Will Robocars be heaven or hell for our cities?

Today, Robin Chase wrote an article wondering if robocars will improve or ruin our cities and asked for my comment on it. It’s a long article, and I have lots of comment, since I have been considering these issues for a while. On this site, I spend most of my time on the potential positive future, though I have written various articles on downsides and there are yet more to write about.

Robin’s question has been a popular one of late, in part a reaction by urban planners who are finally starting to think more deeply on the topic, and reacting to the utopian visions sometimes presented. I am guilty of such visions, though not as guilty as some. We are all seduced in part by excitement of what’s possible in a world where most or all cars are robocars — a world that is not coming for several decades, if in our lifetimes at all. It’s very fair to look at the topic from both sides, and no technology does nothing but good.

When I first met Robin, she was, like most people, a robocar skeptic. She’s done pioneering work in new transportation ideas, but the pace of improvement has surprised even the optimists. I agree with many of the potential negatives directions that she and others paint; in fact I’ve said them myself. Nonetheless my core position is that we can and probably will get tremendous good out of this. While I want city planners to understand these trends, I think it’s too early for them to actually attempt to guide them. Even the developers of the technology don’t quite know the final form it will take when it starts taking over the transport world in the 2020s. Long term planning is simply impossible at this stage — it must be done not with the knowledge of 2016 but with the knowledge of 2023. That approach — the norm in the high tech world, where we expect the world to constantly change underneath us — is anathema to governments and planners. When Marc A. said that software was eating the world, he was telling the world that it will need to start learning the rules of innovation that come from the high tech, internet and computer worlds.

Instead, today’s knowledge can at least guide planners in what not to do. Not to put big investments in things likely to become obsolete. Not to be too clever in thinking they understand the “smart city” of 2025. They need to be like the builders of the internet, who made the infrastructure as simple and stupid as they could, moving innovation away from the infrastructure and into the edges where it could flourish in a way that astounded humanity.

Congestion

We will get more congestion in the start. Not because of empty vehicles cruising around — most research suggests that will be around 15% of miles, and then only after everybody switches. We’ll get more congestion from two factors:

  • The early cars, especially the big car company offerings, will make traffic jams more tolerable. As such, people will not work as hard to avoid them.
  • Car travel will be come much better and much cheaper; far more people will be able to use it, so they’ll travel more miles in cars than they do today.
  • For some, longer commutes will be more tolerable so they will live further from work. That won’t increase congestion in the central areas (they would still have driven those roads if they lived closer to work) but will increase it in the more remote places.
  • The tolerance for longer commutes may increase “sprawl.”

The good news is that the era of the ubiquitous smartphone brings us the potential for a traffic “miracle” — the ability to entirely eliminate traffic congestion. I first made that remarkable claim in 2008 in my article on congestion. I have a new article in the works which expands on this and makes it easier to understand. The plan is a rare one for me, because the city is heavily involved, but mostly in virtual infrastructure rather than physical. Virtual infrastructure needs to be the new buzzword of the city planner, because only virtual infrastructure is flexible enough to adapt to a changing world.

While this, and other plans to eliminate congestion won’t actually arise very quickly, the reason is not technological, it’s political. So the rise in congestion for the reasons cited above has a silver lining — it will push the public to be more accepting of entirely new ways of managing traffic.

The other way we can attack congestion is through the potential to make vastly superior group transit. Today’s transit sucks. It uses more energy than cars, provides slow and limited service from station to station (not door to door) in limited areas. When it does work efficiently, at rush hour, people travel standing, packed like sardines. People hate it so much that they spend over $8,000/year on vastly more expensive car ownership, the 2nd largest expense in most households. Robocars offer the potential for very appealing group transit which takes people efficiently from door to door in luxury vans on their schedule and along fast routes. Truly appealing transit might greatly increase ridership at congested times.

