Massive fleets of shared autonomous vehicles will be realized more quickly by starting now with constrained geographic applications rather than focusing on SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) levels of increasing robotic capability and accommodating partially-robotic vehicles one-customer-at-a-time.
Growing numbers of people following autonomous vehicle (AV) development infer that the days of the unreliable human driver are numbered. They debate how and when, but the number of doubters declines.
Once pervasive, AVs could bring huge benefits to cities and society, as long as their sheer volume does not overwhelm urban road space. Unfortunately, high volumes are the likely default.
A subset of AV enthusiasts sees potential for massive fleets of shared vehicles – robo-taxis, robo-shuttles, and the like. They expect this to virtually extinguish demand for personally-owned vehicles.
Recently, a half-dozen computer simulations suggest that ubiquitous, shared robotic vehicles could provide more cost-effective, universal, and equitable mobility than the current reliance on privately-owned vehicles. Vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) would drop, but the incessant human demand for motorized mobility expressed as personal kilometers traveled (PKT) would continue to grow. This emerging path of development is preferable, but much work over multiple decades is needed to realize this.
Sharing is not the default mode of transportation
Some observers assume that virtually everyone would choose or even prefer to share instead of owning, and even see a moderation in PKT growth. Current research from the CityMobil2 group is a notable and balanced exception. While they see a modest shift in portions of people sharing vs. owning, they do see a rise in PKT.
The considerable optimism expressed by most sharing-economy observers is based on early trends (hovering well below 1 percent in the total VKT equation) among young, single, urban digerati in developed countries along with a dose of the commonsense rationality that behavioral economists caution against.
Only a tiny fraction of automobility observers think about the historical 20-year doubling time of the worldwide automobile population. People such as Dan Sperling, Deborah Gordon (Two Billion Cars), and Bill Ford Jr. are among these.
Shared vehicle fleets could indeed play a significant role – far above 1 percent – in reducing the number of vehicles needed to provide the equivalent PKT for this quadrupling of VKT. Planners need to begin the hard work of figuring how to arrange those fleets so that the required world population of extant motor vehicles 40 years from now will not be four times the size of our current fleet.
The three key issues – robo-driving, shared fleets, and VKT quadrupling – deserve equal time. Planners need to look beyond the current fascination with Feature Creep in automotive robotics, the untested assumption that drivers will all become natural sharers, and the near silence regarding a future where PKT demand manifested as VKT could readily overwhelm robotic technology including any sharing.
Transit Leap: A planned future for autonomous vehicles
In contrast, planners can start an immediate public-private community focus on ways to initialize and nurture the growth of Transportation as a Service (TaaS). Pioneers at CityMobil2 and the associated companies supplying practical lite-transit vehicles to these trials are showing the way.
The Transit Leap paradigm of gradual deployment is illustrated in the figure. AV-based service networks are installed and managed for constrained public applications, representing advancements in public transit.
Starting with short, closed-loop applications, moving to on-demand branched-routing applications, then robo-vehicle go-anywhere networks (taxis, vans, mini-buses) in ever-widening urban geographies would provide for gradually expanding reach for travelers. Over a few decades, complete urban regions would be serviced. Eventually, fleet operations would saturate megaregions, and then entire nations over the next 30 to 40 years.
Intentional future of sustainable transportation
Intentionally seeking public benefit via strong community action toward deliberately developed, shared autonomous fleets is better for all three dimensions of sustainability. Transportation thought leaders must avoid assuming or hoping the default path of encouraging and regulating increasingly-automated vehicles one-customer-at-a-time will undergo a miraculous, entrepreneurial transition to a path of widespread sharing.
Partnerships for Transit Leap need to be started now.
What do you think about the concept of Transit Leap? Would you prefer autonomous shared fleets or household autonomous vehicles? Share your opinions in the comment section.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.