When it comes to fully-autonomous, self-driving automobiles, the supporters seem in most cases to drown out the skeptics. Autonomy is a magic bullet, some insist – one that will single-handedly slash emissions, reduce commute times, end bumper-to-bumper traffic, and bring effortless, safe mobility to everyone capable of ordering up a ride using a smartphone app.
But now, a new study from the World Economic Forum, the Boston Consulting Group, and the city of Boston provides fresh ammunition to the opposition, with the conclusion that fleets of self-driving taxis are only likely to have a marginal positive impact on commute times in the city. In some cases, the widespread availability of autonomous cabs is actually expected to make traffic worse.
The study projects that putting scores of fully-self-driving cars on Boston’s roads in rideshare and ride-hailing fleets will decrease the average travel time by 4 percent, and over time, just half the current number of parking spots will be required. But the extra travel efficiency will hit those living in neighborhoods away from the city center most, with a projected 12-percent reduction in travel time; those closer to downtown are expected to actually see their travel times increase by 5.5 percent.
That’s because self-driving vehicles are expected to replace many commuters’ short trips on public transportation, putting more cars on the road in the busiest parts of the city, and allowing commuters to circumvent more traffic-friendly options like buses and subways.
Ford Motor Company has undoubtedly seen this coming. That’s why the automaker’s Smart Mobility initiative has put such an emphasis on “multi-modal” transportation; why Ford purchased San Francisco’s Chariot shuttle service and partnered on Ford GoBike in the Bay Area; and why the company’s started a City Solutions team to work with local municipalities in order to produce custom-tailored mobility programs.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which shuttles and bike rentals do quite as much for helping masses of people from point A to B in dense urban areas as public transportation does. What’s more, Ford still plans to put a fully-autonomous, Level 4 self-driving car on the road in 2021, in the hands of rideshare and ride-hailing service providers. Assuming rides in these AVs are competitively-priced, what incentive is there to use multiple modes of transportation, many of them crowded with other riders, versus simply getting in one’s own, private cab and not having to put in the slightest effort?
One possible solution, floated by the groups behind the study conducted in Boston, is for municipalities to disincentivize single-occupant rides and encourage ridesharing and public transportation. How companies like Ford might feel about such a solution, having exhausted so much time and capital on developing the self-driving car, remains to be seen.