Oh, they’re coming. There’s no doubt about that. Instead, any doubt about autonomous vehicles lies in the quality of the claims surrounding their arrival, capabilities, and the benefits they’ll bring to our cities’ mobility ecosystems.
Over the past half-decade or so, claim after amazing claim was made about their promise. And for a while, their future seemed very bright.
And very near.
But after a series of events in the past two years, from legal battles, uncovered documents, and fatal accidents, the road to a driverless future is anything but open. Still, embellished claims swirl largely unaddressed. To be sure, there are many. But here are three, and the validity of each:
1. Driverless cars will be common sights on our roads by 2025.
Sorry, tech enthusiasts. Though I’m sure we’ll see mid-level AVs cruising around on the roads five years from now, they won’t be fully driverless.
It’s simply not a reality.
The hype surrounding autonomous vehicles is nothing new; big claims have been echoing out of manufacturer boardrooms for years, with ambitious (and ambiguous) estimations heralding their arrival at sometime between 2020 and 2025.
While great progress has been made recently, much of what we’ve seen—and most of what we will see in the next five years—centers around commercial vehicles. Like Trucks.
No, not your F-150. I mean big rigs.
Most of the companies testing AV semi-trucks operate out of Texas. Those flat, endlessly straight and often empty roads are the perfect place to test and refine autonomous trucks. As well, “the state doesn’t get the months of snow, which can bedevil automated vehicle sensor technology,” explains Wired.com.
A few companies are already moving products, though. Embark, for instance, is currently transporting Frigidaire products between El Paso, Texas and Palm Springs, California. Still, like all companies right now, human drivers manually steer them between the freeway and their pickup/drop-off sites and are simply monitoring during the long stretches, similar to airline pilots. (Think we’ll have fully automated commercial aircraft in five years?)
Uber and Lyft will continue to test their AV fleets, but have eased significantly off the proclamations and wild predictions pedal, especially after it was revealed that most of their claims were hypothetical exaggerations.
Realistically, we’ll likely see Level 4 autonomous shuttles scooting around city streets and tourist attractions. My bet is that these will be some of the first fully autonomous vehicles for public use. But as far as that driverless coupe you’ve been holding out for… the one with no steering wheel and an interior more akin to a hotel suite than a Honda, where you can nap en route to work… keep dreaming.
2. Using AV ridesharing will be cheaper than owning a vehicle.
Here’s one for the number-crunchers, and something Uber and Lyft are literally banking on.
TNCs have made automation key to actually turning a profit down the line. But MIT researchers don’t see this as a well-paved path, according to AutoNews.com.
Part of the problem is that, today, rideshare units spend nearly as much time driving empty as with passengers. Even in major metropolises, rideshare units have a utilization rate that barely eclipses 50%.
Is there any reason to think these numbers will change in an autonomous future?
We’ve been promised they would; we’ve been promised fleets of driverless rideshare vehicles will make owning a car unnecessary. But, if literally every other technological advancement in history is any indication, the cost of AV technology will drop on the consumer end, meaning that the robotic Ubers and Lyfts of Tomorrowland will still have a hard time making fares compete with ownership costs.
Just as TNCs shook the mobility industry when they arrived, if they can’t financially stay afloat, they could shake it again if they disappear.
3. Autonomous vehicles will end traffic congestion.
I said before that a lot of bold claims have been made, and then retracted, about AVs recently. Still, I don’t think it’s too bold to say that, as far as there are cars on the road traffic will be a thing.
One of the great claims about AV technology is that it will dramatically reduce, or completely eliminate, congestion on our roads. But as more researchers and experts hone their focus on driverless vehicles, that reality is looking, if not dashed, quite dimmed.
The theory is that connected cars will be able to avoid congestion catalysts such as unnecessary breaking, fender benders, and circling for parking. But the truth is a lot more complex and will likely vary city to city.
“Every shred of evidence we’ve seen says that as you drive down cost per mile the miles traveled goes up,” John Rich, operations chief at Ford Autonomous Vehicles, explained to the Telegraph. “You start to help under-served populations [and] you start to move a lot more people.”
While access to mobility has unquestionable benefits for under-served communities, this addition of “a lot more people” behind the figurative wheel of autonomous vehicles will likely increase congestion in urban areas. In Boston, for instance, researchers at MIT expect traffic to increase 5.5% due to increased vehicle numbers and decreased public transportation.
Less dense areas, however, may see a decrease. The same goes for freeways.
The success of AVs in decongesting our roadways will likely come down to the culture and policies of a given city. Dense urban areas, for instance, may incentivize carpooling and require AVs to operate slower and more conservatively, while less populated cities, or those with less foot traffic, may let AVs make more aggressive decisions.
Urban planning could up end the whole discussion if cities implement separate lanes for AVs. In this case, local officials should look to the expertise of mobility consultants regarding their specific mobility situations.
I do want to make one thing clear: I have high hopes for autonomous vehicles. I sincerely want to see the positive transformation of our cities into smart cities, with safe, enjoyable, and dynamic mobility ecosystems.
I think autonomous vehicles, both those privately owned and those operated by TNCs, will make massive contributions to the livability of urban environments. However, I don’t see it happening without a lot of trial and error.
But my hope is that, by avoiding over-exaggerated hype and by getting plans and policies in place sooner rather than later, we can minimize both the number of trials and the degree of errors before reaching success in Tomorrowland.