Robin suggests her Prius could drive around for $1.50/hour rather than park and that will make things worse. Perhaps if people make the same mistake it could, but when you look at it, you realize it costs closer to $20/hour to have a car drive around, and the fuel is just part of that. (Most auto web sites rate the Prius as costing 50 cents/mile, and at 25mph that’s only $12.50 per hour but in reality urban miles tend to cost more than highway miles so I like hourly rates. The Prius is rare though in that it uses less fuel in city miles.) Certainly no rational actor would do this. In addition, as more cars are shared, parking will become plentiful, particularly since a car no longer needs to park right where it dropped you off, but can instead request price bids on the “spot market” and find space going spare not too far away, which will certainly be available for well under $1.50/hour.

Unemployment

Fewer people will drive for a living. At the same time there are more bank tellers today than in 1970. They just don’t cash your cheques and give out withdrawls much any more. This topic deserves a great deal more verbiage, of course, but the kicker is this: These professional drivers are killing several thousand Americans every year while doing their jobs. Only doctors kill more. While the economic disruption is not an illusion, there is no way you can justify artificially preserving a job that is killing so many people. It’s a bit like arguing everybody should smoke so that tobacco farmers don’t lose their jobs.

Shared Cars & Parking

This will be huge, at least the part about sharing rides. Sharing cars for solo rides does not reduce miles driven or the number of cars made, but it does vastly reduce the amount of parking needed. Sharing rides reduces everything. I go much further in my vision to bring ride sharing to the level of dynamically allocated self-driving vans which replace today’s mass transit with something much more desired by the public and much more efficient at the same time.

I do hope the city parking lots are turned into parks mostly. The privately owned lots will get other uses, though downtown multi-floor lots are a bit harder to change.

Energy Grid

It’s true that a major move to electric cars might require more electric capacity. Though they will charge mostly at night when power is cheap (though not solar.) One thing that many people don’t realize we won’t need is charging infrastructure. The great thing about robocars is they go where the energy is. The robocar will drive to the transformer substation which is packed with charging points — you don’t need to put charging stations in parking lots or houses.

However, at least today, electric cars are not cheaper than gasoline ones. The electricity is dirt cheap — under 3 cents/mile. The problem is at today’s battery prices, the battery depreciation is 20 to 40 cents per mile, much more than gasoline. Fortunately, there are optimistic signs about cheaper batteries and longer lasting batteries which could fix this.

But as robocars shrink — especially to one person vehicles for solo riders — they will become much cheaper than today’s cars, and also much more efficient. More efficient than the cars, but also all US transit systems. At a cost of around 30 cents/mile, car transportation will be available to billions more than can afford it today, and certainly to almost all Americans. That has its congestion downsides.

What Should Cities Do?

As noted above, it’s more about what they should not do. I am rebuilding my recommendations here, but my current list includes this:

  • Avoid regulation until you know what players can’t be trusted to do, and then fix only that
  • No more light rail or other single-use right-of-way. Stick to plain, bare pavement which can handle everything.
  • Create “transfer points” for carpools, robotaxi and robovan services to quickly — really quickly — transfer passengers between vehicles. These are useful for robocars, smartphone carpooling and even today’s transit.
  • Don’t require new buildings to put in tons of parking if they don’t want to
  • Make as much of your infrastructure virtual as you can. Encourage lots of data networks in the town, with the newest (5G and later) protocols in 2020.
  • If installing dedicated ROW for transit, make sure it can be converted to use by robocars in the future so the capacity isn’t wasted most of the time. If making tunnels, make sure stations are “offline” so that other vehicles can pass stopped vehicles, and make ramps for access by approved vehicles from the street.

Recharging

There may be another possibility for recharging, during the middle of day from solar energy. There are a few factors that sort of line up.

1. The middle of the day is peak time for solar yet in between peak times for traffic.
2. Many electricity grids are limiting the installation of roof top solar because they are having trouble getting rid of the energy as centralised grids are currently not well suited to distributed sources of supply.
3. There may be widely distributed recharging spaces available due to the requirement for less vehicles.
4. If you can work around the inadequacies of solar, it tends to be cheap, especially as more countries place a price on carbon.
5. Widely distributed charging stations may reduce some of the traveling required compared more centralised locations near sub stations.
6. During blackouts or during an emergency, vehicle batteries may offer an alternative limited source of supply.

