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Our Future: Autonomous Cars and Transit

My opinion, one of many, as left in a comment:

The current Google Car can operate on city streets autonomously, but it needs someone doing the backend work of getting all the streets mapped out perfectly, figuring out exactly where the lanes are. Then in order to do a truly autonomous taxi service, you’ll want a two-way video linkup for the dispatcher to pilot the car if it gets stuck in some situation like the fire department blocking the street, or to monitor security.

For that reason, the current livery model works really well: a small, local company will service its fleet and its IT needs. The biggest expense, the driver, will be eliminated. This will serve an evolutionary role of a taxi service within a limited service area. This will be mostly shopping trips for car-less people, and “last mile” services to transit connection points, like Taxis serve now. The evolution comes with lower cost: short-haul, off-peak commuter needs, more “last mile” transit service where an autotaxi will be faster and more convenient than the local bus service, but also cheap.

What happens next? “Roaming” agreements among carriers sharing a common technology platform. The service areas of the autotaxi companies grow larger: your local autotaxi can drop you off on a shopping trip to a regional big-box store two towns over and the local autotaxi there can bring you back cheap. Expanded mobility, less reliance on transit.

This doesn’t mean the end of transit. Individual automobiles still require more energy and infrastructure to operate. The autotaxi will dominate short trips, but especially at peak demand, we will need to rely on higher-capacity transit backbones.

The biggest driver of the need for peak-period transit handoff is the capacity limitations of the autotaxi carriers. You simply can not carry everyone, but you want to be a part of the picture. So, yeah, the service gets you from your house to the transit hub, maybe work out relationships with local transit agencies so thaty “last mile” can be served by auto-taxi as a part of the transit fare itself.

The other limitation is for longer-range travel, even a fully autonomous rubber-on-pavement highway system will not be able to match the speed of rail-based or air travel. The autotaxi might drive you fifty miles to the high-speed train station, but then you’ll board the bullet train for LA which will be faster and charge a lower fare.

Anyway, the roaming evolution will mean that we go from local taxi service to regional airport shuttle service, and this will be great for those who live some distance from a long-haul transportation hub who want to make it to/from the airport, &c.

I think autonomous cars are a very reasonable evolution on human-piloted cars, which were a very reasonable evolution on horse-drawn carriages. In the twentieth century we evolved from horses to humans, and in the twenty-first we will evolve even more seamlessly from human to computer.

Our streets didn’t change much from the carriage to the automobile era. They’re wider and too dangerous for people to walk in. I doubt the streets will change much in the autonomous era, except they’ll narrow again and it will be safe to walk, bike, and play in them again.

My other prediction is that the autotaxi will make getting around so convenient, that car ownership will continue to decline. You will see a winners-and-losers scenario in the auto industry: the losers will realize too late just how badly they are in trouble. They will try to spread Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt as to the safety and wisdom of reliance on autonomous vehicles, just as they try to sell some. The winners will have identified the coming trend and geared their business to serving the needs of autonomous fleet operators, and to those niche consumers for whom autonomous vehicles are not appropriate, or who just love driving their own car. Other winners will include pedestrians, cyclists, the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, suburbanites, night life, and very likely the environment.

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