Start Planning Now for Autonomous Vehicle Future, Researchers Say
By Sean Slone, CSG director of transportation and infrastructure policy
Experts may disagree on the timetable for fully autonomous vehicles taking over the nation’s roadways but many say their long-term impacts will be profound across a variety of sectors. At the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in January, researchers from state departments of transportation, universities and elsewhere outlined why it’s important for policymakers to start planning now for those impacts.
“The typical planning horizon is 20 years,” said Cathy McGhee, director of research at the Virginia Department of Transportation. “We’re making investment decisions today about what we deploy to provide transportation services that will be greatly impacted by where technology goes in the next five to 10 years.”
McGhee and others see the potential for dramatic safety gains and the eventual elimination of driver error-related crashes once autonomous vehicles are part of a system that connects vehicles to each other and to the infrastructure. What worries researchers, however, is the interim period during which the fleet is likely to be mixed.
“How automated vehicles and traditional vehicles interact on the roadway will be very important to watch and to pay attention to and, as traffic engineers and safety engineers, that is something that we’re very concerned about,” she said.
McGhee said her department is not only researching how autonomous and connected technologies will impact Virginia in the future but also trying to figure out how to factor them into what they’re doing now.
“We’re looking at implementation from the get-go,” she said. “We brought our traffic management center folks in from the very beginning so we could talk about how these technologies get rolled into our traffic management processes.”
Impacts on the Built Environment
The Florida Department of Transportation also has been contemplating the autonomous vehicle future. The department partnered with Florida State University, or FSU, to examine the potential impacts for urban infrastructure design.
“It is a technology that is going to transform our built environment in some important ways and we need to begin thinking about that now rather than after the fact,” said Tim Chapin, professor of urban and regional planning at FSU. “If you want to be an urban person, (automated vehicles) are going to allow you to do that more successfully. If you want to live further out and have an easier commute and be productive and read or work and sleep or whatever, you can do that as well. There is some interesting work and thinking to be done on that front.”
Autonomous vehicles may bring the potential for redesign of roadways, allow for the elimination of many traffic signs and signals, and reduce the need for on-site parking. Researchers see scenarios where autonomous vehicle riders could arrive at a destination and either send the vehicle to park at a facility outside the city center, send it home to wait to be used again or release it to service other users. But shared, autonomous vehicles and less parking also mean there will be a need for more curbside drop-off areas.
“There are some real site-design impacts that we need to begin thinking about now, not after the technology gets here,” said Chapin. “If we do move into a world in which we want drop-off locations at just about every land use that … could very well chop up our (existing) pedestrian and bike infrastructure.”
Energy Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles
Researchers also believe autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce energy consumption and benefit the environment. But the predictions for actual benefits of that scenario could vary widely depending on how the autonomous vehicle future evolves.
“Several estimates suggest that in terms of impacts that one shared, fully autonomous vehicle could replace 10 personally owned vehicles,” said Regina Clewlow, a research scholar at the University of California, Davis.
While many predict that those autonomous vehicles will be electric and operate more efficiently than cars on the road today, that’s not necessarily a given. The estimates of how overall miles traveled might be impacted vary greatly as well. Some experts predict that vehicles could be on the road more if they are shared and in near-constant use by various users. Increased mobility for travelers who are currently underserved, such as older adults, young children and the disabled, as well as the easing of negative aspects of long commutes also could bring more riders to the roads. In addition, Clewlow said, there are few studies that consider the potential impact of companies using autonomous fleets of trucks or other vehicles to provide door-to-door delivery of their products.
Debs Schrimmer, transportation policy manager for Lyft, noted that the ride-hailing company is involved in a key partnership aimed at ensuring the autonomous future involves vehicles that are also electric and shared-use. Lyft is working with General Motors to add the new extended-range electric Chevy Bolt to its fleet under a rental program for new Lyft drivers who don’t have a qualifying vehicle. GM has also invested half a billion dollars in Lyft’s efforts to build out the concept of a shared, autonomous, electric network with the goals of a fully autonomous fleet to provide the majority of rides within five years and the virtual elimination of private car ownership in major U.S. cities by 2025.
“We believe that there is a strong indication that people will want to get rid of their cars and rather than owning their own self-driving car, they’re going to want to participate in a network,” Schrimmer said. “Right now owning a car is kind of like having a ball and chain attached to you. There are many subscription costs attached to this: of parking, of registration, of maintenance, of getting gas, and we think paying for a subscription service, where you’re actually just paying for the trips that you’re taking and not having to worry about the maintenance of your vehicle is a very compelling use case.”
“Top 5 Issues for 2017: Transportation & Infrastructure Policy: The Future is Now (for Autonomous Vehicles),” CSG Blog Post. January 9, 2017: http://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/top-5-issues-2017-transportation-infrastructure-policy-future-now-autonomous-vehicles
“Ralph Becker (former Salt Lake City Mayor): Ready for the autonomous vehicles revolution in transportation?” Deseret News. January 29, 2017:
“Breaking Down the Financial Impact of Self-Driving Cars,” Governing. January 2017:
“Envisioning Florida’s Future: Transportation and Land Use in an Automated Vehicle World,” Florida State University Department of Urban & Regional Planning. April 2016: