Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum pose with a driver-less shuttle. The two municipalities are collaborating on the federally funded Smart Cities Challenge new technology (image: Smart Cities Challenge)
This is the conclusion of a three-part think piece by VIA’s Dylan Glosecki about the potential reshaping of our communities by automated vehicles, today and in the future.
In Part 1, we concluded that AVs could change the individual’s relationship with the personal car, particularly reducing the need for individual car ownership. Part 2 determined that as a result of that changing relationship, AVs may expand both public and private transportation choices, whose potential implications must be monitored on the local scale. Part 3 concludes the series by briefly examining what policy considerations are necessary to eliminate policy conflicts.
The key assumptions driving AV adoption are that AVs would transport people and goods further, faster, safer and more conveniently than conventional vehicles. The success of each assumption can be quickly complicated by jurisdictional limitations. For example, provinces/states typically have different regulations for conventional vehicle use (e.g. drivers’ license qualifications), which may be extended to AVs.
If one is slower or resistant to facilitate the mass adoption of AVs, there may be challenges balancing driving laws between AVs and conventional vehicles. Let’s say there’s two jurisdictions: Banana and Grape. Banana allows AV owners to use their car to get home after consuming alcohol because the owner will technically not be driving the vehicle. In Grape, the ‘driver’ is required to be able to intervene their vehicle at any time and must therefore not be under the influence while the vehicle is in operation, regardless if they are to manually drive or are automatically driven home. There are potentially serious legal implications to the ‘driver’ in Banana travelling through Grape on their way home.
It is likely that public agencies will favor a Grape approach into the foreseeable future for the sake of public safety. But if the future is to be truly driverless, then a Banana approach must eventually be implemented at the largest scale. Still, such a large scale transition is likely to take place incrementally as public trust into the safety of AVs grows. These implications, between the practical and the legal, are what must be ironed out if an AV future is to be as smooth as many would assume it to be.
Private vs Public Sector
In Part 2, we concluded that an AV future will continue to diminish the demand of individual car ownership. This is supported by the success of ride hailing services like Uber and the increasing popularity of car share services like Car2Go, which are strong indications of our changing relationship with the automobile. This assumption is given confidence by Uber’s R&D/investment in fleets of AVs, indicating a changing business model from purely a ‘bridge’ service provider between a passenger and a car owner, to conventional fleet ownership.
While we determined that there may be conflicts in development interests such as high density versus enabling sprawl, there may also be issues with having more vehicles on the road than we anticipate. This becomes especially true as ride hailing and car share companies provide even more convenient transportation options than automobile ownership. As Uber/Lyft invest in AV fleets, they’ll potentially be competing with public transit agencies as long as convenience continues to be the most important defining factor of utilization.
Alternatively, transit agencies may integrate AVs into their fleets, particularly for last mile services. In BC, Vancouver and Surrey are publicly testing ELA autonomous shuttles as part of a joint submission for the federal Smart Cities Challenge. As the two largest cities in the province, with Surrey particularly experiencing a population boom, the municipalities’ collaboration strongly suggests that the public sector can be thought leaders who are proactive in the research and implementation of AV infrastructure, instead of reacting to the market. This should result in a strong policy base
Competing Transport Modes
Beyond public transit, the convenience of last mile AV services may inadvertently result in competing modes of transportation vying for public support. Increasingly ongoing, for example, is a push to have cycling as a primary means of transportation within many high density areas and suburbs across North America. An AV future could potentially undermine cycling (and maybe even walking) as a sustainable transit option. If AVs are perceived to be more convenient than its human-powered alternatives, then this would not only affect people’s choices as individuals, but it may stall progressive policies designed to move people away from automobile dependence. This could be especially true for areas with comparatively underserviced transit options. An AV future may unwittingly support a similar type of automobile dependence if public transit, however implemented, is viewed as comparatively less convenient.
However, in recognition of the current and future demand and convenience of the bicycle as a suitable, reliable mode of transportation, ride-hailing companies have acquired bike share services like Lyft’s purchase of Motivate and Uber has already rolled out bike share service Jump, These multimodal options are being used to provide more complete mobility services with fleets of automobiles (eventually AVs), bikes, electric bikes and scooters available. Inversely, bike share service, Lime Bike, has rolled out car sharing services, further reinforcing the shift towards services offering a range of transport options. This integrated and flexible intermodal ecosystem is attractive to users based on convenience alone. Public transit agencies, with their limited budgets, structured policies and incremental service changes may fail to compete with the private sector.
All in all, as advocates for comprehensive and reliable public transportation systems, we must continue to strike the balance between public agencies, private providers and ourselves as end users. AVs are not a silver bullet to the private car or to public transit, much like Netflix isn’t a silver bullet to cable television or privacy. Rather than viewing them as evolutions of transportation and entertainment, respectively, they are perhaps better viewed as evolutions within the technologyof transportation and entertainment.