Autonomous Vehicles are the Future of Mass Transit
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
I consider myself to be a NUMTOT; for those not familiar with the term, NUMTOT, or just Numtot, is an acronym for ‘New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens’, a popular facebook group of people posting funny, relatable memes about, and in support of, mass-transit. There is a heavy bent against cars and car culture, and for affordable, accessible modes of transportation, such as trains, buses, cycling, walkable cities, subways, etc. On the whole, I agree with the sentiment of the group, that is, we are sick of our entire culture centered around cars, and demand more efficient, cheaper, safer, socially responsible ways to move people, and that this car-centered culture has had vast, negative impacts on our society’s culture, social justice, health and quality of life. I think that this group is a product of the general mood of the younger generation, who are seeing how other wealthy countries use masstransit and are feeling like we in the United States got a bum deal over the past century.
Lately, I have been seeing the sentiment of autonomous-vehicle-bashing, to mostly universal agreement, within the Numtot community. I can understand why; autonomous vehicles conjure images of our current iteration of what is considered an ‘autonomous’ vehicle; expensive, private vehicles (such as Tesla) that contribute to car culture. And since this current, nascent version of autonomous vehicles is a luxury for private car-owners, we assume that the fully-developed version will just be a better, more fully-realized version of what we are seeing right now. But I argue that this assumption is just that; an assumption. The bashing of the very idea of autonomous vehicles, based on their current implementation, throws out the baby with the bathwater; by conflating how this technology is currently being used with the technology itself, we are missing the opportunity to strive for, nay, demand that this technology be implemented to be cheap, accessible to all, socially and environmentally responsible and efficient. But since the technology and its utilization seem so inseparable, we have yet to imagine a different way to utilize this technology.
I am fairly well-traveled, and I do know how wonderful it is to live in a place where, almost no matter where you live, you don’t really need to own a car. The feeling of physical interconnectedness to your city and country, the freedom of never having to pay for gas or car insurance or car repairs, the communal experience or riding the train with your fellow citizens, not because you are too poor to afford a car, but because it’s part of the culture of the city, but because it’s what everyone does; these are wonderful things I want for my country as well. And as much as I want US citizens to use trains the way the Japanese use trains and for us to use bikes the way Amsterdamers use bikes, I have come to the conclusion that we just aren’t going to. We can’t even build a high-speed rail from San Francisco to LA, an absolute no-brainer of a route, and despite a few outliers, large US cities seem uninterested or unable to build or expand metros to cover the large swaths of city that have no access to convenient trains. The ship has sailed on building out infrastructure to support robust inner-city and domestic train lines. Us ‘transit-oriented teens’ continuing to advocate for more trains is naive and ignoring the better, more innovative solutions potentially available to us in self-driving vehicles. The push for trains is a yearning for nostalgia as much as it’s yearning for people-centered (rather than car-centered) cities. Imagine, though, how self-driving cars could be utilized like mass-transit. Join me in this thought experiment to imagine what a publicly-owned fleet of autonomous vehicles would look like. I hope by the end you will agree that self-driving vehicles offer a future for mass-transit that trains could never achieve.
First, some shared vocabulary; in order for this to work, we would need the roads to be mostly or totally occupied level 5 autonomous vehicles. (level 5 being the highest level of driving autonomy, where no human interaction is required, or even available). A city purchases a fleet of several thousand, level 5 autonomous vehicles of varying capacities, say, holding a max of 4 passengers to 20 passengers. I know there are a lot of arguments against the desirability and feasibility of this, but I will address that later, please just bear with me for now and imagine a city where just about every vehicle on the road is city-owned, fully autonomous, and can carry varying numbers of passengers (some small vehicles holding up to 6 people and some bus-sized vehicles).
You can call for a car the way you call an uber to get where you need to go on a smartphone, or call a phone number and just speak your location and address to go to. Other accessible solutions would be easy to build for those that don’t have a phone. The autonomous vehicles (AVs) will act the way Uber used to when it had the carpool option, where you may share the ride with some number of passengers, depending on surrounding pickup locations, destinations and routes. Or, think of it as a bus, but instead of a fixed route, the mother brain (main computer that is directing all AVs) is constantly, in real time updating and altering the route the AV takes to pick up and drop people off. Feeling sick? Tell the app so you can get a solo ride. Are you having an emergency? Tell the app to get priority pickup and routing. Traveling with a group of people? Tell the app so you can all ride in one vehicle. On the surface, this seems just like creating an Uber-like system for mass-transit, but the benefits of having an almost 100% fleet of publicly owned AVs serving the citizens of a city are vast. Consider:
Since all the cars on the road are communicating with one another constantly, in real-time, there is no longer a need for traffic lights. Cars just know the exact location of other cars and pedestrians, and can slow down and speed up accordingly to time the vehicle to never really need to stop. In fact, there is no more traffic at all, since the AVs communicating with each other will eliminate non-uniform flowing of vehicle movement (most traffic is not caused by an accident or obstacle in the road, but rather just the snowball effect of humans driving inefficiently. This video explains how AVs would eliminate traffic beautifully). Hence, the 4-mile trip across town that currently takes 40 minutes will take only 10 minutes. Trip times will be vastly shorter. This will be an extreme improvement on the quality of life for all, especially those who commute to a workplace. (I often imagine myself as an old man talking to a teenager who is flabbergasted and confused at the idea of traffic.)
