Robots Driving Cars

Robot Driving Car by Vladislav Ociacia
Robot Driving Car by Vladislav Ociacia

As humanity leaves the dark ages, there will come a time when human-driven vehicles are banned from the road for safety reasons, at least somewhere. This creates a huge amount of stranded technology, viable existing cars that will suddenly be devalued.  Some of these are of little interest, and some can be retrofitted with aftermarket kits. For ‘classic cars’, it is important that the vehicle itself remain unchanged, retrofits will devalue the car compared to its more authentic state.

This provides a use case for robots, actual I Robot-like robots, that look vaguely anthropomorphic and have two legs and two arms. They can sit in the drivers seat, control the accelerator and the brake with their metallic robotic foot, and with AV software implemented through a robot frame, be safer than human.

An actual robotic chaffeur, the way people have joked about in bad science fiction for decades, does have a use case.

Sidewalk Talk: What city transportation will look like, circa 2043

I did a Sidewalk Talk with Eric Jaffe of Sidewalk Labs.  Disclosure: I am an advisor to Coord, a unit of Sidewalk Labs. This is a reprint.

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with forward-looking transportist David Levinson.

 

Historical depictions of the future of transportation (above, Petin’s hot-air balloon system from the journal L’Illustration in 1850) always seem to rely on blimps for some reason. (De Agostini Picture Library)
Historical depictions of the future of transportation (above, Petin’s hot-air balloon system from the journal L’Illustration in 1850) always seem to rely on blimps for some reason. (De Agostini Picture Library)

It’s 2043. Few people in cities own cars anymore. It’s cheaper to rely on electric, self-driving taxis. Some vehicles are big enough to share; others are individually sized to make the most of limited street space. They have one button inside: Stop. Dynamic curbs—patrolled by enforcement droids—remain clear for deliveries, pick-ups, and drop-offs. Street parking no longer exists, and this space has been recaptured for better public uses.

That’s the future as seen by David Levinson, the University of Sydney transport professor who writes the popular Transportist blog and is co-author of the 2017 book The End of Traffic and the Future of Access. “Look back to the 1920s, and you have magazines that ask: What does the future look like?” he says. “Some of it is absurd. Why would we all be using blimps? But some of it’s still like: Why doesn’t the future look like that?”

The truth, he says, is that imagining tomorrow’s urban mobility raises far more questions than it answers. If we get used to the idea of using taxis, what other things will we no longer feel the need to own? What are the new things we now can do because robots can move around without supervision? What will we do with all the extra time we don’t have to spend driving? How do you allocate road space in a world with delivery drones?

“These things are unpredictable in how they play out,” says Levinson, who’s an advisor to the Sidewalk spinoff company Coord, which recently launched a data integration platform for urban mobility. Levinson spoke to Sidewalk Talk about the challenges facing cities today—and the innovations 25 years or so down the road.

You give a lot of thought to the future of transport. How do you see the biggest challenges facing urban mobility at this moment but also in the short- and longer-term future?

There’s the litany of automobile evils we all know: lack of safety, pollution, congestion, and so on. Those are all here and have been here for decades and will remain here for at least a little while longer. Trying to actually solve those collective set of problems, which can be done (a) through technology and (b) on the demand side, is the project for the next couple of decades.

On the technology side, the rollout of electric vehicles is relatively straightforward. The rollout of autonomous vehicles, which is more complicated technically, will probably be a little bit slower. There’s simultaneously the rollout of the transformation from an ownership model to a mixed model of fleet-owned vehicles. And along with this transition toward fleet vehicles there’s also the opportunity to right-size the automobile itself, so we don’t have these large, oversized vehicles holding only one person in them.

Moving towards the one-passenger vehicle has huge benefits, and that’s the biggest challenge we’re not recognizing. The electrification at this point is well understood. Only the oil industry has its head in the tar sands about that. On automation, people have an unreasonable expectation of how quickly we can deploy this kind of technology, but we’ve moved faster than I imagined we would. We’re getting to the point where we’re going to have passengers in cars where the only thing they have is a “Stop” button. And that’s great, but it’s going to take decades to fully deploy this, because such a big system has to be transformed. Remember a few decades after the mobile phone, and a full decade after the iPhone, just under half of homes still have a landline.

To get to a fleet of AVs with just a “Stop button” there’s so much data the car will need to have to make choices, or to offer you choices as a passenger. Do I take a toll road or free road? Do I get to stop here or not? Are streets classified in ways where maybe there’s surge pricing on some?

There has to be a real-time map of the environment at different scales: of the infrastructure, of the presence of other vehicles on that infrastructure. Then there’s a services layer that Coord is doing, a real-time map of road prices, curbside regulation and availability, and parking regulations and availability.

Then you have the question of the user’s value of time. How much are you willing to pay to save a minute, because Road X is more expensive but faster, and Road Y is less expensive but slower? That’s if you imagine we will have some kind of spatial differentiation—I’m not convinced we will. It might just be going toward a universal time-of-day pricing, where it’s higher at 4 pm than 2 pm, but it’s not higher on Road X than on Road Y.

Say on the freeway you’re charging more than on a local road per mile of travel because it’s faster. Then more people will use local roads, and that’s not what you want. But if you want more people using the freeways, are you going to charge a discount on the freeways? That’s counterintuitive. It’s going to look something more like a mileage charge with a time-of-day discount than a differentiation by route. That’s my sense of where this goes.

Would you say road pricing is fundamental to a better future of transportation?

It’s fundamental to a less time-wasting form of transportation. I think there’s significant gains to be had from automation and from refactoring the automobile. That is, if we can convince 90 percent of the trips that they can use a one-passenger car, we can double the capacity of roads just from splitting lanes. Then with automation we can double it again, because vehicles can travel closer to each other. That solves a lot of the problem in most places.

If you can double the capacity of the roadway, that alone buys you 40 years of population growth.

There’s a big question as to how curbs will be managed given the increased demand from new mobility services. Can that happen in the absence of road pricing?

I think curb management is very ad hoc right now. In big cities, this is a tension. Getting that data streamlined and making more rational policies has had no systematic thought given to it, Coord can improve the situation. There is a lobby for people who would be against on-street parking; that would be the people who own off-street parking. And there is the transformation towards shared vehicle fleets in cities; many fewer vehicles need to be stored on the road at any given time because most are in motion, and there are fewer vehicles around because they’re used more efficiently. So that opportunity to eliminate on-street parking and transform that space into bike lanes, bus lanes, and loading and unloading spaces is ripe, the time is right .

Information technology is making it so that we can track and enforce use of lanes in real-time with cameras. There are many ways this could play out. Maybe enforcement needs to identify vehicles by the license plate, which means the camera angle has to be right, which means cities might need a robotic Rita, meter maid. Every block could have its own little enforcement droid to make sure no one is violating the rules about parking their car too long or loading and unloading for longer than needed. And you can do all that without road pricing.

