Insights from TranspoGroup’s Autonomous Vehicles Conference

What the driverless car used to look like, back in the 1957. Image via Paleofuture.
What the driverless car used to look like, back in the 1957. Image via Paleofuture.

Yesterday, TranspoGroup hosted one in series of Autonomous Vehicle Policy conferences. The one-day conference explored how AVs are expected to change transportation and streets, and what municipalities can do to get ready for the anticipated changes.

TranspoGroup’s Ryan Snyder stressed that there are still lots of unknowns, and there will likely be unforeseen consequences.

Below are a handful of insights from the proceedings:

When Will the Autonomous Future Arrive?

As far back as 1939, optimistic boosters have predicted that driverless cars were just about a decade away. Technology has come a long way since then, but there are still some (big, deadly) bugs to work out.

Nonetheless, cars with some degree of autonomy are on L.A. streets today.

Levels of autonomous vehicle technology. Image via TranspoGroup
Levels of autonomous vehicle technology, from zero to five. Image via TranspoGroup

And there are various degrees of autonomy, with full no-steering-wheel go-anywhere autonomy defined as level five.

Lower-level autonomy – such as adaptive cruise control or self-parking features – are already available as standard features on some cars.

Higher-level autonomy is just around the proverbial corner, with some predictions of various mostly-nearly-autonomous cars guestimated to be coming to market in 2019-2022. Mostly-autonomous transit shuttles (locally touted for Leimert Park and Beverly Hills) are anticipated a little sooner.

Anticipated timeline for autonomous vehicles. Image via TranspoGroup
Anticipated timeline for autonomous vehicles. Image via TranspoGroup

Many AV benefits occur when self-driving-vehicles can communicate with each other (called CAVs – Connected Autonomous Vehicles) and with other wired infrastructure. These benefits, such as increased roadway capacity from high-speed cars moving at closer distances, are achieved as CAV saturation is very widespread, which could still be, according to Snyder, “30-40 years” away.

Autonomous vehicles' anticipated impact on Vehicle Miles Traveled - VMT. Chart via Fehr and Peers
Autonomous vehicles’ predicted impact on Vehicle Miles Traveled – VMT. Chart via Fehr & Peers

Driving Predicted To Increase

There are some worthwhile benefits expected from AV, including an estimated 40-90 percent safety increase when human error is taken out of driving. The downside is an anticipated increase in driving (measured as VMT – Vehicle Miles Traveled). Folks in AVs won’t need to focus on driving, and can instead watch a movie, dive into social media, or sleep. Without the drudgery of driving, longer-distance trips become more bearable, and more common. Miles traveled include more than just those with a person inside the car, but also dead head mileage in between revenue trips. Dystopian scenarios include empty personal AVs circling the block after dropping of their passenger.

The presentation of Jeremy Klopp of Fehr & Peers included data from various AV models, all of which predict increased VMT. The increase in VMT is less when AVs are shared – think Lyft Line or uberPOOL.

Autonomous vehicles impact on transit. Chart via Fehr & Peers
Autonomous vehicles’ impact on transit. Chart via Fehr & Peers

Transit Usage Predicted to Decrease

Perhaps a corollary to increased VMT, AV adoption is expected to reduce transit trips. Assuming that removing the driver will make for relatively cheap point-to-point rides, transit riders will choose to hail an AV instead of riding the bus or train. Klopp’s presentation graphed data from various AV models, nearly all of which predict a decline in transit trips.