Maybe some company could one day create a business around leasing recharging spaces and buying and selling energy. Perhaps something the size of a small garage delivered on site and that could offer enclosed safety. It could also incorporate some of the electronics needed to work within the current grid architecture and reduce the need for major upgrades.

Charging time

Yes, I agree, when solar gets to the point that the grids can’t handle the local sources, it makes perfect sense to put it into vehicles, and yes, cars that drove in the morning will want charging mid-day.

At present — and this should change with lots of solar — power in the day can cost as much as 30 to 40 cents/kwh, particularly late afternoon power. At night it can cost as low as 7-8 cents. So if you don’t need to charge mid-day (say you have a Tesla S type battery) then it is better to wait for the night. If you have a smaller battery, you want power mid-day. (It gets complicated as well by the fact that draining the battery below 20% is not good for it, nor is charging it above 80%, so if you feel you evening driving will take you below 30% you want a mid-day recharge even at higher cost.

The cost of travel to sub-stations is not large. Typical light vehicles will use as little as 100 wh/mile (Today’s cars are about 250 wh/mile but they are big and heavy) so the trip can easily be worth it.

Yes, vehicle batteries can be emergency supply — if you have a smart enough local connection to handle that, sadly most don’t.

But anyway, if the grid won’t buy your solar power from you at a good rate, then yes, you should put it in your car if you have excess, of course.

Various responses.

"The good news is that the era of the ubiquitous smartphone brings us the potential for a traffic “miracle” — the ability to entirely eliminate traffic congestion."

Actually, they won't do that. We'll just have a different concept of what traffic congestion means.

Right now, if I'm sitting in a car, I have to devote my attention to operating it. Of course, all drivers split their attention between operating the vehicle and other activities to a certain degree, but it's not possible for me to do something else entirely.

With a self-driving vehicle, time spent sitting in a traffic jam is no longer "dead" time. If I'm not responsible for driving then I can read, eat, watch video, play a game, do actual work. I don't have to just sit there waiting for the moment I have to do something vehicular.

So it's entirely possible that we'll see the same big mass of cars moving slowly; they'll just be full of people doing things other than staring straight ahead and waiting for their turn to move.

"Sharing cars for solo rides does not reduce miles driven or the number of cars made, but it does vastly reduce the amount of parking needed."

Self-driving cars don't provide any incentive toward ride-sharing. You're right that I could use robotaxis instead of owning a personal vehicle but that doesn't mean I *must* share that vehicle. Maybe I want to not be bothered by other people; maybe I want to go directly to my destination instead of faffing about picking up and dropping off other passengers.

Although you've identified a monetizing opportunity. "For ten bucks you get priority in the routing algorithm. For fifty bucks you get dropped off next, no matter where the other passengers are going..."

"Robin suggests her Prius could drive around for $1.50/hour rather than park...when you look at it, you realize it costs closer to $20/hour to have a car drive around, and the fuel is just part of that. Most auto web sites rate the Prius as costing 50 cents/mile..." urrr, basing the cost of actually driving around the block on that kind of number is highly suspect. "50 cents per mile" comes from taking the total dollars spent on a vehicle and dividing it by the miles driven. It includes many fixed costs, such as vehicle registration and insurance, which do not scale down if you drive fewer miles; it also assumes a certain miles-per-year (and in fact, the cost-per-mile goes down if you drive the vehicle more!) So, no, saying "it costs 50 cents per mile, therefore driving 25 mph for an hour costs $12.50!" is not correct.

And beyond that, you're saying "no rational actor would pay $12.50 to have their car drive around the block for an hour!", but maybe I consider it strongly desirable to have my car nearby when I want it rather than having to wait for a half-hour while my car trundles back from the off-site parking garage. Maybe I'm willing to pay $12.50 an hour to have that. (Maybe parking downtown already costs that much anyway.)

"as robocars shrink — especially to one person vehicles for solo riders — they will become much cheaper than today’s cars, and also much more efficient."

Why would they shrink to solo-rider vehicles? Why would they shrink at all?

For one thing, shrinking the vehicle doesn't necessarily result in improved aerodynamics. The Prius-C is smaller than the Prius, but has worse fuel economy. And smaller vehicles have less room to fit batteries, which means reduced range.