If we get rid of street-parking, do you envision the curb needing the same types of definitions it has now? This is clearly a loading zone. This is clearly a bike lane. Or could it be more flexible?

It could be more dynamic, for instance loading from 4 am to 6 am then it’s for movement from 6 am to 9 am then it goes back to loading. Something like a bike lane you’d want to make more permanent. And for a bus lane, when there are enough passengers to justify a bus lane, it should be a bus lane. You already have cities that have parking until 3 pm, then from 3-7 pm it’s a bus lane (called a ‘Clearway’ in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK). And they have at 3 pm a vehicle and crew making sure the street is clear and ticketing the vehicles that are there. It works well enough, though it is a bit labor intensive.

You can imagine once existing rules are in place and well documented with a systematic way of describing and mapping them, people can think more rationally about which of these parameters they want to adjust. Then it’s just exposing it, showing what the map looks like to someone on the local Curb Management Board,  a new institution responsible for those regulations deciding how to maximize the value of curbspace for the community?

In this scenario, how would you envision pick-ups and drop-offs happening? Would they also be charged? Or they’d be directed to a certain place? I’m thinking of the scenario where you’re not driving, the car is driving.

Certainly they’d be directed to a certain place. You’d want to avoid loading and unloading them at an intersection. Maybe some midblock taxi stand equivalent. As part of your taxi license you get to pick-up and drop-off in whatever district you’re in, or maybe you pay on a per-drop-off basis. It depends how you’re collecting revenue from your taxi operators. In London, with the congestion charge, they exempted taxis arguing the price is embedded in the price of the license. That seems plausible if the license fee is large enough and you want people to use taxis instead of parking, then you want to encourage it and not put in another fee. And if you don’t unload at the designated place, that’s illegal and you get a fine, automatically assessed by camera or enforcement droid.

So how do we get to that place where we move away from the ownership model and toward the fleet model?

It’s a value proposition for the consumer. We already have taxi markets. But most residents say to themselves, it’s cheaper to own a car now than to get taxis every day. So if it costs $10,000 a year to own a car, that works out about $30 a day, and I’d pay more than that for my daily taxi, it’s cheaper for me to own a car. If the cost of taxis comes down to less than $30 a day, the value proposition says, I shouldn’t own.

Now there’s the out-of-pocket versus the fixed-cost question, but that can be dealt with through a subscription model. So just like my cell phone, and I have ‘unlimited’ data up to some threshold per month, I might have ‘unlimited’ rides up to some threshold per month, and then I go above that the taxi company charges me per ride.

The reason you should be able to get it under even $20 a day is that if you go toward automation and electric vehicles, the price of the vehicles should drop. Electric vehicles should be less expensive. To date they are not, but we’re moving in that direction pretty rapidly. Automation is the second thing. You’re saving on the cost of parking. That’s $30 a day alone in big cities. You’ve eliminated the driver so taxis are cheaper, so the marginal cost per ride is really low—cheaper than taxis are today.

But unless you can get that cost structure in place, people are not going to give up their car. And I don’t think public incentives are going to matter a lot here, because most cities won’t have the will or the money to subsidize shared rides just so there’s fewer private cars on the road.

So you see self-driving fleets that aren’t shared?

I see multiple models here. You have a taxi provider like Uber or Waymo providing what we would call a taxi service today, except it’s automated. You’ve got leased cars that are maintained centrally in some respects but you take them home with you, so you have them on-demand. Then you have privately owned cars, or less rigorous leases much more akin to today’s private cars.

In an urban area, I can have a car on-demand and some fleet manages it. In a remote area, a car on-demand is a 10-minute wait. Rural users are less likely to want a shared vehicle.

Do you have the same fear of the zombie or ghost vehicles—cars without any passengers in them?

There will be empty vehicles moving around in any case. There are passenger-less taxis moving around now. That’s probably on the order of 10-20 percent of distance. With a well-managed system, you get that down. With private cars, someone could say: I will drive into the city, then send it home to park, then have it pick me up in the afternoon. That would double miles traveled. That would be terrible. You’d need to have some sort of penalty for that. Road pricing becomes perfectly justified if that kind of behavior emerges.

What about the nightmare scenario where it circles the block for eight hours?

If people start doing that, road pricing is the obvious solution. But even without road pricing, you could make it a crime to circle the block more than once in a short period of time. You have road pricing by ticketing. If it’s automated with cameras, then it’s: we’ve identified your car on the same block three times in the past 15 minutes, that’s a $30 fine. People might complain a little bit, but cities will see that as a good way to disincentivize it, and they don’t have to go through the pain of implementing road pricing. Instead it’s a new crime, enforced using technology the way red-light running and speeding are now in some cities.

There’s going to be all sorts of new regulations. Teenagers will step in front of the automated vehicle to make it stop—we know this is going to happen. We will invent a set of laws and regulations, like ‘annoying a robot’, once these problems begin to emerge. Cities and counties are pretty quick at copying the regulations of adjacent jurisdictions. It’s a diffusion of innovation process. One place writes the rule, they get the rule right, then all the counties and cities around it just copy the rule.

Are there aspects of the future of transportation we’re not focusing on enough?

I think the curb space question is more generally the road space reallocation question. How do we recapture capacity we no longer need to move automobiles, and what do we do about it?

Doing the same thing better is the obvious first thing that happens. But what are the new things we can now do? It’s not just cars moving people. It’s person-less vehicles moving goods—and they’re not cars anymore. That’s going to change a lot about how we shop: what is the retail experience, what does it mean to want something?

Most discussions of shared AVs have an urban-centric viewpoint. How technology changes the world outside of cities is not well understood or much contemplated. It might be that the new transport’s impacts are less outside of cities.

The futurist’s job is to put trends together and paint scenarios, but in the end, we’re 25 years since the Mosaic web browser for the World Wide Web was released, and it has turned out different than was expected. Imagine in 1993 someone said: “Fake news being generated by Albanian teenagers for the purposes of getting ‘ad clicks’ on a social network called ‘Facebook’ from 60-year-olds would shape the outcome of the 2016 election and  elect noted casino owner Donald Trump.” … This is not a scenario a futurist could have foreseen. 2043 could be very strange indeed.

 

This Sidewalk Talk has been edited for length and lightly for clarity.

 

###

2018 Rail Trends: Falling Behind or on Track to Revitalize the Industry | Trapeze

Marcelo Bravo writes “2018 Rail Trends: Falling Behind or on Track to Revitalize the Industry” for Trapeze, a transit software company. My quote below. There are other good quotes at the link.

“The U.S. will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in investments in transit and ridership. London is set to open Crossrail (The Elizabeth Line), metros continue to pop up across China, even Australia is making large new investments in rail transit, and all these countries are seeing gains in ridership follow. In contrast, public transit continues to lose riders in most of the U.S. with low gas prices, and even the simplest investments are huge political battles.

