Self-driving cars might make your future commute a lot more pleasant, but they won’t eliminate traffic.
Execs like Google cofounder Sergey Brin have touted traffic reduction as one of the many benefits of having self-driving cars on the road. The idea is that autonomous cars will eliminate accidents caused by human error, a major contributor to traffic. But experts say the vehicles’ impact on traffic will either be minimal or negative. Lew Fulton, a co-director of the STEPS program at UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies (ITP), told Business Insider that autonomous vehicles won’t fix congestion woes unless a pricing system is put in place that discourages zero-occupancy vehicles.
“We are especially concerned about zero-occupant vehicles that can happen with automated vehicles,” Fulton said. “That scenario is especially plausible with private ownership of those vehicles and no limits to what we can do with them.”
For example, many companies are interested in programming autonomous cars to run errands or pick-up packages, but these efforts could increase traffic by multiplying the number of zero-occupant cars, or “zombie cars,” on the road, Fulton said.
Massachusetts lawmakers have already proposed a tax on driverless vehicles to prevent zombie cars. The bill calls for a per-mile fee of at least $0.025.
Congestion could also worsen as companies like Lucid Motors explore designing self-driving vehicles around comfort, like installing reclining seats.
Consumers may opt to live farther outside of cities if they can commute in vehicles that allow them to sleep and relax. But that sprawl increases the number of people traveling in and out of cities during rush hour, Fulton said.
Self-driving cars can still contribute to congestion even if they operate as part of a ride-hailing network, like Uber.
Without the cost of a driver, Fulton said he worries self-driving Ubers or Lyfts will become so cheap there will be no financial incentive to opt for car-sharing services like UberPOOL.
“I think it’s going to take some kind of pricing system that discourages zero-occupant vehicles and also makes penalties for single-occupancy vehicles,” he said.
Fulton isn’t alone in this line of thinking.
Matthew Turner, an economist at Brown University, has studied road congestion and co-authored a 2011 paper titled “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.” Turner found that vehicle pricing structures have had the biggest effect on reducing travel time, more so than increasing public transit access.
“Maybe autonomous cars will be different from other capacity expansions, but of the things we have observed so far, the only thing that really drives down travel times is pricing,” Turner told the New York Times.
Some cities have already mobilized to discourage people from taking cars alone. States like California and Colorado have installed high-occupancy toll lanes that single-occupancy must pay a fee to use. That fee increases during rush hour.
“We have to figure out systems that promote pairing,” Fulton said. “It really is a silver bullet if we can do it.”
LA Daily News excerpt: How Driverless Cars will change the landscape of Southern California (2017)
…Sprawl runs counter to recent trends of positioning dense housing in pedestrian-friendly downtowns with access to mass transit, the report says. The authors suggest lawmakers tax miles traveled — in place of gas taxes — as people consume less gas in the future with electric or hybrid cars.
“(More urban sprawl) is possible, but it depends on the cost of travel,” said Richard Willson, professor of urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona, and an expert on transportation and parking. “If it’s expensive on a per-mile basis to use your driverless car, there might be charges for how much you drive, if you’re not buying gas.
“It will depend on how (the vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, tax) is structured. If you pay more during peak hours, that would discourage peak hour travel for people who commute a long way from the suburbs,” he said.
Then again, market forces may come to bear, especially from millennials who like higher-density urban living, Willson said.
“A lot of people are expressing preference for urban places that are walkable,” Willson said.
The car(less) culture
The enthusiasm for ride-sharing technologies, such as Uber, and self-driving cars will alter urban landscapes as well, with a corresponding decline in the need for never-ending parking lots and parking structures, said urban planning expert Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona and former general manager of Flexcar, the first car-sharing service in Southern California.
“It seems likely that the owners of these parking structures are going to think of new ways to recycle what was originally designed as storage for cars,” said Woo, who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993.
More than meets the eye
Developers are now building flexibility into parking structures, so they can transform into something new in anticipation of the reduced demand for parking, Willson said. That translates into level floors and centrally located elevators, designing them to convert to housing or offices in the future, Willson said. Today’s underground parking structures, Woo said, could be repurposed for movie theaters, nightclubs and restaurants.
“I think these kinds of issues are now being debated by planners architects (and) property owners who are trying to figure out how to repurpose this existing space,” Woo said.
High in fiber
Expanding technologies help keep people closer to home.
“People will have alternatives to traveling because of virtual reality and teleconferencing (from home),” Willson said.
The anticipation for most household items to be connected to the internet, and widespread adoption of data-heavy applications such as virtual reality and more video-based internet use, will demand higher internet speeds, experts say. In response, developers and cities are increasingly incorporating fiber-optic communications infrastructure to large, master-planned housing projects.
“It’s enabling the internet of things and technologies we haven’t considered yet by (having) that foundation of fiber in place,” said Jeff Reiman, principal of The Broadband Group, a consulting firm based in Las Vegas that helps cities and businesses incorporate the technology. “When you’re designing a development for the next 20 years, you do not want to put in infrastructure that was designed for the last 20 years.”
