Ready for the autonomous vehicles revolution in transportation?

Jan 31, 2017, 5:53 AM
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)...
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

By 2020, if predictions of automobile manufacturers and transportation experts prove accurate, many of us will no longer drive our own vehicles.

Instead, we will be passengers in autonomous vehicles (AVs) — driverless cars that are programmed to accelerate, break and steer with little or no assistance from a human being.

In fact, AV technology is advancing so quickly that its adoption could mirror that of the smartphone revolution. Think about it: 11 years ago, the iPhone didn’t exist.

In one short decade, smartphones have completely transformed the way most of us communicate, navigate, work and play. AVs could similarly transform our ground transportation systems, with massive implications for communities and society.

AVs are moving quickly from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous, or self-driving. Only three years ago, I was introduced to a prototype of Google’s AV, which still required a driver for operation. Since then, Google has designed a fully self-driving prototype, as have several other manufacturers.

NuTonomy recently began trials for self-driving taxis in Singapore, with plans to deploy them across the city in 2018, and launch in 10 other cities by 2020. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick expects his entire fleet to be driverless by 2030. And Lyft founder Jon Zimmer sees his fleet operating AVs within five years.

The AV revolution, and how it is already beginning to impact cities, was the topic of a session I recently attended at a meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project — a network of American mayors that explores pressing community issues. Presenters described the latest AV technological advancements and a range of social, economic and environmental realities confronting local leaders.

A combination of technological improvements — including better vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications — is predicted to reduce crashes, enable real-time route planning, better synchronize traffic flows, improve access for the young, elderly and disabled, reduce costs for freight delivery, and free up time we spend behind the wheel.

AVs are likely to further grow the “vehicle sharing” movement of companies, such as ZipCar. Research indicates car owners use their vehicles only 4 percent of each day. AV sharing programs could mean significant reductions in the cost of vehicle ownership, traffic congestion, harmful vehicle emissions and searches for parking spaces.

The many conveniences and positive impacts AVs will likely deliver also come with a host of challenges and questions.

For example, how does government balance getting out of the way of AV innovation while also ensuring the safety of passengers? Standards and protocols will be necessary to protect communities, passengers and meet societal needs.

Cities will need to find ways to integrate AVs with pedestrians, bikes, parking and transit systems and to reshape how transportation infrastructure is financed.

Depending on AV adoption and governmental policies, AV use could increase the number of vehicles on the road, increasing traffic congestion. If fuels don’t change, more vehicles on the road could increase air pollution.

Other considerations include AVs’ impact on the workforce.

What happens to people who make a living by driving?

Will ride-share companies coordinate data and services the way airline travel offers comparative pricing through services like Travelocity? How will transportation hubs work?

What about rural and recreation-destination transportation?

How will privacy and security be addressed while ensuring data are available for improving services?

Now is the time for public leaders to address these issues and plan for this new transportation paradigm by removing existing barriers in the law and anticipating negative impacts.

Consider how the interstate highway system, developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in part for national defense, led to new suburban community development patterns, split existing neighborhoods, affected walkability and diminished open spaces.

With better foresight on the impacts of the freeway system, the negative impacts may have been avoided.

Economics dictate that AVs will accelerate into the traveling mainstream. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates shared driverless cars will cost 15 cents per mile to operate, compared to 60 cents per mile for personal cars.

The millennial generation has changing attitudes about car ownership, and the shared-vehicle market is growing fast, further paving the way for the kind of ownership and use models that AV proponents envision.

There are some who believe the AV revolution will give rise to a utopian transportation world, and others who predict doom. Wherever you might fall along that continuum, there is no question that the coming age of automated vehicles will change the face of our communities and the way we move from place to place.

Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.

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Ready for the autonomous vehicles revolution in transportation?