The most interesting new trend is the rise of stationless bike-sharing in cities, making bicycling more convenient. Again, this follows from international experience especially China. Whether this works in the North American market is an important question to watch. E-bikes are also gaining popularity and falling in cost. Both challenge public transport for ridership for shorter trips.”

David Levinson, Professor of Transport in the School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney

The end of traffic … a podcast with Jim Pethokoukis

I did the Political Economy podcast with Jim Pethokoukis about transport.

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

 

(I write much more legibly than I speak.)

The world is on its way to ending traffic, and that’s in part thanks to the pioneering work of transportation researcher and thought leader David Levinson. In this episode, we discuss how autonomous vehicles and other breakthrough tech will affect the future of transportation, and how infrastructure policy can keep up with the coming changes. We also discuss whether America has reached peak car ownership, if human driving will be eventually banned, and if we are culturally ready for a driverless future.

David Levinson teaches at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, he’s an honorary affiliate of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, and he serves as an adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota. He is also the co-author of The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape.

https://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/26018/52309654

At the start of the year, there was a lot of talk about this administration pushing a big infrastructure plan — numbers like $500 billion, a trillion dollars in new infrastructure spending of some sort. And I wonder, at least as far as transportation goes, what does America need? How much should it cost? Do we need a trillion dollars in new infrastructure? Do we need more roads? Do we need newer bridges?

I always point out that the problem with journalists is that they’ve been to China — they see the big, gigantic brand-new Beijing airport, the airports in Shanghai — and think, “Ugh, America’s infrastructure is terrible, just look at China.” So, what do we actually need as far as transportation goes?

Well, there is no right answer to that question, and the reason is we don’t know how much we need because we’re not efficiently using the transport that we have. So for instance, we give away roads to users on a first come first served basis; you show up with your car, you get to use your road. Next person shows up with their car and they get to use the road, but now they are congested by you. This works fine if there is very little traffic and plenty of capacity, but once we get a lot of people together, we get congestion. We don’t charge people based on how much congestion they cause, which is inefficient from an economic perspective because this leads to overconsumption of roads; there are too many users at given times.

We could add capacity, and that would reduce the congestion at least somewhat, but it will increase the usage because by adding more capacity more people will say, “Oh! The travel time is lower than it was, previously it was too long for me to go at 4:00 PM in the afternoon between point A and point B, now I can make that trip.” So, we don’t really know what the right amount of capacity is because we don’t manage the capacity we have properly. I think getting the prices right is the first step before we should be doing anything like considering capacity expansion.

You made another point about China. I have been to China recently as well. They are building lots of things, and the reason we shouldn’t be directly comparing the United States or developed countries in Europe or Australia with China directly is that it is starting from a much less developed base. So, when you’re in a country with no intercity highways, it’s very important to build freeways. When you’re in a country where we finished the interstate highway system in 1982, more or less, it’s much less important to build new highways because we’ve already connected all of the places that need to be connected and we’re just arguing about the widening of roads and capacity expansions rather than building connectivity in the first place.

So a lot of this depends on where we are in the long-term life cycle of a particular technology — in this case, roads. We have not expanded the road network that much in the last 30 to 35 years, but that’s because we had such a large, mature system to begin with over this period of time.

You mentioned in the introduction technology, and this is an interesting aspect to it. So, is the new technology coming online over the next decade or two — automated vehicles in particular — is that going to require more roads or fewer roads? And I think that’s still up in the air, because you can see in one sense that if driving is easier, then people are going to drive more.

You’re right, it’s a classic paradox that we are trying to figure out. So, you could increase capacity, theoretically, with autonomous vehicles, but again that could mean that people could be driving more if when we are at work autonomous vehicles are circling the city all day driving around — then actually traffic would be worse.

There are things like that, but even at a simpler level, just imagine you’re using a driverless car to do the same kind of thing that you’re doing now — going from home to work, and going shopping and things like that. It’s now not as onerous to do that because you could do something else instead of paying attention to the driving task. So, the cost of making that trip is less, so you’ll be willing to travel farther, you’ll be willing to live farther out in Virginia and commute into Washington DC because you don’t have to grip the steering wheel anymore; there’s no steering wheel to grip.

“We don’t really know what the right amount of capacity is because we don’t manage the capacity we have properly. I think getting the prices right is the first step before we should be doing anything like considering capacity expansion.”

Now, the question of whether there’ll be dysfunctions in the system like cars circling on roadways instead of going to a parking structure, that gets back to pricing — is it cheaper to drive than it is to park your car? Well right now it very much is cheaper to drive than park your car in a lot of cities because we don’t charge for roads but we do charge for parking. If we did charge for roads, that calculus will change and we’ll probably see a better balance there.

But the flip side of this is, the idea that cars are more efficient if they are following each other more closely so we get better use out of the pavement that’s already out there. But there’s also better utilization of the cars through things like “I’m not going to own a car, I’m going to hire one on demand — Uber or Lyft or a taxi type of system — and when I don’t need it, the car could be doing something else in the middle of the day instead of circling around or parked all day for me, it’s serving somebody else in the middle of the day, and then I get it right back when I get it in the evening for instance.”

We have jumped a bit ahead, I do want to talk about autonomous vehicles, but just to jump back for a second to the pricing — what are we talking about? Like where I live in Northern Virginia, we have Interstate 95, and they’ve added these express lanes, and if you have your EZ pass on the window, you get charged if you want to take those lanes. Is it just more of that kind of thing?

That’s baby steps in the direction. So you have a few toll roads, mostly in the north eastern part of the United States, and you have express lanes in a few cities — the Washington DC Beltway and so on — but most roads are not priced, and most roads are congested. So if you start to price some roads and you don’t price other roads, lots of people will say, “Oh, I will just switch to the other un-tolled ‘free’ roads.” That will make those roads worse and will be worse for society as a whole, and the toll roads will be under-utilized. You see that, to some extent, with express lanes. They have fewer users, fewer vehicles per hour generally than the more congested lanes. Now that depends on the exact case — in some cases they are more but in many cases they are underutilized in some respects.

When they’re serving public transport, they might be carrying more people because they have buses on them and the bus might be carrying 40 people, and the car might be carrying one, and so it not being fully utilized from the vehicle perspective doesn’t mean it’s not carrying more people. But we could do better if we have a systematic road pricing system where all of the roads and highways were priced appropriately, rather than just a few of them being priced and diverting people to other roads. Now this is a hard thing to do.

I understand how you do that on a highway, but how do you do that on a surface street — like downtown — what does that look like?

Well, there are different technologies. If you’re in motion, you can use a transponder. Your cell phone carrier knows where you are, roughly. We don’t need to know on each specific street — that you’re on this street at 4:05 PM in the afternoon — we can simply know that you’re in the city, and you are moving at this time, and you can tell that from a cell phone. You can put a small device in the vehicle and tell that it’s in motion, or use GPS, or even cellphone triangulation if you want to ensure a little bit more privacy.

