Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Going Driverless, or Not

A heated debate over the significance of Google's so-called driverless car has been raging over the past several weeks. On one side of the aisle are those hailing it as a "revolutionary" technology that will dramatically alter personal mobility to the point of  eliminating private car ownership. On the other side are those who reject the premise that the technology represents a groundbreaking shift, instead characterizing it as merely a "slightly different variation" on current transportation modes that is "so incremental that it epitomizes our national short-sightedness, and failure of imagination, when it comes to improving mobility in America."

It's difficult to imagine two more divergent positions on the significance of a new technology. Although I'm wary of attempting to forecast the future, knowing how likely it is that any predictions are likely to appear foolish or worse some years down the line, there are enough parallels, current and historic, that I think some general observations can be made here without wandering too far off into pointless speculation.

The human-driven motorized car, itself a recognizable variation on the 5,000 year-old horsecart, must have seemed like a rather mundane idea in the late 19th century — almost a throwback to horse-and-carriage travel that the railroads had put out of business — compared to steam railways, attempts at early aircraft and even the bicycle, which represented the first instance in history of a fast yet human-powered wheeled vehicle. The name for the early cars reflected this mindset, which some have used to argue that driverless cars are also being underestimated, as in this blog post:
"One reason I will eventually move away from my chosen name for the technology — robocar — along with the other popular names like “self-driving car” is that this future vehicle is not a car, not as we know it today. It is no more a “driverless car” than a modern automobile is a horseless carriage. 100 years ago, the only way they could think of the car was not notice there was no horse. Today, all many people notice is that no human is driving. This is the thing that comes after the car."
Could it be that these early observers were right, though? The very early car was slower than the steam trains, and its primary breakthrough was economic: by moving the horse out of the picture, and substituting the combustion of an oil, it became possible to maintain a personal carriage without the the constant care and expense needed for keeping horses. The earliest car ads emphasized the savings in cost, care and anxiety from not having to keep a horse rather than advantages in speed. It took several more decades until the velocities enabled by combustion power and paved highways could be fully realized.

By contrast, the driverless car offers no such economic advantage to the individual driver, since he is already donating his own labor to operate the vehicle. In implicit recognition of this fact, the claim is made that the most significant consequence of this invention will essentially be to reduce the cost of taxis to the point that renting a car on a trip-by-trip basis actually becomes cheaper, and no less convenient, than owning one. In other words, a driverless car network, for all the technology it requires, is really a simple labor saving device, which like the very early car, allows an existing function to be performed more cheaply but otherwise not much better: certainly driverless cars will not enjoy the kind of speed advantages over human-driven cars as the autos of the 1920s gained over horse-drawn carriages. In this sense, it is functionally equivalent to a massively subsidized (or, perhaps, completely unregulated) human-driven taxi service, which, in theory, could be funded for no more than the amounts currently spent on private car ownership, and certainly with less technological difficulty.*

As it happens, non-subsidized transit systems of this sort already exist, and have existed for decades, in many cities of the developing world where labor is cheap, car ownership is low and public transit options are limited.

Auto rickshaw in Bangalore and Xe Nom drivers in Hanoi. Wikipedia and Flickr/Gavin White
These transit systems, based first on human-powered rickshaws and later auto rickshaws, motorbikes and pedicabs, provide both point-to-point and last-mile transport, essentially substituting for private vehicle ownership.  However, the tendency over time, as a country grows wealthier, is not for auto rickshaws to become ubiquitous, but for public transit and private vehicles (motorbikes or cars) ownership to supplant them. This is certainly due in part to the rising cost of labor, but must also be due to the inherent comfort and convenience of owning one's own vehicle in low-density areas and of the geometric efficiencies of transit in a dense city (using Jarrett Walker's terminology). The dense city of taxi-based transport tends to be a traffic nightmare. The low-density city, on the other hand, generally uses taxis in a limited supportive role.

