» Do we have the political will to build a different type of transportation system? Or will the rise of autonomous vehicles simply reinforce existing norms?

There is now no debate over whether automated technology will revolutionize the transportation system—the question is just when it will do so. Industry watchers who four years ago predicted it would take a decade and a half to realize fully driverless cars now suggest they’ll be online, everywhere, by 2020.

Indeed, just this week, Tesla announced that all of the vehicles it is producing, including its newest, cheapest Model 3, will have “full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” Its cars will feature eight cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors, designed to evaluate the world around the cars and respond immediately. The technology won’t be activated immediately; it will collect data as drivers use the cars to improve its calibration before release.

Tesla’s announcement comes in the midst of a public debate about how such driverless technology should be rolled out. Should it be simply integrated into the existing, privately owned personal automobile system, such that people buy autonomous cars to keep for themselves, or should it be rolled out in connection with driverless fleets designed for shared use?

Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, has laid out an intuitive way of understanding this issue using a binary “heaven or hell” construction (note: I’ve interviewed her in the past on how autonomous cars will impact the transit system). According to this formulation, we could have “heaven” if we had fleets of shared, electric, driverless cars powered by renewable energy, plus a redistributive economy that ensures that people who once had jobs in the transportation sector have access to a minimum income. On the other hand, we could have “hell” if everyone owns his or her own driverless car that does our errands, parks our cars, and circles the neighborhood waiting for us to need it again.

Tesla seems to be resolving this issue for us.

In the video the company released announcing its new technology, a man enters a car outside of his bucolic suburban home, from which it whisks him away—without him touching the steering wheel—to the (also suburban) Tesla factory. Once there, he gets out of the car, at which point it goes off to find a parking space, where it will presumably sit all day until he’s ready to go back home.

One promotional video is hardly enough to make an assessment about the future, but the imagery Tesla is projecting, which is of an anti-urban, individualized nature, certainly aligns closely with Chase’s “hell” scenario. After all, multiplied across the millions of people living in a metropolitan area, Tesla’s independently owned self-driving cars would simply replicate much of the existing transportation system, except this time, unlike for current drivers, they’ll have no incentive to minimize driving time—since automated cars can go driving off, circling the block or finding some distant parking space, without inconveniencing the driver.*

And why wouldn’t this be Tesla’s vision? Its hope for future sales is dependent on being able to sell tens of thousands of cars, so it has an interest in making the market for car consumption as large as possible. Keeping automobiles underutilized may not make much sense for a city, or for the society, but it certainly makes sense with respect to automaker profits.

Some argue that fleet cars will simply come naturally; after all, it will cost less to order a shared autonomous vehicle via an app than it will to own your own autonomous vehicle. Yet it is worth noting, as Joe Cortright has written, that the price of such ordered, shared autonomous vehicles is only cheaper than owned cars when all costs are accounted for. Just the cost of fuel (or, in the future, electricity)—the primary operating expense that most drivers care about and notice—is now and will continue to be cheaper than the cost of hiring a shared vehicle.

This suggests that, for many people, waiting for a shared car—which may be dirty, or uncomfortable, or smelly—simply won’t be worth it compared to owning one’s own autonomous vehicles.

That’s particularly true given the fact that driving overall (no matter who owns the vehicle) is likely to decrease in cost significantly compared to today because of the fact that people are no longer paying for parking, they’re able to take advantage of the time in the car to do other things, and the cars themselves may be cheaper, since manufacturing costs will decline because the cars won’t have to be designed to withstand crashes they won’t get into. Why not, given those conditions, spend the money on one’s own autonomous vehicle?

I should say that in urban contexts where people are reliant on walking, biking, and transit, shared-car fleets are likely to be more prominent than individually owned cars. In dense cities, the availability of frequent car service and the limited distance of most trips will minimize the value of ownership. Yet those contexts represent just a small portion of the living environments of today’s America, and people there already don’t own many cars. People taking advantage of shared fleets likely will be doing so to replace what are now walking, biking, and transit trips. Moreover, most of the country lives in suburban environments where trips are longer (thus people want their rides to be more comfortable) and where densities are low enough to make waiting for a shared vehicle more of an inconvenience than it’s worth given the limited additional cost of owning a car.

The case for political agency

Where, then, does that leave us? Do we have no choice but to accept the reality that the arrival of autonomous vehicles will do little more than replicate our existing transportation system?

Many have suggested that the arrival of autonomous vehicles—and the reduced transportation costs they can be expected to bring—will eliminate the need for much of the existing transit network. This argument suggests that we should stop investing in transit that we’re not sure can compete with autonomous cars, that we should simply pause planning for the future of our cities’ transportation systems because we need to wait for autonomous vehicle implementation to know what to do.

Payton Chung, who is more skeptical than me of the ease with which the transportation system will evolve into universalized autonomous vehicles, notes thoughtfully that “It’s important to remember that American suburbia is a political and social construct, not a fact of life, and that policies put into place immense structural supports for American suburbs.”

Indeed, the same can be said about our transportation system as a whole, and its relationship to the cities it serves; it isn’t a random coincidence that people commute in very different ways in New York and Dallas. We do not have to accept the “hell” scenario of Tesla’s creation—but working to produce “heaven” requires more than resting our hopes on the economic benefits of sharing vehicles versus owning our own. Advancing positive change for our cities means recognizing the trouble with simply accepting whatever is most appealing on the market, or whatever the market leaders are promoting.

In the course of my work developing Transport Databook (which, if you haven’t checked it out yet, is a resource for up-to-date transportation data), I pulled together information on changes in transportation mode shares in U.S. cities over time. I was sadly unsurprised to find that the share of people commuting by car in the country’s ten biggest cities is little changed from what it was in 1970. The level of car reliance is a fact of life, one might say. Given public interest in autonomous vehicles, cities should give up on bus lanes, abandon pedestrianized streets—just give people what they want.

Yet examining similar data for Paris and London suggests that, in fact, policy can matter. In those wealthy cities, the level of automobile travel has declined quite substantially since the early 1990s. That decline is not an accident. It is the product of clear-headed policies that implemented a vision of the city where travel by walk, bike, and transit is prioritized; the recent pedestrianization of the Seine highway and the plans for new cross-Thames pedestrian bridges, for example, reinforce those policies.

How will American cities respond? Will they allow the automobile to continue to define the way our transportation system works? Or will city residents, and their representatives, fight back?


Submission to what, or to whom? Perhaps I am fear-mongering. Am I falling prey to unreasonable concerns, just as Michel Houellebecq does in his racist predictions for a future France? Perhaps the evolution of our transportation system toward driverless cars will simply mean an evolution of current conditions which, while not in any way ideal, nonetheless are, at minimum, functional.

But perhaps I am right that the increasing complication of the transportation system, and the speed at which changes are being made, really do mean that we as a public have no choice but to accept the reality that our technological masters provide us. Or, at least, we may not have the will or the means to produce a viable alternative in time to prevent the realization of that future.

* It is worth noting that this vision is not shared by all private actors. Lyft has made clear that its vision for the future is of shared vehicles, not private cars. If the public sector fails to intervene against a car-ownership society, maybe another part of the private sector will.