We know approximately where you are and then we’d say, “Well for travelling 3 miles from 4 to 5 the price will be a dollar, and if you want to travel more during that time, then the price will be higher. Or, if you want to travel during the off-peak time, then the price will be lower.” So there are different technologies that could be used, and I think there will be trials with different kinds of things.

It can be as simple as odometer readings, but the problem with just crude odometer reading is that they don’t make a difference by time of day. So, you probably need some sort of black box that you plug into your vehicle, that tracks use by the time of day and location. Now people would get upset about, “Well then, the government’s tracking you,” and it may be that the government’s tracking you. But if you’re carrying a cell phone you’re getting tracked already. So you’re not really losing any privacy.

Is this sort of pricing about to happen somewhere?

There are pricing systems in a few places, though not quite at this level right now. Singapore is the best example, it is going to be deploying this kind of system over the next few years. They have a downtown pricing system already, as does London and Stockholm and a few other cities in Europe. Right now, if you go into the center of London, you’re paying about 11 pounds a day or something like that. In Singapore, you’re paying a toll if you’re traveling into the center city and they are going to launch this island-wide. I mean of course you can say that the political context in Singapore is different, and what you can do in Singapore is different.

A little bit.

But this kind of technology is proven, it’s more of a political question at this point — whether you want to do it, whether you’re willing to do it, whether congestion is expensive enough for you to justify doing this in order to manage it and also raise revenue. But primarily, you want to think about it as a way of allocating a scarce resource, because we’re already raising revenue in different ways — the motor fuel tax is the largest in the transport sector, local governments raise a lot of money through property taxes and other sources, like vehicle registrations. You could consolidate all of those into a usage charge, and then it becomes fairer. People who use the roads more pay more, and the people who use roads less, pay less — in a more direct way than we have currently.

Earlier we were talking about autonomous vehicles, so let’s talk more about that. First of all, do you have any doubt that we will see fully or level-5 autonomous vehicles, where you could have no steering wheel and you could take a nap or check your email? Do you think we will have those on the roads in 20 years?

In 20 years, on the roads, we will have things that are very, very close to that. The question would be — is it on every road or just almost every road? Because there are still potential, you could call edge cases in the programming world, exceptional types of things that are hard to program for. So, the question of how you deal with those becomes important. But, that you would have a self-driving car that you could get into in the morning and that it would take you shopping or to work or to some other known place and back — without you ever touching a steering wheel — yeah, I don’t have any doubts that we would have that within 20 years.

It’s one thing to have a few people have those cars; it’s quite another for there to be 90% of those cars. To really reap the advantages of autonomous vehicles, does it really need to be that every car is autonomous?

You get advantages with any car being autonomous, primarily in terms of safety. When every car is autonomous, you get advantages in terms of congestion reduction, and being able to coordinate vehicles in a way that humans can’t do individually. But you don’t want it where you have 50-50 types of mixes; it’s better than zero cars being autonomous but it’s not halfway to 100% in terms of the capacity improvements because the spacing between the vehicles still has to be more at human-level spacing if you’re dealing with humans in the mix than if you’re dealing with no humans  because reaction times are very different.

If we have 5 or 10% autonomous cars, would that actually make traffic worse for some of the reasons I have mentioned earlier, where people are using those cars more but only a small subset is actually autonomous? Is it possible that rather than reducing traffic, it will initially make it a lot worse?

I think that only at 5 or 10% it won’t make it a lot worse because it’s only 5 or 10%. I think that the technology will be continuously getting better over this time, and so, the question of how aggressive a vehicle can be and how good it is at anticipating what other vehicles will do will continuously get better.

So, you’ll see reductions; there should be fewer crashes with the autonomous vehicles than with human-driven vehicles. If there’s not, there’s really very little reason to move in that direction. Assuming that it works as well as we hope it works, then, fewer crashes will lead to reductions in congestion because it’s one of the major sources. It’s been estimated as high as 50% of traffic congestion is because of incidents (a sort of a fancy name for mostly crashes, and construction, and things like that). So, you get benefits from that.

But, they [AV’s] might be more conservative than human drivers and that’s good over the long term, but it might be worse in a particular case. So if you’re less willing to take a chance, then you might be blocking the people behind you longer because you’re not going to play a game of chicken with somebody who is trying to enter from an entrance ramp; you might be more cautious about that. Or you’re not speeding, or other types of behaviors that people will do that at least in the short-term might eke a little bit more capacity out of the system. But in the long term, they are detrimental because they lead to suddenly slamming on the breaks and creating shock waves and things like that.

“You get advantages with any car being autonomous, primarily in terms of safety. But you don’t want it where you have 50-50 types of mixes; it’s better than zero cars being autonomous but it’s not halfway to 100%”

So it’s unclear. I mean, people have done simulations but honestly it’s just unclear as to how that nets out in a system with 5 or 10%, and it really just depends upon the kind of assumptions. Right now, it depends upon the kinds of assumptions that we make about the capabilities of autonomous vehicles, and in practice, we’ll have to see what technology is available on the road at a given time. When we say 10% of autonomous vehicles — well, 5% of them might be from a year before, and 3% from two years ago, and a couple percent from before that — and they all will be different mixes of technological capabilities. And while there are some software upgrades that will try to make them better, the hardware will just continue to get better. We have Moore’s Law in hardware — that the capacity of computer speed doubles every two years or so — we will see similar types of processes operating in both the software side and the hardware side on AV’s over the next couple of decades until the technology becomes more mature.

Will this require a radical upgrade of our roads? If the future is cars on a highway swarming at 90 miles an hour, six inches from bumper to bumper — you need much better roads than we currently have — not huge potholes, but pretty smooth. So, do we need an upgrade like that, or do they need to be somehow smart roads that can interact better with the autonomous cars? What does that infrastructure look like?

Well, the only way that this is going to get deployed is on the roads that we have. I mean, if you have to wait for the roads to get better it will never happen. So, the question will be, can it work better with better roads? And I think there is evidence that it could. I mean, potholes could create problems because if a pothole just forms immediately, the car that’s in front of it, if it’s driving at 90 miles an hour and sees the pothole for the first time, and it wasn’t aware that it was there, that’s going to create a problem. If the pothole has then been observed and marked, if it becomes part of the road network, and is then shared with all of the vehicles on the road — if basically there’s some sort of communication between the vehicle, either directly with other vehicles or through the central mapping system, and that’s then broadcasted back — then once that pothole is marked, the agency will know that there’s a pothole there and will probably fix it rapidly, if there’s the right kind of administration there. But secondly, all the other vehicles there will then decelerate in advance of the pothole and you won’t have the risk of breaking your axle right there.

