AVs implementation predictions

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

by: Sacha Oerlemans

This report from VTPI explores the impacts that autonomous (also called self-driving, driverless or robotic) vehicles (AVs) are likely to have on travel demands and transportation planning.

It discusses autonomous vehicle benefits and costs, predicts their likely development and implementation based on experience with previous vehicle technologies, and explores how they will affect planning decisions such as optimal road, parking and public transit supply.

The analysis indicates that some benefits, such as independent mobility for affluent non-drivers, may begin in the 2020s or 2030s, but most impacts, including reduced traffic and parking congestion (and therefore road and parking facility supply requirements), independent mobility for low-income people (and therefore reduced need to subsidise transit), increased safety, energy conservation and pollution reductions, will only be significant when AVs become common and affordable, probably in the 2040s to 2060s, and some benefits may require prohibiting human-driven vehicles on certain roadways, which could take longer.

Conclusions of the report;

Recent announcements that AVs have safely driven hundreds of thousands of miles and major manufactures aspire to soon sell such vehicles, and optimistic predictions of their benefits, have raised hopes that this technology will soon be widely available and solve many transportation problems. However, there are good reasons to be cautious when predicting their future role.

There is considerable uncertainty concerning AV benefits, costs and travel impacts. Advocates claim that they will provide large benefits that offset costs, but they will require additional equipment, services and maintenance costs that will probably total hundreds or thousands of dollars per vehicle-year, and many of their benefits are unproven.

Current AVs can only self-drive under limited conditions: significant technical and economic obstacles must be overcome before most households can rely on them for daily travel. Operating a vehicle on public roads is more complex than flying an airplane due to the frequency and proximity of interactions with often-unpredictable objects including other vehicles, pedestrians, animals, buildings, trash and potholes. If they follow previous vehicle technology deployment patterns, AVs will initially be costly and imperfect.

During the 2020s and perhaps the 2030s, AVs are likely to be expensive novelties with limited abilities, such as restrictions on the road conditions in which they may operate. It will probably be the 2040s or 2050s before middle-income families can afford to own self-driving vehicles that safely operate in all conditions, and longer before used AVs become affordable to lower-income households. A significant portion of motorists may resist such vehicles, just as some motorists prefer manual transmissions, resulting in mixed traffic that creates new roadway management problems.

Vehicle innovations tend to be implemented more slowly than other technological changes due to their high costs, slow fleet turnover and strict safety requirements. Automobiles typically cost fifty times and last ten times as long as mobile phones and personal computers, so consumers seldom purchase new vehicles just to obtain a new technology. AVs will probably have relatively costly equipment and service standards, similar to airplanes, which may discourage some users. Large increases in new vehicle purchase and scrappage rates would be required for most vehicles to be autonomous before 2050.

Self-driving taxi costs are likely to range between carsharing ($0.60-1.00 per mile) and human-driven taxis ($2.00-3.00 per mile), depending on factors such as their cleaning costs. This will make them a cost effective alternative to owning lower (5,000 annual miles) vehicles. However, many motorists are likely to prefer owning personal vehicles for prestige and convenience sake. As a result, shared AVs are likely to reduce vehicle ownership mostly in compact, multi-modal urban areas, and will have little effect in exurban and rural areas.

Advocates may exaggerate net benefits by ignoring new costs and risks, offsetting behavior (the tendency of road users to take additional risks when they feel safer), rebound effects (increased vehicle travel caused by faster travel or reduced operating costs, which may increase external costs), and harms to people who do not to use the technology, such as reduced public transit service. Benefits are sometimes double-counted, for example, by summing increased safety, traffic speeds and facility savings, although there are trade-offs between them.

Transportation professionals (planners, engineers and policy analysts) have important roles to play in AV development and deployment. We can help support their development and testing, and establish performance standards they must meet to legally operate on public roads. If such vehicles perform successfully and become common they may affect planning decisions such as the supply, design and operation of roadways, parking and public transit. To be prudent, such infrastructure changes should only occur after AV benefits, affordability and public acceptance are fully demonstrated. This may vary: AVs may affect some roadways and communities more than others.

A critical question is whether AVs increase or reduce total vehicle travel and associated external costs. It could go either way. By increasing travel convenience and comfort, and allowing vehicle travel by non-motorists, they could increase total vehicle mileage, but they may also facilitate carsharing, which allows households to reduce vehicle ownership and therefore total driving. This review suggests that they will probably increase total vehicle travel unless implemented with offsetting policies such as efficient road and parking pricing.

Another critical issue is the degree potential benefits can be achieved when only a portion of vehicle travel is autonomous. Some benefits, such as improved mobility for affluent non-motoritst, may occur when AVs are uncommon and costly, but many potential benefits require that most or all vehicles on a road operate autonomously. For example, it seems unlikely that traffic densities can significantly increase, traffic lanes be narrowed, parking supply be significantly reduced, or traffic signals be eliminated until most vehicle on affected roads self-drive.

A key public policy issue is the degree that this technology may harm people who do not use such vehicles, for example, if increased traffic volumes and speeds degrade walking and cycling conditions, conventional public transit service declines, or human-driven vehicles are restricted. Some strategies, such as platooning, may require special AV lanes to achieve benefits. These issues will probably generate considerable debate over their merit and fairness.

AV implementation is just one of many trends likely to affect future transport demands and costs, and therefore planning decisions, and not necessarily the most important. Its ultimate impacts depend on how it interacts with other trends, such as shifts from personal to shared vehicles. It is probably not a “game changer” during most of our professional lives, and is certainly not a “paradigm shift” since it does not fundamentally change how we define transport problems; rather, it reinforces existing automobile-oriented transport planning.

An Analogy: Automated Banking Services

As an analogy, consider automated banking service trends. Personal computers first became available for purchase during the 1970s, the Internet became public during the 1980s, automated teller machines (ATMs) became common in the 1990s, most households were using the Internet for personal business activities by the 2000s, and for decades banks have encouraged customers to use central call centers rather than local offices to answer questions, yet these technologies have not eliminated the need for local banks with human tellers.

Automated banking can reduce the number of branch offices and employees, but customers often need to interact with human tellers due to personal preferences, and because it is often faster and less frustrating, and therefore more productive, than automated, Internet or telephone options. Automation has had evolutionary rather than revolutionary impacts on bank activities. Other trends – new banking services, changing regulations and new management practices – have equal or greater impacts on bank infrastructure planning.

AV implementation will probably follow similar patterns: deployment will take several decades, is unlikely to totally displace current technology, will have costs as well as benefits, and will only marginally affect infrastructure planning for the foreseeable future. It is one of several current trends likely to affect road, parking and transit demands, and these changes will probably occur gradually over several decades.

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