(An exception might be the dense but mid-sized city of the developing world, such as Jaen, in Peru, a country that is notorious for the use of largely unregulated, and therefore quite cheap, taxi and bus systems to supplement inadequate public mass transit systems, such as in the far larger capital of Lima):

Motorbike-taxis on the streets of Jaen, Peru. Exploration of the city on Streetview shows a
largely taxi-based transportation system, supplemented with private motorbikes. There are
only a handful of automobiles visible here and there, mostly utilitarian in nature. A far cry
from the SUVs of American streets, these vehicles actually seem designed around the
size and weight of human beings, and create a steady but by no means congested flow of traffic.
For driverless cars to reverse this durable observed trend, and actually encourage people to dispose of their cars, we'd need to believe that the cost savings of driverless taxis could outweigh the inevitably increased inconvenience of not having personal ownership (including ownership of a driverless car) for most or all people. The problem with this scenario, though, seems to be twofold, as stated before:
  • In dense urban areas, very cheap and convenient taxi service may overwhelm highways and city streets, as it does in Hanoi or Mumbai or many other cities of the developing world, negating that same convenience and worsening the quality of urban life (miles driven are expected to increase with a "robotaxi" system, according to one recent study, and this may underestimate the number of transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians who switch to driverless taxis). If the number of taxis is limited, as in most cities in developed countries today, then this will partially negate the cost advantage of lacking a human driver and will certainly hinder convenience, illustrating again that this is as much an issue of restrictive licensing and geometry as it is technology. Arguments on behalf of robotaxis appear to assume that their numbers will not be limited by law.
  • In suburban and rural areas, sufficiently frequent robotaxi service may be difficult to provide, yet the cost of storing one's own personal vehicle will continue to be minimal or nonexistent while providing total convenience. Additionally, suburban errands often require multiple stops spread out over a large area due to car-based urban design, which will either require tiresome and inconvenient re-hiring of cars for each leg and practical difficulties with transferring purchased goods, or else cars will need to 1) park at each destination or 2) cruise around aimlessly while waiting, either of which would lessen certain of the the advantages over individually owned vehicles. 
There is one other issue which I raise by way of a insightful quote from Neil Salmond's article on robotaxis: "Once you own a car - and so mentally discount the cost of insuring, maintaining, fuelling the car - then every trip looks free." Although I agree with this, it also suggests a very difficult path toward weaning people off private car ownership. A privately-owned car is immensely versatile. It can handle short trips, medium-length trips and cross-country treks. It is always there and ready to go at a moment's notice, at times of high and low demand alike, with no questions asked. For many it is a personalized space as much as one's own bedroom or office, and doubles as a mobile storage unit. The opportunity cost of giving up all this "free" travel, and its associated comforts and conveniences, may therefore be much higher than might be suggested by a pure dollar-and-cents comparison.  Further, once the car is owned, whether it be human-driven or not, the incentive to use a taxi system at all is much reduced for the very reason Neil describes. No matter how reasonable a robotaxi trip might be, it cannot beat the perception of "free."
Whether or not robotaxis can succeed at large scale in American cities, there are a few areas where a privately-owned driverless car could provide an unmitigated social and economic good. For those unable to drive and without access to reliable transportation, such as young people or very elderly living in car-dependent areas, owning such a car could be a lifeline to mobility and independence. That would have the potential to remedy one of the greatest inequities of a car-based transportation system (though certainly not the only one). It's also tempting to imagine, as Neil suggests, driverless cars ferrying commuters to rail stations, and thereby opening commuter parking lots for redevelopment, and it's certainly possible, or even likely, that driverless cars could become the default ownership option. A cheaper, but non-revolutionary, taxi system might not be such a bad thing, especially for households that need access to a car but only rarely. And what of the implications of driverless buses, and driverless car sharing? As an incremental step that expands transportation options while lowering costs, it has promise.

The vision of a fleet of driverless taxis completely supplanting car ownership, however, seems to encounter significant practical difficulties. Many vehicles on the road must remain individually owned in any event (such as vehicles serving a particular business).  With the abundant free parking already prevalent in the United States, one of the greatest cost benefits of a taxi system — eliminating the need for costly local storage — is greatly lessened. In other countries or in certain US cities, this advantage might be more appreciable, but then, a city that is sufficiently dense will, or eventually will, offer alternative transportation options that do not require storage, either. In the case of this technology, only time will tell.