You’ll have those kinds of communication things which will make things work better; roads would work better today if we didn’t have potholes. There are things like better striping of the roads that can help vehicles determine where lane markings are, better signage that’s more clearly visible to machine-vision types of systems. Those kinds of things are important. The ability to detect the traffic signal and what state the traffic signal’s going to be in — in advance of reaching the traffic signal or even in advance of seeing the traffic signal, so being able for traffic signals to communicate more broadly — all of those are great things, but the deployment of autonomous vehicles can’t be dependent on them because there are 3,300 counties in the US, and it’s really hard to imagine that all counties are going to be upgrading their traffic lights anytime soon. These are long-term investments and these are not fast-moving places. So, you have to be able to deal with the world as it is, and can’t expect the world to change in order to be able to take advantage of some of the AV benefits. But if there is a traffic light there, and if it broadcasts, all the better.

When we talk about autonomous vehicles, we also are talking about electric autonomous vehicles, right? Isn’t that the key to the vision?

So, simultaneous with the deployment of the autonomous vehicles is the deployment of the electric cars. We can already see major automakers saying that by 2023 or 2022, they’ll have an all-electric/hybrid fleet. Clearly, the end of the internal combustion engine is in sight, but it’s going to take decades to unwind this. The question is, will all new AV’s be electric vehicles? There’s no guarantee of that. So, some autonomous vehicles might still use an internal combustion engine; there’s no requirement that they’ll be electric. Similarly, electric cars have no requirement of being autonomous. But, if it’s 2025, and you’re thinking about buying a new car, all the best new cars will be both electric and have at least some autonomous features on them. So, you’re likely to buy both at the same time.

Will I be buying cars? Talking about personal car ownership, have we reached peak personal car ownership?

The third aspect of this tripod is the shared vehicle; to what extent will people continue to own vehicles versus to what extent they will use the shared economy — Uber, Lyft, Taxi types of services. If you have a driverless taxi that picks you up, why do you need a car? But on the other hand, cars are going to be less expensive, both less expensive to own and buy in the initial purchase, but also less expensive to operate because electricity prices are going to be falling over this period with the rise of renewable energy.

The cost of building an electric vehicle compared to the cost of building a combustion engine should be much less, because they have fewer moving parts. And if they have batteries produced at scale, and there are lots of companies working on this — not the least of which is Tesla — then we should be able to make electric vehicles less expensive than today’s cars. So just as the effective price of cellphones has fallen, the price of electric vehicles should be falling too over the next few years from being a luxury good that only the rich can afford. Like Tesla: previous models were on the order of $90,000, the next models are on the order of $30,000 to $40,000. Over time, these essentially equivalent vehicles are going to become much less expensive. So, the cost of owning goes down.

It depends on where you live as to whether you want to be a part of the shared economy or whether you want to be the remaining part of the ownership economy for vehicles. So if you live in a rural area, would you rather be able to go to a car that you own, drive when you want to, and have the car take you when you want to? Or, do you want to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a shared vehicle to come and pick you up? Well, over time, you will probably decide to own that vehicle.

On the other hand, if you live in a big city and you’re living in an apartment and parking is hard to begin with, why would you own a car? People in Manhattan already make that decision, they already use taxis on a regular basis for transit. So, a lot of it depends on where you are. The suburbs of the United States are going to be a sort of mixing ground — some people in sort of the older suburbs probably will be more willing to do the shared economy because you can get a car in a minute, and that saves you the hassle of owning. People who live in the lower density suburbs are probably still going to want to own a vehicle because land is cheap, they don’t want to wait a few minutes, and they like the personalization of the car.

You mentioned cheap renewable energy. I think some of the listeners think of renewable energy as being very expensive but subsidized by the government. So, what are you talking about?

The cost curve on solar power and wind power has been falling dramatically over the past few years, and the efficiency of solar panels is getting better and better. So we should be seeing — as this gets deployed more widely — renewables becoming a larger share of the energy mix. We can always see, globally and in most parts of the United States, that the use of coal has dropped; some of that is the substitution of using natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity, but a lot of it is the rise of renewables.

You can certainly imagine solar panels becoming more and more significant as the cost continues to fall, just like computer chips and electronic hardware. It’s just another aspect of the falling cost curves as you get production up to scale. So new solar is cheaper than new coal and new natural gas plants. Until recently, the problem has been the reliability issue that the solar panels don’t generate electricity when it’s night time or cloudy out, and so what kind of electricity are you going to use during that time?

So the question is — can we scale up battery production to provide a more stable stream of electricity? And one of the answers to the battery supply question is to use electric vehicles you have in your house, a few years from now, which basically can absorb power when the sun is shining and discharge power when the sun is not shining. And they can act as a battery along with in-house batteries that you have to try to balance the system so you don’t have problems when you have too much demand and not enough sunshine.

The United States has got a very large power grid, so if it’s not windy here, it’s windy somewhere else, and the electricity can move across the grid. Solar panels and batteries are similar types of things. And not all batteries are chemical batteries, I mean, you could think of a reservoir with a dam as being a battery — when energy is cheap and the sun is shining, you pump water into the reservoir, and when the sun isn’t shining, you discharge it; you drive a hydro-electric process. So, I think that there’s a lot of potential sources of ensuring that there is a reliable energy stream, even with the use of renewables that are dependent on the transient of the climate and the transient of the weather on a given day.

Do you think the end game here is that pretty much all vehicles will be autonomous and you are actually banned from driving your own car? Because that’s the question I get. Well someday, will it be illegal for me to drive an automobile? Is that where we’re going?

I hope so.

I mean, yes, we’re going in that direction; the question is how soon we get there and where and when. So, cities will be doing this first because cars are least valuable and most disruptive inside of the big city centers. European cities are already starting to do this, and they’ve set deadlines for it; they’re not going to allow automobiles in large areas of central cities. And over time, this kind of thing will spread to more areas. And as you’re willing to ban all vehicles, you would be saying, “We’re not going to let human drivers in, because human drivers are more dangerous. You can’t let human drivers into the next phase.”

For instance, we take the express lanes that are currently lanes for human drivers and high occupancy vehicles, and we say that only autonomous vehicles can use those lanes because we want to take advantage of them to get higher throughput. If you want vehicles driving down those express-freeway lanes at 90 miles an hour or even 80 miles an hour with one-meter spacing, you want those to be driven by computers, not driven by people, and so you can’t let any people into that system. So you geo-fence — essentially establishing an area where cars driven by humans aren’t allowed — and over time, those areas expand to freeways as a whole. They expand to city streets, then you can still drive your cars on Sunday afternoons, and you can still drive your car on racetracks, but other than that, we are not allowed.

Are we culturally ready for that scenario?

We’ll get ready for it. I mean, you can’t do that tomorrow, but this isn’t something that’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s something that’s going to happen over the next 2–3 decades. And are we ready for it? Over two to three decades, this is a kind of a social change that takes a couple of decades, but we’ve done it for other types of things. Smoking is probably the best example that comes to mind — you can still smoke at home, you can smoke in limited private clubs, but smoking has been banned from public places and in many areas outside the doors of public places. So, smokers become geographically more and more isolated.