For another--and this is particularly relevant for the ride-sharing future you imagine--smaller vehicles are less attractive to fleet operators. It wouldn't cost a whole lot more to buy and operate a minivan than a sedan, and the minivan can carry more people--and it's much easier to make a minivan ADA-compliant. And a fleet operator will greatly benefit from standardization; if all you have are ADA-fitted minivans then you don't need to have an inventory-management system to ensure that ADA customers don't have to wait longer than non-ADA. So you're not likely to have fleet operators clamoring for smaller vehicles.

And to bring it home, there are regulatory reasons why cars are the size that they are. It's not an accident that so many alternate-vehicle concepts are three-wheelers; that's because those are, legally, motorcycles, and are not subject to the same crashworthiness or pedestrian-safety standards as automobiles. You will find that there is a minimum size that cars are permitted to be--and, as I mentioned earlier, if you're sending out these cars as rental ride-shares then you'll find that they're required to accommodate ADA passengers.

How the miracle works

Will be the subject of an upcoming article. Yes, slow travel is more acceptable if you can do other things — but only to a point. People are on the go because they have places to be. After all, transit can get you there while you read a book, but it takes 3x longer and so people don’t like it. (It is not as pleasant and private as a car seat, though.)

Just to be clear there is “car sharing,” which just means taxi service, and then there is “ride sharing” which means pooling (group transportation.) Companies like Uber screwed up these terms when they used the term ride-sharing to refer to taxi service because legally they had to explain that they were not taxis. Robotic taxis are great at car sharing, and they can also do ride sharing well too but it’s orthogonal.

The 50 cent/mile cost (actually the Prius is more like 40 cents being one of the cheapest cars to operate) does include some fixed costs like taxes (which are per year) and interest (which is per month). They ignore parking (which is per trip.) But most of the costs, including insurance are per mile. Right now insurance is a mixed bag, but all insurance companies charge more the more miles you drive, but it’s in big chunks, like (0-7,000 miles is one rate, 7,000 to 15,000 another rate etc.) Liability/Collision insurance should be per mile, and there is a movement called PAYD (pay as you drive) afoot. Some insurance companies are pushing it but the main pushers of it are the anti-car forces. In this case, they are correct, liability insurance should be priced per mile. Or if you want to get fancy, it should vary for every road you drive.

Be assured, a taxi that drives 50,000 miles/year does not pay the same insurance as a car that drives 10,000, and the cost is because of the miles. Comprehensive is per month.

Why would they shrink? Many reasons. Fewer materials so lighter and cheaper to build. Less weight and drag so much less fuel. Yes, you can design badly, but generally the drag is the Cd of the shape times the size. Less space on the road so able to lane-split or otherwise go places big cars can’t go. Much less parking space required and many more places they can wait.

I think it is going to cost a LOT more to operate a minivan than a solo car 1.5m wide. Minivan and sedan will be closer in cost if they don’t go on the highway.

I also think cities might reward the narrow vehicles for policy reasons since they use less road. For example, today they can use carpool lanes. They can go 2 to a lane, which is the reason. (Wider cars with 2 people will probably get the same treatment, but narrow cars with 2 face-to-face or tandem people should get even better treatment, as they put 4 people in the space of a regular car.)

A fleet operator will count the minimum solo passengers they get, and have that many solo vehicles at least, possibly a few more. Then it will make larger vehicles. Sometimes solo riders will go in a larger vehicle at no extra cost. The cost of ordering a solo vehicle will be probably 30% cheaper than ordering a sedan, perhaps even 50% cheaper. Customers will like that.

ADA is not an issue unless they make a ruling demanding the almost impossible — identical wait times for disabled and regular customers. Such a demand would indeed bulk up the fleet and waste huge amounts of fuel, so I don’t see it happening. Today, Paratransit mandated by the ADA has a one day wait time and one hour pickup window and that’s considered OK. But actually check out the original Hungarian version of the Kenguru — which was a narrow vehicle which was hollow inside and a wheelchair rolled into it. Their new one is wider, though.