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*Let's consider that for a second. One study has estimated that a fleet of driverless taxis could dramatically reduce car ownership, on the order of one driverless taxi replacing eleven owned vehicles. Given car ownership in the US of 800/1,000 population, this suggests a reduction in car numbers to only 72/1,000, or approximately the same number seen on the roads of Mongolia.

Now, with the savings from not having 728 owned cars, at an average of $8,800 per year per car, a surplus of $6,400,000 per 1,000 population is generated, or approximately $90,000 per remaining car just based on eliminating ownership. Even if we generously assume $30,000 per year per car to account for gas, heavier maintenance and more frequent car replacement, that still leaves $60,000 for driver wages even before accounting for any per trip fees levied on riders. Even a modest fee of, say, $2 average per ride, could generate tens of thousands of additional dollars per year. In other words, replacing private car ownership looks, at least on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, like it would be financially feasible right now, not at some uncertain date in the future.

This still underestimates the savings, however, since by eliminating private car ownership, and turning the task of piloting cars over to professional drivers, we both eliminate the need for expensive parking minimums and may reduce the economic cost of crashes (estimated at $871 billion each year nationwide, or $900/person in economic losses).

Furthermore, such a network would presumably make many local bus systems obsolete or uneconomic (though probably not regional bus or rail systems), so that spending in these areas could be transferred to supporting a public network of taxis, offsetting the additional tax that would need to be levied to fund the system. Although the retention of human drivers creates a major added expense, drivers can be expected to perform some duties (refueling/recharging/basic cleaning and maintenance) that would otherwise need to be done by separate employees, and the human brain offers a proven technological fix to many of the difficulties still encountered by driverless cars.

22 comments:

  1. I appreciate the post's modesty and restrained speculation. Other articles discussing the technology overwhelmingly rely on the word "will," as if the writers have somehow gone into the future and returned to share it with us: "autonomous vehicles will do this...", "self-driving cars will have this...", "robotaxis will mean this..." How do they know?!

    This mental trap is particularly irritating when it's coupled with calls for immediately retrofitting the built fabric for robocars/robotaxis (optimized intersections, garages with maintenance stations, abandoning the bus system, etc.), completely overlooking the fact that we need to allow the technology to independently mature and proliferate *first* before we start expending any resources to accommodate it.

    The country's highway system and gas station network, for example, was built *after* the horseless carriage had become commonplace, whereas today's technology-coddling assumes that providing the supporting infrastructure first (subsidizing charging stations for EVs, for example) will result in the proliferation of the dependent technology (EVs).

    I don't particularly disagree with any points raised in the post, but would add these questions:

    (1) How might future fuel availability affect the proliferation of robotaxis/robocars? Can renewables really scale up to replace gasoline/diesel: battery-electric technology has made little progress for a century, and one supposed "game changer" fuel after another has been discarded as impractical; i.e. not scalable. (Ethanol, hydrogen, algae, and perhaps even fracked natural gas if the disappointingly-rapid well depletion rates and scarce "sweet spots" are any indicator of real availability.)

    (2) How might pedestrians' ability to cross streets/intersections be affected? The rise of automobiles resulted in the criminalization of unencumbered pedestrian street crossing as "jaywalking." After WWII pedestrians were further confined via pedestrian bridges/tunnels, dreary walkways, and other schemes for shunting foot traffic out of the way of cars. Might this effort be renewed if robocars, say, required special treatment at intersections?

    Conversely, might robocars *improve* pedestrian mobility? Today's handful of prototype robocars purportedly defer to "jaywalkers" and other obstructions in the street, so might this allow pedestrians to reclaim the center of the street? I'd be far more comfortable walking into the street knowing that an obedient dummy machine would automatically halt or smoothly divert around me - not the case with human-driven cars!

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  2. ...But this gets back to the first point... if this easier "jaywalking" remained criminalized, how would it be practically enforced? Many cities - particularly those with overwhelmed police departments with bigger criminal fish to fry - already don't do all that much to penalize jaywalking (LA or Atlanta notwithstanding). Or would the incessant snarling of robotraffic by pedestrians be such that police departments would bloat to enforce their smooth operation, much like the rise of the budget-draining "traffic cop" in the 20th century? Who knows
    how this might evolve.