Driving will be very much the same kind of thing for similar types of reasons. I mean, it’s also a public health question as much as anything — even if you solve the pollution problem, you still have the safety problem — cars still kill 37,000 people in the United States each year. So you want to reduce that, and the way you want to reduce that is by getting humans out of the loop. You’re not going to get it to zero; I mean, there are always some accidents — some unpredicted things, some child runs out to the street, something goes wrong.

Terrorist hacking! What about when they start hacking all of the cars and cause a 2,000 car pileup?

Yeah, right, this is one of the issues. You talked about autonomous cars, and then you asked about — well if they are connected, can they do better? In principle, yes. But there’s a risk associated with connected vehicles. One of the risks is that there is a centralized point of failure; if someone can get into multiple vehicles or even one vehicle remotely, they can do damage. I mean, you could cause a multi-car pileup with just a single car, but imagine if you could get into all of the cars remotely; you could turn those into very dangerous terrorist devices.

I’m working on a screenplay with that exact scenario right now.

How we manage the security on the connected vehicles is still an unclear question; clearly, something has to be done before they are deployed widely, but no one has got a really good answer to this because computer security is a hard thing. You don’t want to give keys to something that can easily be broken into. Does the automaker have the keys to your car?

I mean, Tesla recently updated the software on all of their cars in Florida amid the hurricanes so that people could extend their battery life a little bit longer. That’s a good thing to be able to do, but that also suggests that there’s a little bit of danger here because if someone at Tesla can do that, someone in Tesla could do something else — someone could hack into Tesla and do something else — and all of a sudden, all of the Tesla vehicles behave strangely one day.

What will I be able to do first: take an autonomous car from LA to San Francisco, take a bullet train from LA to San Francisco, or take a Hyperloop from LA to San Francisco? Which of those will come online first?

An autonomous vehicle will come online first, and you should probably expect pilot runs in the next year or two. Whether you can buy a car that will allow fully hands-off driving in the next year or two might be up in the air, but if you’re sort of looking at freeway only driving, it’s quite possible that by 2020 — for the freeway portion of your trip — it could be entirely hands-off.

And what’s going on with the bullet trains and Hyperloops? Are Hyperloops going to be the new bullet trains? What is the future of these technologies in the United States?

Well, bullet trains are a real thing; they’ve been around since the early 1960s.

Just not here.

Just not in the United States, for a variety of reasons, but they are a real thing in many parts of the world. They work fine technologically, and economically they are roughly break-even in some places, they require public subsidy. But, a lot of transportation requires public subsidy — highway certainly requires public subsidy — so the question is, “Will they finish it in California?” It’s under construction and it’s not planned to be finished in the next five years because getting into the LA basin or San Francisco Bay Area is difficult. So, the section they are building is in Central Valley, it’s under construction, and you will be able to ride a bullet train in the Central Valley at some point in the next few years.

When they finish that section of construction, they’ll have a happy ribbon-cutting ceremony, and the question of how you do the next step is not clear. They’ll be able to try that bullet train at not bullet-train speeds at San Francisco and Los Angeles — so it will be slow until you get to the Central Valley, perhaps, and then it will go fast and then it will be slow again — but as proof of concept, you will be able to ride a bullet train but not at bullet-train speeds.

Hyperloop, on the other hand, no one has ridden on a Hyperloop. It’s mostly vaporware at this point. Now you could imagine magnetic levitation trains — they certainly exist in parts of the world — generally on small a stretch. The technology is not more efficient than conventional high-speed rail, but it’s out there. When you put a Mag-Lev train in an evacuated tube — sure you could do that and there will be some energy benefits from that potentially, no one has really done that — but there are a lot of questions about Hyperloop itself because it isn’t actually a thing; it’s just a name.

Maybe I am getting all my Elon Musk ideas mixed up, but he’s also into tunneling. Is that part of the Hyperloop vision or is that a different vision?

They are interrelated visions. The tunnels can certainly be used for Hyperloop, and I guess, he [Musk] just signed a deal with the state of Maryland to build a 10-mile section of tunnel under some roads in Maryland — between Maryland and Washington — as the first step in the construction of a north-east corridor Hyperloop-ish thing. He’s also talked about using tunneling technology to move cars more quickly. One of the issues with tunnels has been that tunnels are expensive; I mean, we have tunnels in the world, it’s not like tunneling is a new technology. He hopes, he claims, that he’ll be able to reduce the cost by a factor of 10 — which if he can do that would be fantastic. I don’t know what he knows that all civil engineers don’t, but Elon Musk is obviously the smartest man in the world, so he must know something about how to reduce tunneling costs by a factor of 10.

“I think most transportation policy should be done locally at the state or local level, and so expanding Washington’s role isn’t the critical thing here.”

One of the things he talked about is making the tunnels smaller, because it’s cheaper to build smaller tunnels than bigger tunnels for sort of obvious reasons. And that instead of cars driving through the tunnels, they’ll be on sleds and then move through the tunnels, if you have looked through some of his demos. This is a little bit strange because if you’re going to do that why not just build public transportation? Why do I need to take my car into the center of the city if it’s going to be on a sled in the last part of the trip? Why not just park it in the suburbs and take a train into the center of the city?

So, the sort of a use-case isn’t clearly established; but if he wants to make investments in improving tunneling technology, you can do that — that’s got other ancillary benefits. We in the transportation community are just sort of skeptical of his ability to make huge innovations in that area. But if he can, then more power to him and better for everybody.

So finally, if you’re the Infrastructure Czar, or the Transportation Czar, what are two or three things that you would do, that you would have Washington do, in the areas of infrastructure and transportation?

I think getting the prices right. I am going back to sort of the first point: Getting the prices right is really important. I think most transportation policy should be done locally at the state or local level, and so expanding Washington’s role isn’t the critical thing here. But certainly, helping to set standards and move things in the right direction, and ensuring that the technologies talk to each other, is critical. You don’t want every state setting up a different pricing technology or a toll-pass technology.

So in the north-east quarter, everybody converged upon EZ pass and that’s a great thing from a technological-use point of view — if you had to have 15 different toll tags for 15 different states, that would be a real problem — so ensuring standards and communication in that, and maybe moving the federal gas tax over to a different pricing system, would be useful.

