the National League of Cities recently published "Autonomous Vehicles: a Policy Preparation Guide" to help communities get ready for the rollout of autonomous vehicles. The NLC guide provides an overview of AV technology and answers frequently asked questions, making it a vital resource for public officials.

As exciting as enthusiasts make AVs seem, there are profound public policy issues to be sorted out. In the rapidly developing world of autonomous vehicles -- with its mix of technologists, manufacturers, planners, transportation experts and customers -- government is the only entity whose job it is to think of everyone. Public-sector leaders need to control the timing and manner of the AV rollout to ensure that the vehicles will be integrated elements of our next-generation transportation system that improve mobility, increase affordable and equitable access to transportation, and foster communities that people love to live in. There's still time to get it right.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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