    (3) How might congestion and the accompanying need for parking *really* change? Transportation history suggests that the easier and cheaper you make travel, the more travel and thus congestion you get. This doesn't necessarily mean that such travel is "bad" and that it needs to be discouraged, but only that induced traffic seems to obviate any potential congestion relief in each iteration of travel technology - so can robocars break Jevons' Paradox?

    It's perhaps worthwhile to note that one feedback loop necessitating ever-greater reliance on the automobile was the offloading of delivery responsibilities onto the "consumer" in the 20th century. Before WWII most businesses selling bulky items or large quantities of items - grocers, department stores, furniture stores, laundromats, etc. - were obliged to offer delivery service otherwise they wouldn't have been able to sell their inventory to carless customers and get it out the door. Today's internet retailers and movers are reviving this practice, gradually making it easier to go without personal mobile storage units.

    So robotaxis and robobuses could potentially be quite useful filling in the gaps, but it'll be interesting if they spur a larger discussion on whether we could be building places that obviate the need for motorized prosthetics *in the first place,* self-driving or otherwise!

    For example, we currently build schools as remote, self-contained pods, requiring the costly provision of a twice-a-day bus system to funnel students to said pods. Robotaxi service could potentially replace these buses in some manner (same for other infrequent-but-costly shuttle services for various carless populations in sprawling areas), but would we ever get it through our heads to build places where students could WALK to school?!

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    1. Hi Marc -- in this post, I mainly focused on the practical issues involved with a driverless taxi system, rather than examining the much larger topic of how driverless cars, in general, would function within the current transportation framework and would affect the form of cities -- that would require another post or series of posts. In short, though, a few thoughts on the points you raise:

      1) Fuel: regardless of what happens to its availability, it certainly does seem to set a baseline cost to operation of a driverless taxi (or owned car). However, as Scoop notes, if cars are able to be built much lighter than at present due to lesser risk of crashes, this might improve fuel economy significantly.

      2) As for jaywalking, I'm waiting to be convinced that it would really occur much more frequently than it does today. Very close to 100% of human drivers will already attempt to brake for a human being who walks in front of them. The decisive issue, I think, is not whether the car will stop, but the speed of the car, its stopping distance, weather conditions, etc. If cars proceed at comparable speeds to today, I'm not sure why jaywalking would surge, unless the psychological factors are much more important than I am giving them credit for (i.e. less hesitancy to inconvenience a machine than a human driver and/or less fear of violent retaliation, such that more jaywalking occurs in borderline situations).

      3) Under most projections I've seen, congestion does not decrease with robotaxis, since they will at the very least be cruising for fares, which presumably more than cancels out the gains from not cruising for parking. I'd be more optimistic about reducing off-street parking requirements, since robotaxis only seem to require as much or less room than is currently devoted to on-street parking (and that is what we see in cities like Jaen and others). With owned driverless cars, though, I doubt much would change. Sure, in theory they could drive off and park elsewhere, or simply cruise around, but practically speaking these are inferior alternatives in terms of cost and convenience.

      As to the last point -- clearly pedestrian-centered communities should be the goal, and they don't even require special technology! My general opinion on all this, which I share with Jarrett Walker, is that if urban transportation is primarily an issue of geometry, the impact of driverless cars will be modest rather than revolutionary.

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    2. "The decisive issue, I think, is not whether the car will stop, but the speed of the car, its stopping distance, weather conditions, etc."

      Right, I guess it depends on how well a robocar is able to react to sudden obstructions. As a (cautious!) jaywalker myself, my current fear is not that a driver won't bother to stop - few people are that callous! - but that they won't be able to react in time to prevent hitting me. If a robocar had better split-second "reflexes" as it were, that certainly would reduce my hesitation to jaywalk in borderline situations.

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    3. At 40 mph, the difference between braking distance and stopping distance (braking distance + human reflexes) is 80 ft and 120 ft. If the car can react almost instantaneously, let's consider the difference 85 and 120 ft. That's a big improvement, but is it enough to make a significant difference? The human instinct for self-preservation is very strong, and our perception of how fast cars are approaching is imperfect at best.