Replies

" Yes, slow travel is more acceptable if you can do other things — but only to a point. "

I suggest that if actual autonomous vehicles (which can pick up and drop off at any arbitrary point) become common, we'll rapidly find that there are a great many more "other things" we can do than we originally thought.

"The 50 cent/mile cost...does include some fixed costs like taxes (which are per year) and interest (which is per month)....But most of the costs, including insurance are per mile."

None of the articles I found stated that insurance was priced per-mile in their "actual cost per mile" calculation.

You're right that most providers offer discounts based on usage, but (as you point out) those aren't nearly on a per-mile level of detail. And the discount is small--like, a ten percent variation in insurance cost when you go from 7K to 27K miles per year.

"a taxi that drives 50,000 miles/year does not pay the same insurance as a car that drives 10,000..."

BECAUSE IT IS A TAXI. A *personal* car that drives 50,000 miles/year will pay less insurance than a taxi being driven for commercial use. (That Uber drivers don't get charged extra for insurance is due to the fact that they lie to insurance companies about what they're doing with their vehicles.)

"Why would they shrink? Many reasons."

Please don't pretend to knowledge you haven't got. Let's get some in-line up in this piece:

"Fewer materials so lighter and cheaper to build. Less weight and drag so much less fuel."

There won't be "fewer materials" because they won't get smaller, and they won't get smaller for the reasons I outlined: Regulatory requirements and the economics of operating a taxi fleet.

"Yes, you can design badly, but generally the drag is the Cd of the shape times the size."

quick quiz, which has a lower drag coefficient: The Tesla Model S, the Tesla Model X, or the Nissan Versa? No Googling until after you've guessed.

"Less space on the road so able to lane-split or otherwise go places big cars can’t go."

Lane-splitting is only legal in California, and it's one of those things like Uber where the only reason it's still legal is that people haven't tried to ram that loophole wide open yet.

"Much less parking space required and many more places they can wait."

Objection, asked and answered. Either you don't care about parking because you tell the car "go park" and it finds a place on its own, or you don't care about parking because you're rich enough to afford whatever-it-costs-per-hour to have the car just drive itself around the block until you want it.

"ADA is not an issue unless they make a ruling demanding the almost impossible — identical wait times for disabled and regular customers."

You have this idea that "almost impossible" things will not be demanded for reasons of ADA compliance.

"Today, Paratransit mandated by the ADA has a one day wait time and one hour pickup window and that’s considered OK." It's considered OK because, if an able-bodied person were to use it for some reason, they'd have the same wait time and pickup window. I strongly doubt that the kind of autonomous taxi service you propose would consider that acceptable--which means that you have to offer the same level of service to ADA customers as to the able-bodied.

"A fleet operator will count the minimum solo passengers they get, and have that many solo vehicles at least, possibly a few more. Then it will make larger vehicles. Sometimes solo riders will go in a larger vehicle at no extra cost. The cost of ordering a solo vehicle will be probably 30% cheaper than ordering a sedan, perhaps even 50% cheaper. Customers will like that."

So the fleet operators will charge LESS money to users...for a vehicle which COSTS them money to keep in the fleet, due to the additional maintenance training, parts stocking, and inventory management required...?

Have you ever actually, like, done *anything* involving running a business?

Back to the future

QUOTE: I suggest that if actual autonomous vehicles (which can pick up and drop off at any arbitrary point) become common, we'll rapidly find that there are a great many more "other things" we can do than we originally thought.

Aaahhh yes: the return of the "back seat" of the 1950s! :-)

PAYD

We don’t have pay as you drive very many places yet, but it’s coming. However, I believe it is extremely likely that robotaxis will be self-insured, so the cost of “insurance” is really the cost of incidents, and by and large, the more miles you drive, the more incidents there will be. It’s actually a bit more complex than that, because it will depend where you drive and what revision of software you have and other conditions, but one force sits on top of all of that — namely the vendor/operators will not be deploying vehicles if the cost of their incidents is too high, and they will be measuring incident cost per mile. A vehicle not on the road is not having incidents.

The extra insurance for taxis might be viewed as “because it is a taxi” but really it’s because it drives a lot more, and in some cases, because it drives a lot more urban miles. But it’s still per mile, not per year, that the costs accrue.

