Driverless cars aren’t coming. They’re already here. Much of he technology has been around for decades and many features are available on new cars today. Experts agree fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) will soon be ubiquitous and they will significantly disrupt many industries and change where and how we live. The only questions are: When? And how?
Nearly all of the necessary technology had been developed and was ready to go in the 1990s, according to Jason Schreiber, senior principal at Stantec Urban Places.
“We did get a lot of backbone planning done for connected vehicles,” Schrieber said. “Those protocols exist and there are cities that a ready for them. The technology just wasn’t scalable to the point that it was affordable, until now.”
Many new cars today have features like automatic braking, lane departure alerts, adaptive cruise control and even self-parking features. They’re already semi-autonomous to varying degrees and have been for years.
“People are ready to adapt to the idea of AVs,” Schrieber said. “Tesla still has a long waiting list. Traditional cars will still be in ownership 10+ years from now so there will be aa transition period of 15-20 years. I’d guess it will be no less than 50 years until we see full adoption.”
Consumers will benefit
A 2017 report from RethinkX claims AVs will save the average family $5,600 every year. How? Families won’t pay for cars, insurance, sales tax, excise tax, fuel or repairs. They’ll just pay per trip.
In addition to that, in spite of the public perception that autonomous vehicles will be dangerous, they are widely regarded as much, much safer than cars driven by humans.
There were 40,100 highway deaths in the U.S. last year and the three biggest causes were alcohol, speeding and distracted driving according to the National Safety Council. About 4.57 million people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, and costs to society totaled $413.8 billion
William F. Lyons Jr., president and CEO of Fort Hill Companies, a Boston-based architecture and infrastructure design firm said AVs don’t drink or use drugs, speed or get distracted.
“AVs have traveled 130 million vehicle miles during testing with 2 deaths,” Lyons said. “And they’re constantly improving the technology. There is no question they will be safer than human drivers.”
Also, since AVs will be electric, the reduction in pollution will be another big benefit.
There will be significant downsides, too
For starters, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which studies and serves the 101 communities of Metro Boston, warns communities’ revenue from registrations and excise tax may decrease; gas tax revenue will decline; and traffic and parking ticket revenue will decline dramatically. They say local and state governments must plan for this.
“Municipalities are addicted to parking revenue and that’s going away,” Lyons said. “AVs are going to drop you off at the door wherever you go and go find someplace to park or pick up another passenger and take them somewhere.”
The City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts have at least started these conversations, but Lyons, who is also an attorney and civil engineer says too many small and large municipalities are not planning for the budgetary or zoning problems that will come with the widespread adoption of AVs.
“There is a very serious potential for extra-suburban sprawl,” Lyons said. “People will easily be able to commute two hours in a car and be productive and get to work on time. That’s a whole new problem we haven’t thought through yet. People will be able to commute one end of the state to the other. It could effect home prices and land development patterns in cities that aren’t prepared for any of that. Cities and towns should be thinking of these things. It’s a hard problem to get your head around and it’s going to take some time.”
Lyons said city planners should already be thinking about the changes they need to make to adjust for AVs.
‘Municipalities should think carefully about building something like a parking garage,” Lyons said. “Those are typically bonded over 30 years. What are they going to do 10 or 15 years from now when demand drops off and they still need to pay for the bond?”
According to a 2015 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, autonomous vehicles could reduce car ownership by up to 43 percent, or from 2.1 to 1.2 vehicles per household. That’s bad news for the people who build, sell and repair those vehicles.
“What about labor dislocation?,” Lyons said. “People who work in body shops and the automotive insurance industry? AV manufacturers have already said they’re going to self-insure. Truck drivers might be the first ones to disappear. It’s going to be massive. Millions of jobs are going to evolve or disappear.”
The 2017 RethinkX report notes, “We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruptions of transportation in history. By 2030, within 10 years of regulatory approval of autonomous vehicles (AVs), 95percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals, in a new business model we call “transport-as-a-service” (TaaS). The TaaS disruption will have enormous implications across the transportation and oil industries, decimating entire portions of their value chains, causing oil demand and prices to plummet, and destroying trillions of dollars in investor value — but also creating trillions of dollars in new business opportunities, consumer surplus and GDP growth.”
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