A Transportation Revolution Can’t Run on Autopilot

(This article was first published in The Source, LA Metro’s News and Views Blog)

Why tech visionaries need to have feet planted firmly on the ground

During the first decade of the Information Age, transportation was something of a backwater for innovation. But over the last several years, excitement around autonomous vehicles and ridesharing – the so-called new mobility – and the ways that these technologies could dramatically alter the cities we know today became a very hot topic.

For example, Elon Musk of Tesla put forward his vision of a future dominated by electric vehicles, mostly owned by individuals, but shared with others during certain hours for extra cash. Not long thereafter, John Zimmer of Lyft described his version of the future, in which ridesharing and autonomous vehicles dominate in just five to 10 years.

The problem with both of these visions is not that they are too ambitious or unrealistic (though their timelines for full vehicle autonomy are probably wildly optimistic). The problem is that these visions are being put forward by companies who want to profit from the outcomes described.

Having a financial stake in a future you believe in is not a bad thing, and neither is having a profitable business. Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation is keenly interested in what market signals are telling us about the future of transportation.

On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that a developer of electric vehicles with autonomous capabilities like Musk believes the future is one where people own lots more of those vehicles. Nor is it random that Zimmer, as the owner of a ridesharing company with financials that look much more appealing without the need for drivers would be selling a future of autonomous ridesharing. This is the same reason Uber has made such a splash launching supposedly autonomous vehicles (which actually include drivers and another employee) in Pittsburgh. As a rule, it is not particularly useful to rely solely on people who are selling things to predict the future of their industry and use of their product.

A more useful question to ask, for those of us who care about improving transportation access and mobility, as well as the social and economic benefits they provide, is: Given how technology is changing and the new options we might have available to us, what kind of future do we want? How do those technological tools fit in? And what kind of realistic policy and infrastructure investments will it take to get us there?

The place to start answering these questions is not with technology. Rather, it’s determining the outcomes we want. Technology is a means to an end — not the end. Some goals we might instead consider are those that solve our some of the top problems we currently face in Los Angeles County:

  • Our transportation system is dominated by one mode – private automobiles – that can be very dangerous, both for people in their vehicles as well as anywhere near them.
  • Our transportation system is primarily powered by one energy source – gasoline – that produces emissions in vast quantities that are polluting our air, warming the planet and threatening our way of life.
  • Our transportation system is highly inefficient and delivers much less mobility than its potential — especially for its poorest citizens — mainly because our roadways are underpriced and our transit systems are underdeveloped.

What Musk and Zimmer get right is that technology has the potential to solve these problems, at least the first and second ones (and probably the third, over time). Autonomous vehicles can make automobiles safer to their occupants and those around them. Electric vehicles can reduce emissions from transportation. Shared, autonomous and electric vehicles have the potential to help solve problems that today’s private autos and public transit can’t address effectively.

But these technologies have not delivered on those promises yet, or even come close. These technologies have potential but that does not mean that they will ultimately win. That’s because technology developers tend to assume that if a technology exists and creates major benefits, it will become implemented on a wide-scale. But public policy experts know that this is not necessarily the case.

Air-bags, seat-belts, and other vehicle safety features existed and could have saved lives for years before they became standard. But auto manufacturers resisted mandatory installation because there was no profit incentive. Electric vehicles have also existed for decades. But they are still a small minority of vehicles on our roads because of challenges with cost, fueling infrastructure and range. Without appropriate public policy, the benefits of technology can be minimal.

This is not an excuse for doing nothing or turning our back on technology. OEI is focused on piloting new ideas and technologies that can tackle the challenges above both today and years down the road.

One thing we know for sure is that making public transit – buses, trains, ridesharing, and bikeshare – work better and deliver faster travel times, while also providing incentives to reduce driving, is likely to make progress against the three challenges outlined above. When transit is better and more people use it, fewer people are at risk for death or injury from a car crash. And fewer people are burning gasoline in their personal vehicles. And when transit is better and more people use it, fewer people are stuck in traffic.

The technology is not the vision. The vision is a safer, more sustainable, more equitable, and more seamless transportation system that effectively serves our region.

(The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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