TAM Workshop Experts Discuss Driverless Implications Driverless Utopia or Nightmare?


In a not-so-distant future transformed by driverless vehicles (2026, according to Morgan Stanley Research), two extreme outcomes stand in stark contrast to one another: the driverless “nightmare” and the driverless “utopia.”

At the Transportation Authority of Marin’s innovation workshop last week, speaker Lauren Isaac invited an audience of Marin County elected officials, government staff, business leaders, and transportation advocates to imagine these two possibilities.

Isaac and other industry experts stressed the important role government will play in determining our future as driverless vehicles emerge over the next decade.

This first article in a two-part series will focus on defining those outcomes and their implications for the future of walking and biking in Marin County. In part two, we will describe steps that local government officials can begin taking to ensure we move towards the better outcome.

The Driverless Nightmare

Image Source: Claims Journal

Isaac, Manager of Sustainable Transportation at a Bay Area transportation consulting firm, first painted a picture of a world in which people do not participate in vehicle or ride sharing — one in which private vehicle ownership persists, with each household having access to its own driverless vehicle(s).

In this scenario, driverless vehicles are used for individual — rather than “linked”– trips. Right now, most people find ways to combine trips; Isaac used the example of dropping children off at school en route to work. But that vehicle not requiring a driver could autonomously chauffeur a single child to school before returning home, empty, to then take a parent to work.

These passenger-less return trips would result in sizable increases of vehicle miles travelled (VMT), largely negating the congestion-relief benefits associated with replacing error-prone humans behind the wheel.

As a product of individuals continuing to rely upon their own vehicles, the need for parking would remain. Driverless cars would spend most of their lives parked, as they do today.

The Driverless Utopia

Image Source: Gerry Tierney, Perkins + Will

At the other end of the spectrum is a utopia in which private vehicle ownership will not be necessary due to widespread vehicle and ride-sharing. Under this scenario, driverless vehicles remain mobilized and full of passengers, enabled by platforms similar to those currently used by ride-hailing applications like Uber and Lyft. Algorithms used to summon vehicles would create carpools where possible, ensuring a reduction in the number of cars on the road.

As a result, congestion would be reduced and the need for parking would be significantly reduced.

What Does it Mean for Walking and Bicycling?

1. Safety will improve regardless of the extent to which vehicles are shared.

The only collisions will be caused by vehicles driven by people, meaning collisions should be eliminated once one-hundred percent of the vehicles on the road are driverless.

Ryan Snyder, Principal Active Transportation Planner at the Transpo Group, pointed out that bicycles can be less predictable than other transportation modes, which could give driverless vehicles some trouble in situations where the two must closely interact. He suggested that bicycles may be equipped with devices that “communicate” with the driverless vehicles in order to reduce conflicts.

2. Streets and cities will be transformed under the utopian scenario, creating more space for walking and bicycling infrastructure.

Driverless vehicles used in car and ride sharing programs will move from trip to trip seamlessly, spending little or no time parked while deployed. By reducing the need for on-street parking, streets will have excess space to reallocate for other uses, such as bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks, public seating, and landscaping.

Similarly, it is estimated that the elimination of human error behind the wheel will lead to a massive reduction in congestion, increasing the capacity of roadways. For those roadways with excess capacity, space will be available for other uses, including transit lanes, multi-use paths, and linear parks.

3. Bike share will be used to complement trips made by transit.

Though this is already the case in most major cities, panelists expressed support for the proliferation of bike share to connect people with their origins or destinations on either end of trips made using high capacity transit, such as SMART.

Representatives from multiple bike share vendors were in attendance to showcase recent advances in bike share technology, which now includes GPS tracking, dock-free locking, and will soon include electric assist.

These advances, combined with comparable travel times between biking and driving for short trips and increased safety due to the elimination of human error, should make bicycling a more appealing option for the broader population.

Part two of this article is now available. That article examines where to go from here, expanding upon ideas about government’s role in determining whether we move towards a driverless nightmare or utopia, as discussed during the TAM Workshop.

Lead Image Source: Gerry Tierney, Perkins + Will

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