What Cities Can Do Now: Transit Priority, Changing Parking, and Managing Curb Space

With Congress poised to adopt industry-friendly legislation, cities are unfortunately somewhat limited in what they can do. Throughout the day, conference speakers had numerous recommendations for what could be done now. Here are a few:

  • Give transit priority: Lauren Mattern of Nelson Nygaard stressed that cities need to prioritize high-capacity vehicles. She recommended carving out dedicated lanes for buses, so they don’t get caught in congestion, likely greatly worsened by single-occupancy AVs.
  • Reform Parking: Earlier this year, Chandler, AZ, reduced parking requirements on the justification that AVs will need less parking than today’s cars. Several speakers urged parking reform – including the Shoup-recommended elimination of governmentally-mandated parking requirements. Experts are recommending changes to parking structures – if deemed necessary, they should be minimized, and built to accommodate later retrofitting – whether to convert to other uses, or even to accommodate AV parking, which is anticipated to take up less space as smaller AVs should be able to park closer together.
  • Managing the Curb: Klopp stressed that generally no matter what the federal government legislates, cities will retain much of the control over what happens at the curb – and how space is allocated there – for sidewalks, bike lanes, transit, drop-offs, parking, etc. Cities need to actively manage this space to bring about desired outcomes.

This won’t be the last conference (nor the last Streetsblog L.A. article) on autonomous vehicles. TranspoGroup will host additional similar AV conferences – including in Seattle on September 19. Check the TranspoGroup website for details, and for presentations from prior events.

  • LazyReader

    It doesn’t matter if driverless vehicles take to the roads in 2025, 2030, 2040 or 2050.
    Even without competition from such technology; Ride hailing is decimating transit industry when polls show huge amount of the people who use them would use transit had Uber/Lyft not existed. Now cities wanna tax ride hailing services they use to pay for transit they dont. That’s like taxing computers to subsidize typewriters.

    Never mind the fact that; nationwide transit ridership in the US overall is declining. In the face of such declines (not to mention the fact that major municipalities across the nation are facing significant financial shortfalls from both their transit systems and their spending habits; that more subsidies cant fix or spiraling into debt) combined with the massive backlog of crucial maintenance they don’t have the money for either; it makes zero sense at all for cities to burden taxpayers and future generations with more debt to take on massive infrastructure investment to save a dying industry. The mass transit industry should move to co-opt the robocars as their own to
    justify the tax dollars. The industry will survive, the mass part of
    it will not.

  • LazyReader

    It doesn’t matter if driverless vehicles take to the roads in 2025, 2030, 2040 or 2050. Even without competition from such technology; Ride hailing is decimating transit industry when polls conducted indicate people who use Uber/Lyft would take transit if said ride hails had not existed. Now cities wanna tax ride hailing services they use to pay for transit they dont. That’s like taxing computers to subsidize typewriters.

    THE FACT is that; nationwide overall transit ridership in the US is declining. The total number of workers who commute by transit declined from 7.649 million in 2016 to 7.637 million 2017. A downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.761 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million.

    In the face of such declines (not to mention the fact that major municipalities across the nation are facing significant financial shortfalls from both their transit systems and their spending habits; that more subsidies cant fix or spiraling into debt) combined with the massive backlog of crucial maintenance they don’t have the money for either; it makes zero sense at all for cities to burden taxpayers and future generations with more debt to take on massive infrastructure investment to save a dying industry. The mass transit industry should move to co-opt the robocars as their own to justify the tax dollars. The industry will survive, the mass part of it will not.

  • This assumes the ridesharing industry is on solid ground. An interesting insight from the California Passenger Rail Summit earlier this year was they are heavily subsidized by Wall Street. The current usage levels may turn downward if it starts upping rates after it has a dominant position. Or if Wall Street pulls the plug will the industry survive. Frankly the new threat to Uber and Lyft are Lime, Bird, etc. I think your dire predictions for transit are premature. I know the buses I ride have plenty of riders.

  • LazyReader

    Insight that they are heavily subsidized…and transit isnt? Transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation per capita.

    Uber, Lyft, and other private transportation services will grow
    because they are willing to innovate to earn customer revenues. Public
    transit agencies, by comparison, are more oriented to getting the
    taxpayer dollars that make up 75 percent of their budgets and are
    relatively unconcerned about ridership or fare revenues.

