The heaven or hell scenario.

  • 20. March 2017
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Illustration: Dave Haenggi
  • Text: Steffan Heuer

Conference SXSW in Austin, Texas: Transportation experts struggle to make sense of the coming AV revolution and its impact on public transit.

Shared autonomous vehicles (AV) are coming, bringing sizable economic and environmental benefits in their wake. If laws and regulations around the world are ready for AV testing and market deployment, however, is as unclear as when society will reap the potential benefits. Public transit, one of the crucial modes of mobility for much of the world, is at risk of becoming roadkill in this upheaval.

A wide range of transportation experts at SXSW, the high-profile tech gathering taking place every March in Austin, struggled with outlining the promises and perils of AVs that yet have to find their rightful and sustainable place in a world full of personal cars, buses and ride-hailing services with human chauffeurs.

Kara Kockelman, a professor with the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas summed up the dilemma as a “heaven and hell scenario.” In theory, the new generations of vehicles can save lives, fuel and time, boosting productivity across many industries, said the expert who studies the technologies and economics of the AV adoption.

Swarms of robo-cars circling in a city.

Travelling more and travelling further

At the same time, the ease of ordering a car will induce people to travel more and travel further, leading to a 10 percent rise in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). It could result in swarms of robo-cars circling in a city. People who are freed from the chore and boredom of driving themselves will, for instance, be willing to travel much further for a simple shopping trip because they work en route.


The overall outcome can be more congestion and infrastructure damage from heavy use. Her models predict that as AV marketshare in the U.S. rises to 10, 50 or 90 percent, VMT per car will go up by 2, 7.5 and 9 percent, respectively.


“Hell is very likely,” Kockelman warned. “We will see a lot more travel, hopefully together.” As a key policy tool to create the preferred heaven scenario, she recommended credit-based congestion pricing where every citizen has a monthly credit and pays only for trip miles beyond that automatic balance.

Economic benefits

The engineering professor has amassed an extensive library of studies and simulation models to gauge the roll-out and impact of connected, autonomous vehicles.

Among her findings: If those vehicles were to gain 100% marketshare in 50 years, the U.S. economy could reap annual economic benefits of $1.4 trillion per year, or more than $4,400 per capita. That number is composed of factors such as the decreased number of accidents and loss of life, plus significant increases in productivity spread across many industries and for individuals. The insurance market, for instance, would see savings of $108 billion per year, and the freight sector $100 billion.

Depending on the mode of propulsion, Kockelman says, the costs per mile vary for a shared AV. A gasoline-powered AV, for instance, comes in at 45 cents a mile, whereas different types of electric AVs cost 59 cents/mile to operate, regardless whether they are for short or long-range use or rely on fast-charging technology. That’s because increases in efficiency are neutralized by a higher sticker price for the car, batteries and charging stations for the more advanced EVs.

Significant increases in productivity across industries and for individuals.

Kockelman has some other dire warnings for a world full of AVs. Her agent-based modeling of Austin and its surroundings shows that fleets of new vehicles can easily gridlock the system because, on average, they are on the road eight hours a day compared to one hour a day for the traditional personal car. In her studies, AVs take 10 percent more trips and are empty 10 percent of the time as they travel to and from customers.

So even if a shared AV replaces between 9 and 13 conventional vehicles, the researcher says, they still drive up total congestion by 10 percent, unless riders are forced to pool rides instead of “sharing” a personal robot-taxi in sequential order. “You won’t have streets less crowded unless people share rides,” Kockelman forecasts.

Case in point: The daily vehicle profit for a fairly inexpensive gasoline-powered shared AV clocks in at $234, whereas a short range electric AV only brings in $72 due to the lower VMT and number of trips. A reduced fleet of long-range, fast-charge AVs have the best economic scenario with 35 daily trips and per vehicle revenue of $187.

While much technical work remains to be done to make dynamic ride-sharing a reality, legislators and regulators are stuck in a serious game of catch-up. That’s the message from Lisa Loftus-Otway, a British lawyer who also works at the Center for Transportation Research in Austin.

' You won’t have streets less crowded unless people share rides. '

Kara Kockelman, Professor with the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas

Legislators are still struggling

Loftus-Otway tracks the international landscape of AV laws and regulations. She thinks that legislators around the world are still struggling with the proper definition of an autonomous vehicle and what requirements to put in place for testing and general deployment while the technology has long outpaced them.

California just in March leaped into the front-runner position compared to other states in the U.S. and countries around the world with its latest set of proposed rules.

Across the U.S., at least 80 AV bills are pending, while most of the EU still lacks AV laws with the exception of a handful of countries including Germany. Canada also doesn’t have a federal policy, as does Japan. “It’s happening fast, and we are in very uncharted territory here,” is how Loftus/Otway summarizes the global legal landscape.

Reinventing public transport

As fleets of ride-hailing AVs become increasingly likely, how can public transit reinvent itself?

It’s a tall order, according to Paul Mackie with the research outfit Mobility Lab, which is funded by the government of Virginia. “Transit is the core to connect to all other modes of transport.” But in the U.S., he added, transit agencies suffer from an inferiority complex: “Transit doesn’t promote itself and inspire people,” Mackie said during a panel discussion that asked whether transit agencies could and should take a page from the Ubers and Lyfts of the world.

While only one in seven Americans has ever used such services, they have captured a disproportionate part of the debate about the future of transportation. At the very least, these controversial services have accomplished two things, said Douglas Kaufman, CEO of Transloc, a transit information platform that works with transit agencies.

Focus on what passengers need

The disruptive newcomers have turned transportation into an attractive field of research for smart minds. And they have rephrased the discussion around mobility with a radical focus on what passengers need.

“Transit systems go in circles and want the riders to come to them. Uber has made a service that’s perfect for riders, but not necessarily for anybody else,” Kaufman said. Google’s fleet of around 350 shuttle buses, he added, is an example how things can and will change. The company dynamically adjusts routes based on rider demand.

Combining many different modes

The key question, he added, is how transit systems can become an aggregator of mobility rather than an operator, to offer passengers a one-stop solution that combines many different modes — from walking to a bus stop to taking a train and eventually switching to a ride-sharing vehicle.

“Autonomous vehicles will happen, period,” said Kaufman. “The days of human driving are over. The key to a working mobility platform is that transit is at its center — but it cannot operate like the last 100 years.”

' Autonomous vehicles will happen, period. '

Douglas Kaufman, CEO of Transloc

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