Guest Op-Ed: Autonomous, Electric and Shared – One of These Is Not Like the Others

October 10, 2018

One of the most popular terms in the autonomous vehicle world is the belief—or goal—that vehicles in the future will be “autonomous, electric and shared.” This terminology has become a catch phrase at conferences, seminars and discussions. The terminology reflects the ideal destination mobility enthusiasts want to unfold as it can lead to reduced congestion, less parking needs and other urban planning benefits.

However, what has been virtually ignored is that one of these three elements—the shared part—is not like the others. Autonomy and electrification of vehicles (which are also distinct from each other) are based in large part on the evolution of technology. On the other hand, whether people will share autonomous/electric vehicles is primarily dependent on human behavioral and logistical factors.

Sharing is also distinct in a different sense. Aside from the safety benefits that may accrue from technology, many of the other benefits of autonomous vehicles depend in large part on whether we share them. Sharing is the primary means by which we might reduce the amount of space devoted to parking and roads and reduce congestion. Therefore, the “sharing” question is in many senses the most important question.

Unfortunately, an examination of how specifically we can achieve more sharing has received the least attention. Sharing is often assumed to be the result of the shift to autonomous vehicles which themselves will draw people to “mobility as a service.” Sharing is also assumed to be the inevitable result of societal changes—“millennials don’t drive”—that may or may not be true (or continue to be true) as time evolves. The reasons that people might or might not buy into an “autonomous, electric and shared” world have not been fully explored.

Some of the major issues surrounding sharing include:

Passengers with Storage, Logistical and Other Convenience Needs

While there has been a lot of talk that autonomous vehicles will lead to more sharing, there has been less discussion about how that might happen. As it stands now, there are many holes in our transportation services and infrastructure that are an impediment to sharing.

One of the big challenges is the need to serve passengers with non-routine needs. As written about elsewhere, there are many classes of people whose needs are not currently met by ridesharing or other public means of transportation. This includes families with children, people who need to store goods in between rides, people who smoke, people with pets, and others. For several reasons, including convenience, lack of alternative options, speed and hassle, many such travelers feel compelled to drive their own personal vehicle. It is unclear how a shift to autonomy alone will convert these large classes of people from car owning to sharing.

As McKinsey & Co. has stated, “[c]urrently, ridesharing does not apply in any significant way to the overwhelming majority of practical use cases.”

There are several potential solutions to these concerns. For example, we could design certified, easy to install child class car seats to provide families who might consider utilizing shared vehicles with assurances about safety and reliability of such vehicles. We could install lockers on city sidewalks to provide solutions for people utilizing shared vehicles throughout the day who need someplace to store goods in between rides. And we could examine how to make ridesharing more efficient by proving dedicated drop off and pick up zones, dedicated lanes, and other convenience factors.

Until we take the time to examine all passenger needs and figure out how to accommodate them in a shared ride landscape, our progress will be limited.

The “Cars Sit Idle” Paradigm

Some commentators focus on the fact that cars sit idle approximately 95 percent of the day as a reason that people will ultimately share vehicles or rides. However, the same is true of many other items we utilize in our daily life (books, pots and pans, barbeque equipment, etc.). The mere fact that cars sit idle most of the day is not a compelling reason, from the perspective of a driver, to give up cars and share them. Many people already have parking spaces provided at their home or rental unit, making ownership easier. And the key issues surrounding car ownership revolve around convenience and cost, not whether they sit idle most of the day. Therefore, the mere fact that cars sit idle most of the day is not in itself a compelling reason that will draw people to sharing.  We need to examine more concrete reasons and tools that may encourage people to share.

How Will Land Use Patterns Encourage or Discourage Sharing?

There has been a lot of talk about how AVs might alter our urban environment by eliminating the need for parking or freeing up road space. However, there has been little discussion about how current or future land use planning might impact vehicle ownership.

In many respects, current land use and zoning rules in the United States, through spread out suburban and commercial development, encourage or require the use of a personal car. The development of autonomous vehicles, in and of themselves, may not change this dynamic. The same three mile trip in a traditional vehicle will be the same three mile trip in an autonomous vehicle. In this sense, current land use planning may perpetuate or “cement” a personal ownership dynamic, even in an era of autonomous vehicles.

We need to further explore the impact of land use patterns as well as how the interaction between AVs and land use might encourage or deter sharing. For example, would certain smart development in and around urban clusters promote sharing of vehicles? One of the big challenges to getting people to share and use mass transit is that when they move or change jobs, their new commute is no longer conducive to these forms of transportation. How do we design cities so people continue to share when people move homes and jobs?

Getting Beyond Mobility Enthusiasts

The concept of “autonomous, electric and shared” has been extensively mentioned at transportation and mobility industry conferences. However, besides a few thousand mobility industry experts, most of the public is not aware of why we need “autonomous, electric and shared” or even what that terminology really means. And it is unclear to those outside the mobility world how the development of autonomous vehicles might impact sharing of vehicles or rides.

In order to create an “autonomous, electric and shared” world, we are going to need to get beyond industry conferences and get public buy-in to the idea and how they can help implement this vision.  This could be accomplished through outreach at non-transportation industry conferences and events as well as by efforts to reach individuals outside the mobility world in the course of their daily lives.

Final Thoughts

The discussion of “autonomous, electric and shared” has mostly occurred at a generalized level.  In order to effectuate increased sharing, we need to dig deeper. We need to get more specific about how we can achieve increased sharing.  We need to more closely examine transportation patterns to truly understand the specific reasons individuals might share versus own vehicles and rides. And we need to get beyond the technology to examine how other factors, including land use patterns, public opinion and logistical issues, impact how people travel. Following an examination of these factors, we can then reverse engineer a system that will encourage more individuals to share vehicles and rides. Only then will be in a better position to drive an “autonomous, electric and shared” future.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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