Webinar featuring Susan Shaheen, UC Berkeley and Mike Manville, UCLA

Autonomous vehicles hold enormous potential – a future with self-driving cars could mean safer streets, less congestion, and increased equity. These benefits are particularly promising when autonomous vehicle technology meets shared mobility companies like Uber and Lyft. But how close are we to that future? Professor Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley and Associate Professor Michael Manville of UCLA talked about this difficult issue during a webinar hosted by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

We are still some time away from truly autonomous vehicles. There are five stages of automation: level 4 means you can occasionally take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel and level 5 means completely self-driving vehicles. No large-scale deployments of level 4 or 5 automation exist, but that will change soon.

“What I think we’re going to see as we move into 2017 and beyond is more of these highly automated or fully automated deployments,” explained Professor Shaheen. Companies like Uber and Tesla are already starting to scale up autonomous vehicle experiments.

When autonomous vehicles do roll out in larger numbers, it will likely be in limited scenarios. Cities like Columbus and San Francisco are working on low-speed autonomous shuttles that will offer a relatively safe way to study this technology. Pilot projects like these could pave the way for autonomous transit well-suited to areas currently underserved by public transportation.

The future of autonomous vehicles is not without issues. Professor Shaheen pointed out that self-driving cars could increase driving, especially if people own their own private autonomous vehicles. Is a world saturated with self-driving cars one in which public transit is obsolete?

Autonomous vehicles have significant potential as tools of shared mobility. But it’s hard to talk about transportation network companies (TNCs) without talking about the impact they have on equity. On the one hand, a lot of people who rarely used traditional taxis are happy with the service companies like Lyft provide.

“Consumers have won, there’s almost no doubt about that,” Professor Manville explained. An increase in ridership numbers is a good indication that there is a demand for the services that TNCs provide.

TNCs don’t work for everyone, though – because they require a smartphone and credit card, they can be out of reach for low-income or unbanked individuals. These groups have traditionally used taxis, which accept cash and don’t require any technology, in place of private cars. If the rise of TNCs hurts the taxi industry, then these barriers to use will pose a serious problem. Further research is necessary to determine the best way to make sure that shared mobility is for everyone, not just the rich.

The rise of shared mobility and advancements in autonomous vehicle technology are going to have an impact on our cities. We don’t yet know what that impact will look like – it could mean density or sprawl, safety or danger, equity or discrimination. It’s up to policymakers to shape the future, and researchers to give them the information necessary to do so.

Susan Shaheen’s slide deck

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