    Los Angeles Metro, for example, has lost five bus riders for every
    light-rail rider it gained since 2010 (and even more if you go back to
    2008). Undiscouraged, the agency intends to spend at least $6 billion
    on six new transit projects, most of them light rail. Light rail was
    made obsolete by buses 80 years ago and it certainly isn’t working to
    attract net new riders today, but that’s unimportant: what’s important
    is that Metro convinced voters to fund more rail construction on the
    false promise that it would relieve congestion. In contrast, since transit agencies are unresponsive to users, they
    fail to innovate and rely on unnecessary technologies. Thus, they will inevitably die when ride hailing services and other innovators take
    their customers away. One thing is for certain – they should use mini-buses costing less than
    $100,000.00 (some under $50,000.00) with flexible routes and save huge $
    rather than large buses costing $300,000.00+ and running mostly empty.

  • It is an insight because as private enterprise the idea that the current “success” of ridesharing is actually a loss leader isn’t obvious. And its poor track record for labor relations etc. could be an Achilles heel. “Innovation” may not count for much if the investors drive up the cost to start making a profit.

    You are an unreliable source given your obvious persistent antagonism toward transit, often making arguments that collapse when scrutinized. Light rail is obsolete doesn’t comport with what has actually happened.

    Personally I never promise congestion relief. The Wendell Cox/Randall O’Toole fixation on that made me ponder and realize enduced demand means anyone shifting to transit opens up space for a discretionary trip.

    Smaller buses may have lower capital cost but involve since labor is the main component of operational cost small equipment running more frequently doesn’t equal lower cost.

    Metro with Next Gen is looking at the very issues as to addressing shifts in travel patterns, demographics, emerging technologies, etc. I would hope submitting your criticisms and suggestions given your obvious strong stance would be more productive than posting blog comments solely if you have any interest in shaping policy.

    https://www.metro.net/projects/nextgen/

    Overall ridership is down but all this dire talk of mostly empty buses etc. is overblown. Especially on major arterials Metro ridership is quite healthy.

    I like to contemplate who is funding your jihad and blizzard of comments. And the whole idea of being a troll as a profession gave me a major character on novel #2. Except he has a conscious and begins to regret the 40 pieces of silver from the Coke Brothers etc. Sadly debate is often just winning by grabbing whatever gets you to the predetermined conclusion however flimsy the evidence. It works for a while but as the current drama in DC illustrates eventually the wheels come off.

    Auf Wiedersehen.

  • LazyReader

    Even if Uber and Lyft fail, so what, other companies will spring up to absorb that loss.
    It doesn’t change the fact that transit ridership is still declining and no amount of increased subsidies is gonna save it.

    – Low fuel prices; and the continuing push to electrify vehicle fleets
    – Ride-sharing services; the inevitable coming of driver less vehicles
    – Maintenance backlogs
    -Unfunded pension and health-care liabilities.
    Especially since transit agencies seem more interested in going further into debt building obsolete transit systems than in providing more innovative cost-effective transportation or paying off their existing debts. The danger is that, when transit agencies lose their customers or default alltogether, they’ll
    still have hundreds of billions of dollars in debts and unfunded
    liabilities. This is why it is important NOW to plan the
    transition from publicly subsidized heavy transit infrastructure to downscaling to a demand oriented vehicular transit initiative or privatization.

  • Actually one big problem is growth in ridesharing is creating more vehicle traffic and congestition. Electric or self driving doesn’t change that.

    Our roads couldn’t handle the traffic volumes you preach we should embrace. And I don’t agree a death spiral for transit is a certainty. Transit will have a role in our future mobility landscape. Even now not everyone is enthused at relying on a stranger at the wheel.

    Transit agencies have public boards that provide oversight plus are audited, examined by GAO etc. The dire financial vision you extol is based on farfetched apocalyptic failure of all safeguards.

    BTW, why do you see progressive blogs as fertile soil for your far right dogma to take root? Reminds me of the evangelicals who plant themselves in front of Comic Con. Because of course fanboys are the ideal target audience for conversion to being holy rollers.

    Whatever.