      What I could see happening instead, though, is that driverless cars are held strictly to speed limits, and that the absence of human drivers makes it politically easier to enact lower urban speed limits (e.g. 25 mph, since the passenger doesn't experience the same frustration if he is not personally behind the wheel, and since people know the limits will be obeyed). *If* speed limits are greatly lowered, and cars must obey them, then you do reach a shared-space-by-default situation, where cars drive slowly enough that people are confident about stepping in front of them, as they are able to judge their speed and stopping distance accurately. In that case, driverless technology would end up being the device that tames the unruly car. Or we could get Laurence's potential response, but I hope that would be less likely.

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    4. It might make a difference in the slower-speed borderline scenarios, which seem to comprise many (most?) jaywalking impulses in the urban setting (i.e. jaywalking at the tail of a traffic pulse or just ahead of an accelerating one to avoid having to stop and wait).

      That is, I don't necessarily foresee more people stepping right out in front of steady flows of 30mph+ pods, but stepping out in front of them when they're moving slower (at intersections, in high congestion, etc). The difference between human and robot stopping distances at such slow speeds would be marginal, but right now there is still the possibility that a distracted or hurried driver (like a jockeying taxi) could hit you at an intersection, whereas this risk is eliminated with driverless cars. But again, given that driverless cars probably couldn't achieve significance penetration overnight,* sudden changes in pedestrian behavior are perhaps unlikely.

      *Or could they? In hindsight the automobile seems to have achieved rapid penetration - from rare curiosity in the first decade of the 20th century to regular imposition on urban life by the 1920s.

      And analogous to speed limits possibly enabling shared spaces, I wonder if the easing of 20th century "forgiving design" on urban streets might also be possible?

      Since "forgiving design" is intended to give human drivers extra space and predictable geometry to recover from mistakes, could those design features be removed from urban thoroughfares if driverless cars could work safely without them? This might allow for narrower urban arterials, pedestrian-friendlier intersections, etc. An additional beneficial side effect might be traffic calming of the remaining human-driven cars.

      But I'm still skeptical that lower speed limits would be politically easier. Even when I'm not driving and am merely a passenger, I still like the car I'm riding in to move as fast as possible. I don't imagine any change in attitude among passengers in driverless cars.

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    5. It might make a difference in the slower-speed borderline scenarios, which seem to comprise many (most?) jaywalking impulses in the urban setting (i.e. jaywalking at the tail of a traffic pulse or just ahead of an accelerating one to avoid having to stop and wait).

      That is, I don't necessarily foresee more people stepping right out in front of steady flows of 30mph+ pods, but stepping out in front of them when they're moving slower (at intersections, in high congestion, etc). The difference between human and robot stopping distances at such slow speeds would be marginal, but right now there is still the possibility that a distracted or hurried driver (like a jockeying taxi) could hit you at an intersection, whereas this risk is eliminated with driverless cars. But again, given that driverless cars probably couldn't achieve significance penetration overnight,* sudden changes in pedestrian behavior are perhaps unlikely.

      *Or could they? In hindsight the automobile seems to have achieved rapid penetration - from rare curiosity in the first decade of the 20th century to regular imposition on urban life by the 1920s.

      And analogous to speed limits possibly enabling shared spaces, I wonder if the easing of 20th century "forgiving design" on urban streets might also be possible?

      Since "forgiving design" is intended to give human drivers extra space and predictable geometry to recover from mistakes, could those design features be removed from urban thoroughfares if driverless cars could work safely without them? This might allow for narrower urban arterials, pedestrian-friendlier intersections, etc. An additional beneficial side effect might be traffic calming of the remaining human-driven cars.

      But I'm still skeptical that lower speed limits would be politically easier. Even when I'm not driving and am merely a passenger, I still like the car I'm riding in to move as fast as possible. I don't imagine any change in attitude among passengers in driverless cars.

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    6. I should clarify... by "at intersections" I don't mean the crosswalks themselves but rather the shortcuts jaywalkers often take several feet/yards away from them to reduce walking distance.

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  3. Much of the cost associated with driving stems from the risk of crashes. Robocars should cut crashes dramatically, probably by nearly half for the first who adopt them and then by 90% or so as everyone adopts them.

