Dr. Daniel Fagnant Educates How Self-Driving Cars Can (and Should) Improve Transit

The recent 2014 Automated Vehicles Symposium brought the opportunities and perils of vehicle automation clearly into view. The week-long event—largely, though not completely, open to the media—featured keynote remarks by self-driving technology providers, car makers, federal and state officials, and academic researchers. Speakers highlighted the current and near-term trajectory of the technology’s fundamental components, detailed the ongoing regulatory efforts to bring self-driving vehicles into the system safely, and debated the likely consequences of highly-automated cars, trucks, and buses.

Many of the event’s speakers provided a one-way flow of information, with much of the interactive action occurring in breakout sessions (which were closed to the media). I had the pleasure of participating in the transit and shared mobility session, which emphasized intelligent rollouts that take advantage of existing mass transit systems to avoid a nightmare scenario of drastically increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT). As Rod Diridon, Sr. of the Mineta Transportation Institute noted, substantial resources have been invested in existing transit systems, and it would be foolhardy to write them off. That is, the goal shouldn’t be replacement of existing systems; rather, the goal should be adaptation and cooperation.

During his plenary session presentation, Mike Gucwa of Stanford University succinctly described how automated vehicles (AVs) could lead to more VMT, based on his simulations of San Francisco Bay Area travel. Assuming current residential patterns, a 4-8 percent VMT increase is plausible, simply due to more efficient traffic flows (because connected self-driving vehicles could travel closer together, improving speeds) and driving-hassle reductions (as perceived values of travel time fall, because AV occupants are free to pursue other activities while in the car). At the same time, Gucwa projected average travel times to improve overall, even with more VMT. Ken Laberteaux of Toyota raised additional land use issues (e.g., easier commute = more sprawl?) that could lead to further increases in car travel. Because average time spent per day on personal travel seems to be about the same across a wide range of times and places (known as the travel time budget), at about 1.2 hours per day, faster travel may lead to new market pressures for exurban living. Moreover, the impacts discussed by Gucwa and Laberteaux are conservative in that they do not account for the possibility of AVs traveling with no human inside, in search of inexpensive, remote parking or to pick up other travelers. Read more…