We can argue about whether they won’t get smaller but there are no regulatory requirements I am aware of that insist a car be wide, other than perhaps roll-over risk requirements which I believe will not apply to robocars which will never drive in a way that risks roll-over. Taxi fleet economics demand smaller vehicles, because they are cheaper. Customers want cheaper — most of them, anyway. Smaller and lighter means less metal, smaller motors, smaller batteries, less heating/cooling. The only “cost” is that you might have a group of 4 and you have to pull a slightly more distant larger vehicle to serve them. If you have math that suggests 4 is the optimum vehicle size in a world where vehicle average occupancy is 1.47 (and 1.2 urban) show it to us.

Vehicles come with many different drag coefficients, which depends on their purpose, passenger comfort, whether they will go at high speed and how important energy efficiency is to them. Low-speed vehicles can have higher Cd in order to get the other things people want in vehicles. This changes as government regulations demand greater efficiency, which is why all cars are moving towards similar shapes these days, and why they are getting rid of side view mirrors. I expect in the further future, single person low speed urban vehicles will have higher Cds and more flexible shapes, including higher sitting posture for comfort. Being narrow will let them have even higher Cds. Highway 4 pax vehicles will all get closer and closer to teardrop shapes.

Parking: You don’t care about the logistics, you care about the cost. Whatever the cost of parking, a vehicle that parks in half the space will cost less to park.

The able bodied can’t use paratransit except as assistants for the disabled.

Anyway, the last sentence ends the thread. Even if I had not built run several businesses, ad hominem is not accepted here.

Nope, not done

"I believe it is extremely likely that robotaxis will be self-insured"

If we're talking robotaxis then parking is irrelevant, because as soon as the taxi arrives at the destination the interaction is over and the taxi can look for a new client.

" If you have math that suggests 4 is the optimum vehicle size in a world where vehicle average occupancy is 1.47 (and 1.2 urban) show it to us."

I don't need math, because I can look at any car lot in the world and see many, many, many vehicles with 4 seats, and very, very, very few with 2 seats (and those latter are typically sports cars optimized for performance rather than efficiency).

Yes, the Smart and Scion iQ exist. Their fuel economy is not noticeably better than that of a 4-passenger subcompact. Oh, and as your car gets smaller, your battery capacity (and thus your range) decrease; you aren't moving as much mass, but you don't have as much juice to move your mass with.

"This changes as government regulations demand greater efficiency, which is why all cars are moving towards similar shapes these days, and why they are getting rid of side view mirrors."

No production car has eliminated side view mirrors yet, and there are no plans to do so.

"Parking: You don’t care about the logistics, you care about the cost. Whatever the cost of parking, a vehicle that parks in half the space will cost less to park."

Why would parking-lot operators charge less? Obviously they've discovered the market rate for parking, otherwise they'd be out of business. Parking is charged based on the opportunity to park, not the size of the vehicle.

"The able bodied can’t use paratransit except as assistants for the disabled."

You haven't worked in a public-facing business, have you? Because you really don't seem to understand how the ADA works.

Side view etc.

Yes, today’s world is all 4-5 passenger cars. I own one myself, even though I have had people in the back seat perhaps a dozen times in its 15 year life. We all go to car dealers looking for our maximum car today, the car that will meet most or all of our needs. Half the cars in that parking lot you look down on are SUVs which are never taken off-road in their lives. The #1 selling “car” is the Ford F-150, and the vast majority never haul major cargo.

No, looking at today’s sales won’t tell you what people actually need, or would use if they could summon any kind of vehicle in a few minutes with their phone when they actually needed that kind of vehicle. What I do know is that 80% of the time, urban people drive alone on a short trip. What would they summon for that?

I do understand the rules of paratransit — look them up.

Today, production cars can’t eliminate side view mirrors legally. However, from what I have heard, most manufacturers plan to as soon as it’s legal to use a camera system and the CAFE standards ramp up. Removing the mirrors is one of the easiest ways to reduce drag on your way to 54.5 mpg. Insurance companies want this too, as mirrors are a popular thing to ding.

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