Self-driving cars are just around the corner. Perhaps a few years, perhaps a decade, but certainly on the horizon in a city that sets its policy course in 30-year increments.
Failure to understand the potential or contend with the vulnerabilities of autonomous vehicles may delay appropriate policy responses. With that in mind, we asked seven neighborhood activists, developers and public officials for their insights, predictions and warnings.
Will autonomous vehicles change the number of cars on our streets?
Parker McNulty: We have already passed the first and most expensive phase of self-driving cars. The fact that Teslas have limited self-driving capability … means that now the other car manufacturers will jump in and make their own, which will help drive down the cost. This means that in 10 years, there will be a lot of AVs on the streets. We will probably start seeing many on the roads by 2020.
In the short term, I don’t foresee a huge change in the number of cars, which is exactly what auto companies want—to keep selling cars.
Eventually, once services like Uber or Lyft start offering monthly plans, we will see a dramatic drop in traffic. That is closer to five to 10 years out.
In the near future, driving will be a novelty. Once cars are fully automated, we will hopefully see the elimination of mass transit. Instead, you will hail a car to come to you and drop you at your destination. When this happens, we will see a drop in total cars on the road, and only people wanting to spend the money will own them.
Phil Selinger: My guess is that self-driving cars, like the current car-sharing options, will be accepted by the younger, urban set. It may take a generational evolution for them to be widely used in more traditional households—even in Northwest Portland.
More households will still want a get-away car, so that first (and for many only) private car will still be desirable. That is unless car sharing (a la Zipcar) fills that need by providing a diversity of car/truck styles for longer trips and special hauling needs. So the greatest impact will be on the second family car.
The degree will further depend on other public policies regarding parking pricing and traffic management.
Michael Mehaffy: This is a huge issue. We need to get control of this technology, before it gets control of us, as has happened too often in the history of automobiles, and technology more generally.
I see two very divergent paths. One path—the one that would be most rewarding financially for the car companies—would be for more people to use autonomous vehicles as, in effect, their own personal mobile offices, making calls, doing work on the internet, roaming around while they’re in meetings, etc. The autonomous technology could help to avoid traffic jams, but that would also mean more “induced demand” –that is, fewer people would be dissuaded from using the car because of traffic concerns. All of these factors could greatly expand the number of cars on the road and the time they’re on the road.
The other path would be to use autonomous vehicles in more of a ride-share capability, a kind of automated taxi or Uber. In that scenario, many fewer cars could be on the road, and there would be fewer spaces needed to park them (as they could stay in circulation, or proceed to remote parking facilities).
Will self-driving cars—likely to be smaller, unattractive and no fun to drive—end our “love affair” with the automobile?
Rick Michaelson: I think that self-driving cars will first be a substitute for transit use, not car ownership. I leave my car at home except days when I have a meeting that is not transit convenient. Self-driving cars would make it more likely that I would leave my car home on meeting days. It is a cost issue. Those who take pride in owning cars will probably still own them.
Phil Selinger: In a suburban setting “no,” but in Northwest Portland “yes” to a large extent, because folks choosing to live in the “inner” city have already (largely) rejected total car dependence. It’s a lifestyle choice.
Michael Armstrong BPS: Our love of portable tech devices (including our phones, iPads, and laptop computers) is growing and may overtake or substitute for our love of cars. Like transit, AVs will allow us to have more time to spend on our portable tech devices. On the flip side, AVs will undoubtedly offer their own screens and connectivity … for those who can afford it.
Parker NcNulty: Once the industry is stabilized, most cars will be about utility and will take out the passion of driving, except for a select few. Some people will want to spend a lot on their own car as a luxury item.
Judith Gray and Peter Hurley: People might continue to love new autonomous cars just like any technology. Much will depend on price. This could also result in an “exclusive” type of environment where this option is available only for people with high incomes. The best outcome is one in which most autonomous vehicles are shared, electric and operated in fleets so they can be operated most efficiently and cost effectively and help achieve environmental and equity goals.
Michael Mehaffy: If the cars become roaming mini-offices or mini-living rooms, the love affair is likely to enter a new and unsavory chapter. The requirement to attend to the vehicle and its environment puts a big constraint on auto use, and that could be removed with AV technology.
What about Parker McNulty’s prediction that self-driving cars will make mass transit unnecessary?
Rick Michaelson: This will be primarily a cost issue. If self-driving takes over for transit, then we are likely to have worse congestion because 40 self-driving cars take more space than one bus.