Currently, cars are parked 95% of the time (site). The almost total elimination of private vehicle ownership would essentially eliminate the need for parking spaces, which would completely change roads, pedestrian spaces, and cycling lanes. Most roads would only need to be wide enough for a single car to pass through, and it wouldn’t even matter which way the car is going down the road (remember, all cars know the position and motion of every other car, so no AV would go down a road another AV was going down in the opposite direction). And when I say the road would need to be only wide enough for a single car to pass through, I mean the entire road’s width would need to be MAX 2.6m, no parking spaces required on either side. This is less than ⅓ of the current , typical width of one-way roads with parking on either side. During the day, most AVs would be in use. We see so many cars now because so many people own cars in cities, and usually they just remain in standby, waiting to be used. But every AV would be used with such high efficiency, we just wouldn’t need nearly as many AVs as cars we currently have. Where would an AV go when not in use, though? An AV could just stop in the middle of the road when not in use. If another AV needed to get past the stopped AV, it could either reroute around it well before it even got close to the stopped AV, or the main computer could simply move the stopped vehicle to another location well before the en-route AV got close to the stopped vehicle. And if for whatever no one felt like going anywhere, or it’s the middle of the night and there are a lot of AVs not being used, they could all go to small parking lots where they can pack in with just a few inches between each AV, no need to space them out or leave space for a lane in the parking lot for them to navigate out of. The outer AVs can just peel away from the densely-packed blob of AVs from the outside layers when needed.
Since we don’t need side-of-the-road parking spaces anymore, we can now reclaim that space for green space, bike lanes, parks, ultra-wide pedestrian zones, playgrounds, whatever we want. We could even completely eliminate the concrete road entirely in many smaller residential neighborhoods. Instead of most people being picked up in front of their home, they could walk to designated pick-up and drop-off spots every few blocks that are connected to concrete roads, like a bus stop. If a person needed to get picked up in front of their home for whatever reason, the AV could still drive on a dirt or gravel path down the center of the residential green area. Speaking of those with special requirements…
Ironically, being able to get anywhere around town so easily and quickly in a vehicle will also encourage people to get around town on foot and on bikes. Walkable areas and bike lanes would be much more abundant (for reasons cited above), but also, if every car on the road is an AV, pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, etc would be able to move continuously across vehicle roads without having to stop for car traffic anywhere. Every vehicle could “see” every person and would slow down or stop to avoid getting close to the person. If the idea relying only on AI imaging to identify that you are in front of a car, we could implement technology in our smartphones to communicate with cars as well, as a redundancy system for extra safety. When the car senses that there is a pedestrian or cyclist in close range in the front of the car, The car could flash green lights to let the pedestrian know that the AV has registered their presence are slowing or stopping to allow them to pass.
This system is more equitable than trains and buses; these AVs can pick people up right in front of their home and drop them off right in front of their destination, no need to check schedules, no need to walk or get a ride to a bus stop or train station, which may be a hindrance to many with special needs. This would be a huge boon for people who are physically or visually impared, as current stations are not always set up to accommodate those populations. The car will tell you when it arrives, where you are when you do arrive and give you the time you need to get in and out. And of course most if not all will be equipped to accommodate those in wheelchairs.
Want to go far? Call for a long-haul AV. It can take you anywhere in the country for a fraction of the cost of the airlines, since the AVs require no gas (assuming, by this point, they will all be electric), no pilot, no crew, no airport, no huge plane, and you can share the trip with others going to the same city. And remember, there are no traffic lights, so you can just cruise at 80mph+ until you need to stop.
In 2020, 42,338 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents, and 4.8 million were injured (site). Traffic accidents would become as rare as flight accidents. Future generations will think it utterly barbaric that we were ever able to man multi-ton vehicles completely on our own. AI image and motion detection is getting exponentially better and AVs will be able to navigate roads in such a way as to make accidents as rare as flight accidents. The accidents that have happened with test vehicles in recent years are not reflective of what cars will be like in the future when they have vastly more data and are driving on roads with mostly other AVs.
No more drunk/impared drivers, and no more traffic police!
I realize that car culture is, in fact, part of the United States culture, and many people will not be keen on giving up that part of the culture. The shift to a fully-autonomous transportation system will be slow in part because of this. It’s not impossible, though. I think that older people will cling to cars, but as the younger generation becomes the majority, the need to hold on to that part of our culture will die with that generation. Younger people who live in cities generally eschew owning a vehicle if it’s not necessary, so it will be an easy sell for them. And there are other ways we, as a society, can move more quickly to get the car-loving population on our side. I think we should allow people, at first, to continue to drive their own vehicles, but as publicly-owned AVs become more and more commonplace, the taxes and burdens to drive a private vehicle will also increase. The justification of this would be that as public AVs increase in popularity, more money must be allocated to them for expansion and upkeep, and that money would be taken out of car/license/parking taxes. It is specifically the people that are driving that are making the roads less efficient and less safe, and so it is those people that must pay to offset that. As time goes on and the car-lovers see how cheap, easy and convenient it is to buy into using public AVs (not to mention the money they would save not owning a private vehicle), I imagine most people will willingly opt-in. And if not, hopefully we as a society will deem human-driven vehicles too dangerous to justify allowing the fun of driving and will outlaw operating a vehicle outside of a recreational driving zone.
I love trains. I love subways. I wish this country had built out an easy-to-use, accessible, widely-served mass-transit infrastructure from the start. But we didn’t. What we are left with is a car-as-default culture. It’s too late to practically build the transit-society we missed out on. But it’s not too late to commandeer what we are given now and make it what we (the people, not just the wealthy) want it to be. We have to ask ourselves, are our goals to build trains and subways, or are our goals to achieve cheap, accessible, widely-served transportation for all people that trains and subways have traditionally given people? If a new technology holds the promise to deliver the latter better than trains ever could, it’s our duty to embrace it and make it what we want. Focusing on resurrecting train infrastructure distracts from our true goals. It was the solution decades ago, but it’s not the solution now. Let’s continue to ride the trains and subways we have as much as possible, and ride bikes and walk whenever we can, and at the same time, mold the future with the best tools currently at our disposal, autonomous vehicles.