I think phasing in tolling — the political hit on this is really hard so tolling roads that are currently un-tolled is something that has led to riots, historically. I am not exaggerating here; historically, putting toll gates on what people perceived as free roads has led to riots. So you don’t want to do it that way. On the other hand, electric vehicles aren’t paying gas tax for obvious reasons — they are not using gasoline, yet they are using roads — so if we know that electric vehicles are going to be deployed over the next 10 or 20 years, now would be the perfect time to start implementing the pricing for electric vehicles in lieu of the gas tax. Once that becomes normal, then we have pricing without having this huge political fight and hopefully without having the riots associated with it. And we have a more sensible transport financing system, and a more sensible road allocation system, where we charge more at the peak times when the roads are more congested, and less in the off-peak — to encourage the demand to be balanced between the peak travel and off-peak travel, and to discourage the trips that don’t need to be made by automobiles at a given time.

Nothing you have described sounds fun for a politician to do. They’d rather have ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or put new pavement down. The things you described do not sound like what most politicians would gravitate toward.

Yeah, I mean, that’s why it hasn’t happened. It would be better if we were there but there’s not really a good path to get from here to there. On the other hand, if you’re in the oil industry, you should be all in favor of putting charges on electric vehicles; you’d say, “Well, they are free-riding on public roads and we have to pay, why shouldn’t they pay?” So there’s an equity argument here to be made.

It doesn’t sound fun because raising taxes on anybody isn’t fun. But you could say, “Well the people who have the electric vehicles today have above average incomes and they probably vote for Democrats, and they themselves would probably be more willing to pay higher taxes as a price of civilization than the other side.” So, it might not be that hard to sell as a way of reorganizing how we fund transportation. I think one of the problems is that congestion — as much as we complain about it — just isn’t bad enough for people to be willing to take a political bite of “I can do something that will actually solve the problem.”

But you think about if some of the states could do this, or some of the cities could do this — New York City is the closest to being able to do this, politically, they are almost ready to do this — and so if you start seeing this in more and more places in various forms, people get used to this idea and can see the benefits of it. So typically, when someone’s proposing a pricing system, the best case is probably Stockholm. It was a bit unpopular when it was proposed, but they did a trial of it for six months, then people saw the benefits of it. They turned off the trial and they had a vote, and it passed by a small majority; then they implemented and turned it back on, and since then, the popularity of the system has risen.

So a lot of things that people aren’t familiar with are unpopular and you need to get some familiarity; it has to start somewhere. You could maybe induce some cities to start doing pricing, and some states are doing experiments. Oregon and California, are having voluntary opt-ins to odometer-based pricing rather than gas-tax pricing, and they are doing these experiments, and the states get some experience. Deploying the technology, people get used to having this kind of pricing system and they become more familiar with it. Those small experiments are not going to solve any congestion problems, but they get people used to the idea of paying on a per-mile basis and maybe paying more at certain times of the day and maybe less at the other times of the day; it becomes familiar.

We pay for lots of things differently by different times of the day — restaurants have lunch and dinner menus, movie theaters charge more in the evening than they do in a matinee, airlines charge more in peak-time than off-peak time, Federal Express charges more for one-day delivery than two-day delivery, more still for same-day delivery than one-day deliver — so people should be comfortable with the idea, while certainly they’ll be grumbling. If the problem is serious enough, this is a solution waiting to be adopted.

Now maybe congestion is not bad enough for most people, maybe people enjoy complaining about congestion, I’m not sure; but I think that there are these issues that have been keeping the United States from deploying it. And the United States isn’t going to be the first country that deploys this; I mean, that’s another thing to keep in mind. There are lots of countries in the world who are farther along on this path than the US is, and so the “Does the US want to be left behind?” argument could also play a role in something like this.

Hyperloops and circular runways

I will appear on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) RN (Radio National) show Future Tense Sunday 7 May 2017 10:30AM. They also have a podcast.

In Japan they’re constructing a passenger train system that will travel at speeds in excess of 600 kilometres an hour. Now that’s fast, but it’s not fast enough for some. New Hyperloop technology promises the speed of sound. But can a train really go that fast? And why would it need to travel in a vacuum tube?

Also, we meet a man with a revolutionary new approach to runway design. He wants airports to look and function like velodromes, with planes landing and taking off on a donut-shaped runway.

Guests:

Zachary McClelland – project leader, VicHyper, RIMT University

Edouard Schneiders – team leader, Delft Hyperloop, Delft University of Technology

Dirk Ahlborn – CEO and founder, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Steve Artis – Director, Ultraspeed Australia

Professor David Levinson – School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney

Hesse Hesselink, Researcher, Netherlands Aerospace Centre

Update, with Transcript

Anthony Funnell wrote this up: Hyperloop or hyper-loopy? The race to make high-speed tube travel a reality. I abstract my bits below.

‘Human factor’ a complication

Both HTT and Hyperloop One are yet to do field tests using human passengers.

For this reason, the University of Sydney’s David Levinson argued it was premature to be building a business case.

“They’re going to put people into a sealed container and accelerate them at very high rates of acceleration, sometimes around curves,” he said.

“We don’t know how normal people will react to that because we haven’t done that before with normal people.

“This is sort of test pilot territory. People aren’t going to be really excited about being in a rollercoaster for a very long period of time.

“Yes, people have flown at 1,000kph in the Concorde — but there’s a different type of acceleration and deceleration profile associated with that.”

Dr Levinson, a professor of transport engineering, also has safety concerns.

“Track inside a tube is really pretty vulnerable to attack,” he said.

“How does such a thing respond if the tube gets punctured? What happens to the capsules that are inside of it? Does it gracefully decelerate or does some sort of implosion happen?

“People are going to expect something like this to be as safe or safer than trains or aeroplanes if they are going to be entrusting such a company with their lives.”

New Book: The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport

We are pleased to announce the publication of our latest book The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport on Kindle Editions and at the iBookstore. The price is $4.99.

The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport, by David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek
The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport, by David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek

Table of Contents

  • Preface: The Lost Joy of Automobility
  • Climbing Mount Auto: The Rise of Cars in the 20th Century
  • Less Traffic is a Good Thing
  • What Killed America’s Traffic?
  • Pace of Change
  • Transitioning Toward Electric Vehicles
  • Autonomous Autos
  • MaaS Transport
  • Transit
  • Up and Out: The Future of Travel Demand and Where We Live
  • Adapting the Built Environment
  • Reduce, Reuse, Bicycle
  • Accelerating the End of Traffic via Pricing
  • Redeeming Transport
  • Post-script 1: What Happened to Traffic?
  • Post-script 2: Now extinct: the Traditional Transport Engineer

In this book we propose the welcome notion that traffic—as most people have come to know it—is ending and why. We depict a transport context in most communities where new opportunities are created by the collision of slow, medium, and fast moving technologies. We then unfold a framework to think more broadly about concepts of transport and accessibility. In this framework, transport systems are being augmented with a range of information technologies; it invokes fresh flows of goods and information. We discuss large scale trends that are revolutionizing the transport landscape: electrification, automation, the sharing economy, and big data. Based on all of this, the final chapters offer strategies to shape the future of infrastructure needs and priorities.