  • Joe Linton

    Perhaps (if we’re interested in a habitable planet, saving lives, etc.) we can shift some of massive subsidies away from driving.

  • LazyReader

    Don’t bring that up, because it’s a debunked argument. There are subsidies to driving and as a total it’s higher than the subsidies to transit. Even at the high end of his range, the subsidy amounts to only 2 cents per passenger mile. Compare that to subsidies to Amtrak (about 20 cents per passenger mile) and urban transit (about 65 cents per passenger mile). I would like to eliminate all of these subsidies, but obviously doing so would have a much bigger impact on transit than on driving. But if those subsidies went away which I think they should, the auto driver gets dinged the additional price and they would pay it. If transit subsidies disappeared the industry would collapse.

    Lets refresh our memory about some other planners screwy beliefs.
    * High Density will reduce traffic congestion. It doesn’t, it increases congestion.
    * High Density will reduce cost. It actually increases costs.
    * High Density will give us affordable housing. It doesn’t, high density increases housing costs.
    * High Density will let you walk to the store to get a quart of milk. So what?
    * Mass transit saves energy. Outside New York and a few urban areas It doesn’t
    * Mass transit reduces pollution. Not really!
    * Mass transit saves money. It is much more expansive than driving.
    * If we become more like Europe, people will drive less. In reality Europe drives almost as much as we do.
    * Automobiles are massive subsidised. (They aren’t, transit is.)
    * Light rail causes development. No the tax abatements and special treatments cause development.

  • Ethan

    Dana, Uber’s revenues in the last quarter covered 86% of expenses, after excluding R&D on self driving vehicles. It says in some markets their service is profitable. That’s close to solid ground already. If self driving vehicle ride sharing service is just slightly less costly to Uber, fares can remain the same and the company will be profitable.

  • You aren’t accounting for how much profit they will seek if/when they have a dominant position. I worked at a call center serving a major telecommunications firm where to retain customers in some circumstances I could offer a 50% discount for a year. Which made my contemplate how much of what they charged customers was pure profit. Based on that be prepared for Uber etc. to gouge the hipsters etc. that depend on it when it has a dominant position in the market.

  • As I noted already you are a seriously unreliable bussed source which undermines your credibility. “debunked argument” by who? The Cato Foundation? The Reason Foundation?

    But, hey, you have all the answers so why are you wasting time on us new urbanism etc. types? Wouldn’t your time be better spent on directly engaging with agencies like SCAG, Metro and local jurisdictions that make plans, build projects, etc? What do you hope to achieve with your blizzard of bricks (my term for long posts aimed at bludgeoning with an extreme position)?

  • Ethan

    We’ll need competition just like we have with gas stations and retail. If Walmart didn’t have Target (and others) they could raise prices. Similarly where there’s only one gas station for the next 30 miles, prices are higher there. So we’ll benefit from competition if Uber, Lyft, Waymo, Cuise, Chariot, Apple, and others are all in that marketplace.

  • This is an emerging industry. The trend is toward consolidation as such mature. It is partly why contracting for transit operations is now less able to provide significant savings v. publicly operated as the number of players able to bid diminish then when the idea took hold in the 80s.

    The underlying economics are not set in stone. This is an industry with a terrible reputation for labor relations. Unionization is even in the wind. Many acquaintances point out to me the depreciation is not captured by the pay. How sustainable it is is open to question. And even with autonomous electric vehicles it still will contribute to congestion. Like the e-scooters I expect it will be a feature of the new mobility toolkit but not a be all end all. As always the boosters have overstated its application and role.

  • Ethan

    Yep we’ll need regulators otherwise it’ll be like what’s likely if T-Mobile and Sprint merge and we’re down to three mobile carriers.

    I have no illusions about how human drivers are compensated. The future of the companies is autonomous. Congestion management is up to the cities. My preference is congestion zones, incentives for using the pooling services like Chariot, Lyft Line and Lyft Shuttle, as well as properly enforced HOV freeway lanes.

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