For example, in Ontario, every new home in the new Ontario Ranch development, planned for about 46,000 units, will be connected to a system that will provide faster internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, analogous to the difference between a slightly turned on water faucet and a faucet at full blast.
“The city’s strategy is to future-proof the community,” said developer Randall Lewis, principal of the Lewis Group of Companies, which is helping to build Park Place, one of the first neighborhoods in Ontario Ranch. “The hope is that it will be attractive to families for communications, for entertainment, for working, and for uses that may emerge in the future.”
The changing mall
Have doubts? Already the comparatively humble smartphone has already led to big changes in the retail world.
As more people shop on their phones, the rise of Amazon and other online retailers has led to fewer customers trekking to traditional brick and mortar retailers — and subsequent store closures.
Experts envision a reduced number of shopping centers in the coming decades with the closure of older shopping centers and their redevelopment into other uses, such as housing. Examples are already seen in the transformation going on at the Laguna Hills Mall, a new plan for office and residential at Montclair Place and an even more ambitious plan at the Promenade in Woodland Hills.
At the latter, owner Westfield Corp. announced late last year its desire to redevelop the mall into a mixed-use residential and retail center with office space and space for entertainment and sports. Construction, officials said, could begin in 2020, pending environmental review and Los Angeles Planning Commission approval.
The city of Laguna Hills approved and construction is underway on luxury apartments, a movie theater, park and indoor and outdoor shops at the Laguna Hills Mall, with completion of the first phase expected next year, officials said.
“When I was younger, the mall was the place to hang out,” said David Chantarangsu, community development director for the city of Laguna Hills. “I’d much rather be outside and eating at a restaurant that has an outdoor patio and go someplace to walk around in the great California weather. It’s more experiential-based now.”
Lewis agrees: “It’s becoming more place-driven. There’s more emphasis on services. There’s more emphasis on entertainment. There’s more emphasis on food.”
The future is now
Much of the changes hinted at are already under way. Lewis said his firm’s new apartment projects, including a yet-to-be named 570-unit rental project to be built just north of the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, will incorporate design concepts for people to better work from home and areas to accept packages from Amazon and other online retailers.
Which brings us back to Joni Mitchell — or perhaps her modern-day alter ego — changing those lyrics to pave a parking lot to put up paradise.
“If self-driving cars reduce the stress of traffic, if building in parking lots makes more walkable places that people enjoy, and if driverless cars make accessibility available for everyone, including those who can’t drive because of disability or age, those three things are an opportunity that arises from all this new technology,” Willson said
The following range of changes that are predicted under autonomous vehicles:
- Safety: +40 percent to +90 percent – in reducing/eliminating crashes due to human error
- Capacity: 0 to +45 percent – with a minimum scenario being a basic capacity increase due to reduced crashes (likely offset due to induced travel)
- Miles Driven: +5 percent to +50 percent increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)
- Green House Gas Emissions: -50 percent to +100 percent
Mirisch and Marquez were more optimistic about the autonomous future. Marquez touted the safety benefits, but also emphasizing the convenience and speed of not having to account for parking. Mirisch, long a proponent of Beverly Hills planned municipal autonomous shuttle system, asserted government’s role in owning and operating autonomous vehicles as a city service, like police and fire.
LA DOT Director Seleta Reynolds outlined that much of variability is down to the convergence (or lack thereof) of three current vehicle trends: autonomy, sharing, and electric power. If society can manage to tie these three together, then the most favorable outcomes emerge.
With shared electric autonomous vehicles – including not just cars, but shuttles and buses – people can, in Baumgardner’s characterization, right-size their transportation choices, many choosing not to own a car. On the other hand, if any of these drop out, then current automotive problems likely worsen.
The transition itself, according to Reynolds, could be difficult too. Reynolds stressed a need for government to play a key role in regulating autonomous vehicles. If the past is any indication, one-size-fits-all solutions are likely to favor wide open suburbs and rural areas, not cities. Reynolds emphasized that cities should “price and manage infrastructure” especially to incentivize and achieve desired outcomes. One of the only ways to keep VMT from soaring will be charge by the mile.
Reynolds also painted a flexible future for streets. With intelligent vehicles, it will be easier to close streets at certain times or on certain days. A commuter lane in the morning could become a park in the afternoon. Cities will need to manage their increasingly valuable curb space.
Reynolds shared the LADOT’s 2016 report Urban Mobility in a Digital Age, a 172-page document outlining how Los Angeles can interface with emerging transportation technologies. The core of the report is to outline city strategies for use of autonomous vehicles, but the report also covers bike-share, car-share, parking technologies and much more. The report is the work of fellow Ashley Hand, advised by a bevy of forward-thinking transportation and planning professionals. There are lots of very worthwhile livability policies recommended: eliminating parking minimums, ending road widening, expanding Express Park performance pricing, expanding transportation demand management, and more.