We aim for a quick read—and to encourage you and other readers to think outside your immediate realm. By the end of this book (today, if you so choose) you will appreciate the changing times in which you live. You will hopefully appreciate what is new about transport discussions and how definitions of accessibility are being reframed. You will be provided with new ways of thinking about the planning of transport infrastructure that coincide with this changing landscape. Even if transport is not your bailiwick, we like to think there is something interesting for you here. We aim to share new perspectives and reframe debates about the future of transport in cities.

The road as an Ecosystem in the 21st Century

Today in the Tech World, there is discussion of “platforms” and “ecosystems”. When we hear talk about Apple vs. Google, it is as much about the Apple ecosystem, particularly that around iOS, the operating system for the iPhone, vs. Android OS. The Operating Systems enable both device-based and cloud-based software services. I can buy apps that work in either eco-system, but not both (without purchasing twice). I can buy peripherals that work on one or the other, but generally not both. This mobile telephone ecosystem logic follows and is much larger than the previous decades’ PC operating system ecosystems.

Roads are a different form of economic ecosystem, and perhaps the original one. There is the ecosystem for building roads, and there is an ecosystem for those using roads. Carriers as well as private vehicles are the users. But they have a set of roadside services (energy (hay, gasoline), shelter (inns (hello Jesus), motels, and hotels), and sustenance (food)) as well as many others that are less frequently used (tollbooths, money changing, black smithing, wheel wright, vehicle repair, and so on) that are configured a particular way for users of the road ecosystem.

While the types of vehicles using roads, as well as the materials with which they are made has changed over time, the platform of the road as a place on which to hang a series of road-serving businesses is long-standing, and unlikely to disappear even as roads change with the next technological shift in vehicles.

Without roads (dirt, gravel, block, rail, asphalt, or concrete), there would not be much economy. Certainly off-road vehicles and their passengers and drivers of various kinds would still require services, but the much higher cost of travel would significantly reduce the total economic impact. Secondary economic impacts on things like manufacturing, agriculture, and non-transportation services which do depend on transportation thus depend on this eco-system as well.

There is a fascinating series of books by John Jakle and colleagues describing the emergence of the first order 20th Century Road Ecosystem: Fast Food, Motels, Gas Stations, and so on. What happens in the 21st Century with Vehicle Electrification and Automation?

We can certainly speculate that charging stations ultimately replace gas stations. Even more, vehicles may be charged in motion from the roadway.

Food production and delivery may also change in ways that are difficult to foresee. We can speculate that with automated vehicles, food may come to us in motion, rather than us stopping at the side of the road. While this synchronization, resembling the in-air refueling of Air Force One, seems far out, with full information and automated drivers, it may be quite trivial. This may or may not be a net improvement in food quality.

Why stay at a hotel when your car can move you forward in space and time while you sleep?

How else will the Road Ecosystem Change in the 21st Century?

Pathways

When forecasting the future of travel demand, we have two possible outcomes, compared to the present. People may either:

  • Travel more, or
  • Travel less

(There is an infinitesimally small possibility they travel exactly the same amount, so we will ignore that). Of course they may travel more in some places or at some times or by some modes, and less for others, so we need to distinguish between micro and macro-outcomes. That depends on changes in a variety of inputs: In travel demand forecasting we have a variety of dimensions of travel we try to model:

  • Who:
  • When: Schedule
  • Why: Purpose
  • Where: Destination
  • How: Mode, Route

If people in the future behave exactly the same as people today, and their demographics are similar, the built environment is similar, and policies are similar, and there are more of them, the travel demand model would produce roughly the same amount of travel per person, and more in the aggregate.

But that is a big “If”.  This travel demand model does not capture behavioral changes, market changes, or technology changes, for starters.

First, technology may change. A model built before a new class of modes became available cannot accurately forecast their use. For instance commercial ride sharing (“transportation network companies”, e.g. Lyft, Uber) might look like taxi, but in most US markets, taxi is so seldom used it is excluded from the model for lack of data. But it differs from taxi not only in fare (lower), but also response time (faster), whether you are sharing a ride with another party (perhaps: LyftLine, UberPool), quality of vehicle (nicer?), friendliness of driver (sociable?) and many other dimensions. That is an easy problem to identify, it is already here. Now, from a regional perspective, it may still be small enough to ignore, but who can say that will remain true in the 20 or 30 time frame of official forecasts.

Car sharing and autonomous vehicles are among the other technology shifts that are both possible and unforecasted.

Willingness to share vehicles is a behavioral question for which we have no answer about its likelihood. One of the purposes of money is to buy better services. Most people think riding separately is preferred to riding in a shared vehicle, but this is as much a social norm as a law of nature.

Willingness to travel farther when the vehicle is autonomous is something we can only guess at (theory suggests if we don’t have to exert effort in driving, we may be willing to be mobile for longer times (and distances)).

In theory we could model the supply side effects of an autonomous fleet in terms of road capacity, but we will have a mixed human-robot fleet for decades. In practice this seems quite difficult. Harder still is modeling the presence of vehicles, the response time of shared vehicles, the range of electric vehicles, distance to walk to car-sharing, and the like. Not that it cannot be done, but it cannot be done with confidence. These are a mix of technology, market, and behavioral problems which are likely to become relevant over the timeframe of forecasts.

A plausible strategy given uncertainty is to look at scenarios in addition to expected values. Instead of making the deterministic forecast that in 20 years the line will have 40,000 passengers or 100,000 AADT, consider what it will be like under a variety of different assumptions. Bureaucrats don’t like uncertainty, which is why the rules are written the way they are. Politicians will choose whatever value in the range of numbers suits their rhetorical purpose. But the public should not be mislead by the false confidence associated with forecasts of expected values given without ranges and caveats — forecasts that have historically been quite poor.

Sadly, people follow whoever expresses the most confidence, not whoever is the most accurate or honest or thoughtful. That is an evolutionary biological outcome to avoid  paralysis when the lion is actually chasing you: follow either whoever quickly decides to hold ground with spears or runs  the farthest the fastest, but don’t stand around contemplating the decision. But with new transportation investment, nothing is actually urgent.

 

 

With driving down, there’s a growing backlash against unnecessary highways | Vox.com

Brad Plumer writes about peak travel, overly optimistic forecasts, and the policy consequences at vox.com in: With driving down, there’s a growing backlash against unnecessary highways. He cites us in the closing paragraph:

Another key point was that states (and the federal government) should probably spend less money on building new roads and more money on maintaining existing roads. Economists have argued that more states should probably be doing this anyway — this Brookings Institution paper by Matthew Kahn and David Levinson makes the most comprehensive case. But the argument gets even stronger if vehicle travel is going to grow more slowly or plateau in the future.

What’s clear is that it doesn’t make much sense for states to keep planning around the idea that driving will grow at 20th century rates forever. Those predictions have been utterly wrong for nearly a decade now — and sticking with them could mean wasting billions on unnecessary roads and highways.