    Insurance rates should plummet reasonably quickly. Over the long run, carmakers should be able to omit expensive safety equipment. Car weights should thus fall, with fuel costs falling in tandem. (Fuel costs should also decline because robocars will drive more efficiently than humans can manage.)

    Storage costs also fall because robocars can be stored where it’s cheap rather than where you live, even if you maintain a private ownership system. People could convert garages into living space and have their cars fetch themselves when needed.

    As for speeds, current limits are designed around human shortcomings, not mechanical ones. Robocars could safely drive far faster. More importantly, robocars can safely drive far closer to the next car than human drivers can, so they increase road capacity. (Estimates here vary, but I’ve not seen anyone estimate anything less than an eventual tripling of road capacity without any new road construction.)

    Plus, there are a few other big picture considerations that make robocars likely to be the biggest invention since, um, the car.

    The first is the employment impact. About 4 million Americans currently make their living as professional drivers of one kind or another, according to the BLS, and all those jobs are going to disappear in the reasonably near future.

    (Robocars should also eliminate the need for amateur drivers known as parents. A lot of people spend a lot of their time for a lot of years driving kids back and forth. Rescuing that time is no small deal.)

    The second is how robocars affect living patterns. One of the big impediments to the urban renaissance is that a lot of people hate public transit and either can’t afford taxis or can’t get them easily. If city “taxis” suddenly become as cheap and nearly as convenient as private cars are in the suburbs, that will tip the balance for a lot of people.

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    1. Road capacity increases for robocars are frequently overstated.

      As it is right now during rush hours the roads are already over capacity in urban and many suburban areas. When traffic is already bumper to bumper, switching the driving from humans to computers isn't going to have much of an impact. Whatever positive impact it *does* have will quickly be swallowed up by induced demand, anyway.

      Even outside of rush hours, cars driving at high speeds are going to have trouble driving significantly closer together because of road grit thrown up by leading cars damaging trailing cars. It's simply not possible to keep the roads all that clean, especially in locations that experience snow, wind, rain, etc.--basically the majority of the land area of the earth.

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    2. A: "Storage costs also fall because robocars can be stored where it’s cheap rather than where you live, even if you maintain a private ownership system."

      B: "I’ve not seen anyone estimate anything less than an eventual tripling of road capacity without any new road construction."

      But wouldn't the induced traffic caused by prediction A negate any of the extra road capacity in prediction B? That is, let's say right now I drive downtown once and park in a garage adjacent to my work. But if I robo'ed downtown to work and then sent my car off to a cheap garage on the outskirts of town, that'd be TWO trips on the roads (one with me, one empty)! All that extra capacity used up by empty pods (or perhaps pods rented out for taxi service during "down" time if their owners don't mind the inevitable wear and tear/abuse/negligence from others).

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  4. Building on Marc's imagining of a world of driverless cars. If driverless cars are programmed to slam on the brakes when they encounter jaywalkers, people will figure out they can cross anywhere, anytime. More snarled traffic ensues. One response could be stricter physical barriers for pedestrians, like railings, then tall fences, and ultimately no sidewalks at all alongside vehicular traffic. Some cities already have skybridge or tunnel networks and pedestrians might be forced by law into those networks.

    Or we could get more street cam surveillance and automated jaywalking enforcement using facial recognition.

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    1. One could also argue the opposite: The scenario I imagined assumed a 100% robocarred world. But you don't leap into a 100% robocared world overnight, and as Charlie mentioned towards the end of the post, such pervasive robotization is faaar away, if it's even possible. (Few previous transportation technologies have ever gone extinct - even canals still remain in use.)

      So if robocars gradually achieved, say, 30% penetration (still impressive), that might not induce more jaywalking - and consequent regimentation of pedestrian travel - because most pedestrians would realize they could still get hit by a human driver if they walked into the street.

      In short, no real change in pedestrian behavior (at least not for a looong time) and thus no change in enforcement/street design restricting said behavior.

      I guess this all reflects the folly of crystal-gazing - there are just too many unknowns and variables! Hence my taking all the "driverless cars WILL mean this..." arguments out there with a grain of salt, whether they're pro or con. We'll just have to wait and see - and just make sure we don't default to additional "erosion of cities by automobiles" as Jacobs discussed.