Curbed‘s in-depth coverage of the report called it “groundbreaking because it makes L.A. the first U.S. city to specifically address policies around self-driving cars.”
Other thorny issues mulled over by the panel included jobs, privacy, development, equity/access, and more.
The autonomous future, predicted to be about a decade away way back in 1939, is still about a decade away, but getting nearer. Nonetheless, if Los Angeles wants the future to look more like the autonomous dream and less like the autonomous nightmare, regulations and incentives will need to be put in place soon.
In Preparation for Driverless Cars, States Start Upgrading Roads: Here’s what some places are already doing to accommodate self-driving and connected vehicles.
What kind of infrastructure tomorrow’s vehicles will require, of course, depends on which technologies become commonplace. “Connected” vehicles that communicate with other vehicles, traffic lights and weather sensors, for example, will require more infrastructure than self-driving cars. But even driverless cars might require road upgrades.
“As we build new roads, are there things we need to put in place now?” asked Kirk Steudle, the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).
Improving Pavement Markings
“Pavement markings are a real easy one,” said Steudle. But something that may be necessary to upgrade nonetheless.
Driverless cars rely on cameras, radar and laser-mapping tools to determine where they are. (GPS, at least for now, is not precise enough to keep cars on the road.) Those cameras use striping and other pavement markings to understand their surroundings, but the quality and consistency of those markings can vary greatly.
After Delphi, an auto parts manufacturer, took its driverless vehicle on across-country trip, company officials told Steudle that despite nominally uniform standards across states, the pavement markings were actually all different.
Even within one state, the standards can vary. Automakers noticed when Michigan highway crews in one region started painting the dashed lines between lanes slightly differently, for example, and asked Steudle whether that would be the new statewide standard. It was the first time Steudle heard about it.
“The hard infrastructure, the pavement and the pavement markings, that’s ours,” he said. “We have to, frankly, just take better care of it, and it has to be prioritized.”
Making Cars Talk to Traffic Technology
Connected vehicles can’t communicate with stoplights and pavement sensors unless those devices broadcast their information.
Those traffic devices, in turn, can benefit from information from the connected vehicles. For example, they can determine how long a left-turn signal should last and whether it should turn green before or after the light for drivers going straight.
The state of Michigan, the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor recently put the idea of gathering more data to the test. For more than a year, about 2,800 connected vehicles traveled Ann Arbor’s streets, sharing information with the city’s traffic lights and road sensors. Even after the pilot program finished, the city has kept connecting more infrastructure to its network.
The result is an incredible amount of data to store and analyze, said Craig Hupy, the public services administrator for Ann Arbor. The city has been building out its fiber optic network to handle all the information. The same network can be used for the city’s tornado sirens, water infrastructure and even a few schools.
Expanding the network used to be a tough sell, said Hupy, but now the city’s chief financial officer constantly asks whether the public works department is adding capacity and whether it will be enough.
“Build more bandwidth than you ever think you’ll need because you’ll use it,” he advises.
Of course, a robust fiber optic network doesn’t come cheap. Steudle, the MDOT director, said states and local governments would likely have to work with private communications companies to figure out how to expand traffic data networks.
“There’s no way you’re going to put a roadside unit every quarter mile across 4 million miles of roads in the country,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Steudle also cautioned that governments installing connected devices need to keep current on what technologies automakers are using now and what they plan to use in the future.
“Does it have the latest technology? Is it upgradable? Is it open?” he asked. “The worst thing that would happen is if someone would buy the Betamax version of a traffic control system,” referring to the defunct format of videocassettes that was eclipsed by the VHS format.
Colorado is launching two efforts to bring the benefits of connected vehicles to a key corridor. The goal is to improve safety and reduce congestion along a critical stretch of Interstate 70 that connects Denver with mountain ski resorts. State officials say that congestion on that stretch costs $1 billion a year in lost productivity.
One of the state’s new initiatives aims to equip 1,000 vehicles owned by the general public with smartphone apps that will gather information about road and traffic conditions, much the way that the traffic apps Google Maps and Waze already do. But Colorado wants to go one step further and develop an app that will notify drivers of problems ahead with voice alerts. The trick is to make the app useful without it becoming too annoying.
“It’s one thing to be able to deploy this type of technology. It’s another thing for the public to embrace it,” said Amy Ford, communications director for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). “That’s going to be a big piece of this pilot.”
The department will also be outfitting its own fleet (such as maintenance vehicles and snow plows) and commercial trucks with short-range radio transmitters, the communications technology most commonly used for connected vehicles. Those vehicles will mostly share the type of information gathered by the smartphone apps, but a few plows will be equipped with friction sensors.
The vehicle-based friction sensors, along with similar pavement monitoring devices, can help officials decide when to enforce the state’s tire chain laws. CDOT hopes to roll out its programs by next winter.
“In the big picture, when you combine these programs, you’re getting an incredibly data-rich environment,” said Ford.
Driverless cars are as much an infrastructure challenge as a tech one