Phil Selinger: Cost will continue to be a factor. Uber and Lyft cost about the same as a taxi—too expensive for most. Self-driving cars expand the travel options, but we don’t know how their costs might compare.
Mass transit needs to evolve and not be hamstrung by labor constraints. Transit needs to be more demand-responsive, which is essentially what self-driving cars would do. Nonetheless, traditional mass transit will continue to be the most affordable option for most folks making routine trips—maybe less a factor in affluent Northwest Portland.
Self-driving cars will, at least initially, have a limited range, so transit will continue to serve trips beyond that range, regardless of price elasticity.
Michael Armstrong: If self-driving vehicles become so affordable that they compete with transit, they will also likely out-compete private ownership of cars, leading to more car-free or one-car households. Transit operators may also be able to take advantage of some of the same AV-related technologies and achieve some of the same benefits in service efficiency and convenience.
Parker McNulty: Mass transit, except for long distances, will most likely be eliminated. This is mostly due to technology costs. Longer, faster trips cost more; therefore mass transit is a more efficient use of technology and dollars.
Judith Gray and Peter Hurley: No, as long as they are standard autos or even vans, you would not be able to provide the same capacity as buses or light rail. Self-driving cars might be able to follow at closer distances on some roads, but in congested conditions, vehicles are already close together, so benefits would be marginal. Self-driving cars could potentially fill a niche in areas where demand is not enough to cover the costs of operating traditional transit, but could provide more “on-demand” service at lower cost. Self-driving vans could provide a great new “first and last mile” connection to Portland’s rail transit system, dramatically extending the reach and effectiveness of our transit system.
Michael Mehaffy: Again, it depends on the evolution of the technology. If it continues to provide safe, high-speed travel for a very small number of riders, then the vehicles will remain relatively limited in the number of people the system can carry. But if the technology evolved to, say, produce jitney systems that follow custom optimized routes—kind of like airport vans do—then they might have a greater capacity, and give public transit a run for its money.
Could autonomous vehicles reduce the need for parking, and if so, what could be done with overbuilt parking structures?
Phil Selinger: Car sharing, AVs, better transit, improved infrastructure for active modes (biking and walking) and demand management policies in combination will reduce the need for off-street parking. In fact, there should be little/no need for a private vehicle for trips within the central city (including Northwest). The desire for a “get-away” car and those willing/able to pay a premium for a personal car will, however, limit that paradigm shift.
Parker McNulty: For the near term, parking requirements will be the same. In 10 or more years, we might see fewer cars on the roads as more cars are easily shared via autonomy. Some garages will be able to fit more cars, and some cars will be able to park themselves much more efficiently, but parking structures will not be going away anytime soon. I hope I am wrong.
Michael Mehaffy: If self-driving cars do in fact lower parking demand, those spaces should be designed in such a way that they can be adaptively reused for other things. For example, parking garages can be designed to be easily converted to residential or other uses. One way is to put ramps in the middle so they can be removed for a residential courtyard. Also, ceiling heights could be increased to be sufficient for residential uses.
What policies might direct self-driving cars in a positive direction for our neighborhood/city/nation?
Phil Selinger: I see little difference between AVs as currently considered and existing car-sharing, with the only difference being door-to-door pick-up and not having to actually drive the car.
However, safety has to be the paramount concern for both occupants and the rest of us on the street. That suggests frequent inspections for AV guidance system reliability (similar to but more frequent than DEQ testing). I suppose it would also require close and consistent real-time programming of the street database, perhaps using a common GPS database to reflect changes, construction detours, incidents, etc. Who supports that database? PBOT? How do AVs work-off road on private driveways and parking lots?
Liability is a huge question. Is the manufacturer, operator, database provider or occupant liable for various possible incidents? This could take years to sort out.
Where are AVs allowed to park (overnight or even during the day) or do they have to stay active or return to an “operating base”? How do they pay (or not) for that public parking?
Michael Mehaffy: I don’t think there are standard “off the shelf” answers, given the uncertainty and the likely variation in different locales, but here is a list of some of the tools and strategies that might be applied:
Tax credits or “feebates” for projects that utilize shared self-driving cars as part of a coordinated “transportation demand management” program.
Reduced parking requirements for buildings with dedicated parking stalls for shared AVs.
Personal tax credits for those sharing an autonomous vehicle, and higher taxes on the cars for those who purchase and own them outright.
Encourage insurance priced by the mile to reward driving less.
These tools strive to get people to pay the true cost of their impacts on the rest of us and reward them when they reduce those impacts.