Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society

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Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society

Levinson, David (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, 2015)

Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society

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Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology


The United States spent almost the entire twentieth century climbing Mount Auto. From the 1920s onward, the automobile was the dominant mode of travel for Americans, accumulating more miles per capita than other modes. While the Great Depression slowed the auto’s growth, it did not result in decline. There was a brief downturn during World War II, and a few hiccups in the steady rise of mileage. But the later 2000s and 2010s have seen a sharp downturn in motor vehicle use per capita. This drop is greater than the drop during World War II in absolute terms (though the War saw a drop of twenty-three percent off the pre-war peak, and the 2012 drop is seven percent below 2005). It is complemented by an apparent plateauing in total miles of paved roads since 2008. Within the transportation sector there have been small shifts over the past fifteen years, which cannot explain much of the decline of travel. There are active transportation modes, like walking and biking, which work well for short trips, and certainly have niches they can grow into if land development intensifies and people reorganize their lives to enable them. For instance, I am one of the seven percent of Minneapolitans who walk to work. The numbers are much lower outside core cities, and nationally, at three percent. Transit ridership per capita is up ever so slightly. There are a slew of “new mobility options” which use information technologies to allow travel without owning an automobile, but are not yet visible in the transportation statistics. These include peer-to-peer taxi and ridesharing services and dynamic real-time rental cars. While these are useful in their niches, they likely are not cost-effective enough to be the main transportation mode for the vast majority of the population with the given technology. Today these new mobility options are supplements when the main mode does not solve the job to be done. In the future, that might change. Technologies allow people to do more of the same, and they allow people to do new things. It is easier to predict more of the same than new things.
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Suggested Citation

Levinson, David. (2015). Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,