Eric Roper at the Strib writes: Minnesota planners begin to envision driverless future.
“We’re sitting here fighting about a train — a billion-dollar train that it tells you when you have to be there and where to go,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who owns a Tesla. “Pretty soon here you’re going to have cars that can just pick you up wherever you are and take you to wherever you want to be.”
But others like David Levinson, the lead author of the U report, said large cities will still need high-capacity transit to serve busy urban areas.
“Cars, even driverless cars, can’t move as many people per hour past a point as trains can,” Levinson said.
Now my fuller response to Eric Roper (to be clear, Eric never said his questions were off the record, and he was talking to a blogger, so he should have been aware):
Do you think we’re planning enough for the arrival of this technology? It seems like there’s enough unknowns that folks like the Met Council don’t have much to say about how it will affect land use. And I’ve gotten some vague answers from Minneapolis, which is looking into it.
What should cities and states like the Twin Cities and Minnesota be doing at this point, if anything, to prepare and plan for the shift?
As you gathered no one [at the Metropolitan Council] is planning for [driverless cars]. Now, it is hard to say what the effects will be (I have my ideas), but my concern is not that we are NOT planning for driverless cars, but that we ARE planning for nothing to change. I.e., all of the plans and forecasts assume today’s technologies remain unchanged 30 years into the future, which seems implausible. This is a good time for alternative scenario planning rather than forecasts.
As a consequence of extrapolative forecasts (both in computer models and in people’s mental models of how cities work), cities like the Twin Cities (and others) are planning for more highway capacity when all the expectations for driverless cars should be more efficient use of road space (closer spacing between vehicles both laterally (narrow lanes) and longitudinally (shorter headways or gaps between vehicles). Given that roads are very long term investments and hard to reverse (i.e. roads are historically unbuilt at a much slower pace than they are built), building road capacity for needs that may soon disappear seems unwarranted and a classic example of a white elephant.
Nevertheless, there are factors which may increase travel demand (deadheading (i.e. empty and relocating vehicles), faster speeds, less driving responsibility (train passengers e.g. are willing to travel more time than car drivers because they can do something else while in motion), less expensive vehicles (EVs should cost less than the internal combustion engine when built to scale) and less expensive energy (with renewables, the price of electricity will continue to fall)).
However, there are other offsetting factors which could dampen this (switching from car ownership to a more taxi-like model in urban areas that charges on a per-trip basis, moving from an individual shopping to a delivery model for goods). Also one has to question whether the 5 day a week daily commute will remain as common in a world 30 years from now (with more telecommuting and more flexible work environments).
And all of this can be controlled with policy, we underprice roads by failing to recover both their direct costs (like infrastructure – fuel and related taxes pay for less than half of infrastructure costs) as well as their externalities (like pollution (most of which disappears with EVs), noise (similarly), crashes (most of which disappears with AVs), and congestion (which could disappear with proper road pricing)).
So what we should be doing: Don’t build new roads, or widen existing roads, until we implement a time-of-day based road pricing system that discounts off-peak use and recovers the full cost of car and truck travel.
In response to the Garofalo comment, I wrote:
Driverless cars don’t resolve the fundamental space issues of large cities (we can argue whether Minneapolis qualifies). Cars, even driverless cars, can’t move as many people per hour past a point as trains can. So if you have large demands to move people between fixed places, as you see in places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Sydney, or just about any city in Europe or Asia, AVs cannot solve that problem.
And that’s even assuming there’s some added capacity, right? Or do you disagree with the Tom Fisher argument that we’ll have a lot more roadway in urban areas to repurpose for other things?
To be clear, we will have more roadspace to repurpose (see our book
), (we already do). But there are limits. If there are cities with large demands, trains will always move more people in a given amount of space than cars. Are the demands large enough now (or in the future) to justify the costs? The biggest gains in space will come in (a) skinny cars (which will allow doubling the number of lanes), and (b) more widespread adoption of bikes and e-bikes and increased walking, with some additional gains from eliminating on-street parking, narrowing lanes for full-size cars and trucks, and shorter headways between vehicles.
Is it fair to say then that they could be commonplace by 2030?
Common, but far from universal. The median age of a car on the road is about 11.5 years, so if that still holds, the median car on the road will have been built in 2019.
There are also degrees of autonomy, (see the SAE report
on this ). I think most discussion refers to Level 4 (or 5) as Autonomous. Today we are between level 2 and 3 in production cars (Tesla autopilot is better than level 2 on freeways effectively, but not really quite level 3, the Waymo (Google) Car is level 4 in mapped environments), and the trials of test vehicles at the Level 4 and 5 range still require human intervention (“disengagements
”) from time to time.