Will Autonomous Vehicles Cause Our Transport System to Crash and Burn?

Already one of the leading causes of death in the United States, traffic accidents are alarmingly on the rise. From 2015 to 2016, the number of car crash fatalities rose by six percent to approximately 40,000 people. And considering that crashes rose by the same amount in 2014, it’s cause for concern. Immediate solutions to this increasingly ineffective and dangerous transport system include adding more freeway lanes and encouraging the use of public transportation. Yet, these easy fixes are hardly enough to mitigate the nationwide traffic epidemic.

The tech industry has a better idea: autonomous vehicles. Proponents of integrating autonomous vehicles (AVs) into the mainstream transportation system believe that they could de-clutter roads and lower crash rates. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), the vast majority of car crashes are caused by human errors or choices (such as drunk, drowsy, and or distracted driving). AVs, on the other hand, can learn from their road experiences and share that information with other cars at a rate thousands of times faster than any human driver can. As a result, a transportation system reliant on driverless cars will almost undoubtedly be smarter, and safer, than the status quo.  

However, if AVs are to ameliorate congestion rather than perpetuate it, we can’t just swap them for our current modes of transportation. Instead, we need to upheave the urban transportation norm of car ownership and move toward a car-sharing economy. To achieve this, the federal government and local municipalities must form policies that incentivize and mandate a systematic integration of autonomous vehicles into mainstream transportation.

If we keep everything about our transportation system the same and merely replace drivers with AVs, congestion will worsen. Right now, the average car is parked 95% of the time. That’s because drivers only spend a small portion of their time getting from point A to point B, and subsequently don’t have a use for their cars. If cars could drive without a human behind the wheel, it would be cheaper to be on the move because the price per hour of gas and electricity is generally lower than that of urban parking. So, if we were to switch out each car for an AV, there could be more cars on the road at any given moment, and many of them might not even have passengers. This essentially means that AVs have the potential to congest our cities even more than they already are. As Robin Chase, former CEO of Zipcar points out, “Right now, our ‘congested’ roads and cities are mostly filled by individuals driving alone in their cars (75 percent of all trips). Just imagine our streets and your frustration when 50 percent of the cars have no people in them at all.”

Despite this doomsday scenario, there’s another option: fleets of autonomous vehicles that are electric and shared (FAVES). The name says it all. In this alternative, car companies would operate fleets of vehicles in a similar way to Uber or Zipcar. The only difference is that these cars would not require human drivers or parking spaces. If these fleets were to replace the current system completely, they would take up only 10 % of the current road space used for cars. Car-sharing could completely eliminate the need for car ownership, saving consumers thousands of dollars per year. Roadside parking could be converted to additional walking space, while parking garages could be used as retail space or housing. Of course, these changes would only apply to concentrated urban centers, because car ownership would still be necessary in rural and suburban areas. Moreover, many people would likely prefer to keep their own cars. Yet the sheer economics of car-sharing versus car ownership would incentivize many, if not most, people to eventually rely on FAVES.

Though AVs may seem like a futuristic and distant change, they are already a reality.

Though FAVES are clearly a more favorable option than AV ownership, arriving at a future in which FAVES dominate the urban transportation system requires an organized effort in Congress to legislate AVs. However, Congress appears to be struggling to see this bigger picture. The House just passed the SELF DRIVE Act, which requires the Department of Transportation to mandate regulations surrounding the cybersecurity, privacy, and safety of AVs. The bill is currently awaiting Senate approval. Passing the SELF DRIVE Act is a great first step. It’s important that the DOT has clear guidelines in place for the manufacturing, deployment, and use of AVs. By no means, though, should Congress only focus on regulating the individual vehicle. This alone will only facilitate the congestion of roads described above. Congress must simultaneously incentivize the proliferation of FAVES.

Because it’s unrealistic to expect car companies to immediately exchange their profitable model of individual car sales for a car-sharing system, Congress needs to think creatively about how to shift the transportation economy in the direction FAVES. One promising option Congress has at its disposal is to utilize competitive grants that manipulate the market for cars. The government could provide these grants to cities that are willing to create public-private partnerships with AV manufacturers to test FAVES. That way, AV manufacturers would be given a platform for testing new car-sharing methods, while cities would benefit from less congestion. Grants are a favorable option because rather than hindering progress through over-regulation, they work towards encouraging innovation.

Federal grants have been effective in catalyzing innovation for public transportation in the past. In 2015, the Department of Transportation launched the Smart Cities Challenge, a competition amongst 70 cities to develop eco-friendly, efficient solutions to transportation problems. The winners received grant money to complete their ideas. Not only did this spark innovation in winner cities, but it also generated a nationwide conversation about how to improve transportation. Considering the success of the Smart Cities Challenge and other similar grants, Congress should begin allocating grant money to fund similar public-private partnerships to test FAVES.

Though AVs may seem like a futuristic and distant change, they are already a reality. Whether we like it or not, AVs will hit the commercial market as soon as 2020, and they will reshape the way we think about transportation. Right now, the decision between exacerbating congestion, pollution, and crash rates and creating a cleaner, more efficient transport system lies in the hands of Congress. So, it’s crucial that Congress helps get FAVES on the road in the upcoming decade, or our already strained transportation system could reach a breaking point.