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    2. I guess this all reflects the folly of crystal-gazing - there are just too many unknowns and variables!

      Hence my hesitance to write about the topic at all, except the extent it is possible to use history and existing transportation systems as a guide. But yes, I imagine it would take a very long time for a full transition to take place. Are law enforcement vehicles going to be self-driving? What about emergency and fire response? Is it possible to have self-driving motorcycles, and if not, what happens to them?If driverless cars are held to speed limits, how does that affect their desirability compared to human-driven cars during the transition period? There are a lot of questions here, but no easy answers.

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  5. Peter Norton has posted an essay about driverless vehicles: http://robohub.org/autonomous-vehicles-a-powerful-tool-if-you-can-get-the-problem-right/

    Short summary: Driverless vehicles may create cities that are better or worse for walking. The outcomes will depend on how we define our goals in the first place. Twentieth century history offers important background info for that.

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    1. Thanks for that link, Laurence -- very thoughtful essay. Peter Norton really is just the guy to offer historical perspective on this issue.

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  6. Your post inspired me to write my own on the potential of driverless cars, but I mainly focused on the economics and the congestion effects they would have:
    http://urbankchoze.blogspot.com/2014/07/driverless-car-transport-revolution-end.html

    Essentially, the big problem with the hypothesis of driverless taxis as main form of transport is dead heading. Taxis, even driverless taxis with sophisticated software, will invariably face the issue of dead heading, or dead miles, miles where no one is riding the taxi. Traffic in peak hours is highly directional even in urban cores, which means that the majority of driverless taxis, if they were to become the dominant mode of transport, would basically carry a passenger less than 50% of the time as they would go empty from city to suburb, then drive with a passenger to the city, then go back empty to the suburb to pick up another.

    The two main impacts of this would be:
    1- Every passenger would have to pay the cost to travel 2 miles or more for each mile traveled. Passengers would have to pay the dead miles. The result is that it would be much cheaper for people who drive a lot to keep a private vehicle rather than relying on driverless taxis
    2-Strong likelihood of extremely difficult congestion as traffic flows equalize, which creates the risk of interblocking between cars going in one direction and cars going in the other.

    I've estimated that driverless cars would likely still cost more than 1 dollar a mile to use, around 1,30$ per mile is my best guess (still 3 times less than current taxis). I've seen absurd estimates of 0,40$ per mile, which presumed that driverless taxi would NEVER dead head anywhere and assumed that their equipment would require no additional cost nor additional maintenance over current cars. And that's presuming that, like current cars, they never have to pay for parking, if companies need to build parking garages in city or pay for on-street parking rights, increase the cost. If the companies build parking outside of urban areas where land is cheap as holding areas for all the cars that are unnecessary 80% of the day but essential in peak traffic, then increase dead miles for all cars, which increases the cost to users.

    Driverless taxis is an idea that looks swell when looked at in isolation, but crumbles when you consider the logistics of large-scale implementation.

    Imagine the idea of someone leaving work in the evening, calling a driverless taxi that pulls off the curb and takes him home, then picks up another customer right besides him, that sounds great... now imagine 10 000 people leaving one office building in a downtown area in one hour (Place Ville-Marie in Montréal has 10 000 people working in it, and it's not the biggest office building in the world,). If every one of them use driverless taxis, where do we store 10 000 cars in the neighborhood to allow them to quickly pick up all these customers, and how do they travel down the streets around the place? Now multiply that by 10 for the entire downtown area.

    The idea just doesn't scale well. The more they are used, the less efficient they become.

    Meanwhile, if cars can be made driverless, so can buses, and 40% of a bus' cost is the driver. So transit also becomes much more efficient, especially buses. Which means that transit will be significantly cheaper than driverless taxis, the result of the fact that fixed route transit is much more efficient at maximizing the capacity utilization of vehicles (more people per vehicle).

    So overall, I just don't expect driverless shared vehicles to dominate transport. The economics and logistics of it just doesn't seem to work. They may make taxis a bit more attractive by making them 2 to 3 times cheaper, but it's likely to remain a marginal mode of transport to supplement other modes.

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