A model autonomous vehicle, owned by Uber. Image by the author.

Transportation technology is on the verge of radically shifting how we get around, according to a number of experts. They envision a future where transportation is cheap, easy, and enjoyable; where, whether you use a car share, take bike share or public transit, or order a self-driving car to pick you up, the choice will be convenient... and yours.

Last month, the Atlantic Magazine hosted “Mapping the Future of Mobility,” a panel where a diverse group of policy makers and tech industry reps discussed the future of transportation and how transit can truly serve the people.

The Mapping the Future of Mobility Forum.

Soon autonomous vehicles (AVs) will reach a point of safety and reliability that will make them more sensible than vehicles operated by people. And considering that over 35,000 people died in automobile-related accidents last year, if AVs can significantly reduce that number, then why not transition all the way?

Future cities with self-driving vehicles, reliable public transportation, and better infrastructure are only part of the story, though. How people fit into this new economy will be another part of the challenge for innovators and policy makers.

AVs and the sharing economy have the potential to free up billions in unnecessary parking infrastructure

Space is limited in crowded urban centers, and, right now, billions of dollars are locked away in parking infrastructure. According to Andrew Salzberg, the head of transportation policy and research at Uber, it's estimated that there are somewhere between 500 million and 2 billion parking spaces in the United States. Considering that cars spend most of their life idle, and all that parking isn't used most the time, that's a lot of wasted space and money.

Salzberg also pointed to the amount of space devoted to highway lanes around cities, quoting a study done for Toronto that suggested just a small increase in vehicle occupancy from 1.08 to 1.20 could potentially save billions in infrastructure. By increasing car occupancy and decreasing the number of cars, we’d create a stronger argument to stop widening highways and start putting space to better use.

What could we do with billions in freed up space and money?

Well, these resources could be used to improve or repurpose existing infrastructure. Instead of building a parking garage or lot, we could develop public spaces like parks, community gardens, or bike lanes.

A solution to the limited space, however, may already be taking shape by way of the sharing economy. In the last several years, bike sharing, car sharing, and even ride sharing have taken off. Salzberg explained that driving encourages parking infrastructure, but ridesharing, like with Uberpool or Zipcar, reduces the number of cars on the road.

With autonomous cars, more parking craters may be redeveloped? Image by Payton Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

AVs could give us better info about roads

An assumption of self-driving vehicles is that they will eventually replace all human drivers, thus freeing us from the often times frustrating and dangerous task of driving. Indeed, as this technology improves, people will likely come around to the idea of safer, timelier, and more efficient drone drivers.

The extent of AV capability, however, isn’t just limited to transporting the masses. Many transportation experts see a myriad of uses that extend to data collection and sharing, reduced need for parking, and even helping to power cities.

“Every individual vehicle,” Research Associate at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, Reginald Viray, explained, “could be used as some kind of probe,” sending information up into the cloud. Across the city, an army of AVs could use this real time data on potholes, accidents, traffic jams, etc., communicating much faster than human drivers. 

Potholes are still a problem, and people won’t be obsolete anytime soon

Before AVs take over, they still have to learn how to navigate complex urban environments. As Linda Bailey, the Executive Director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, pointed out, AVs still have problems with potholes and distinguishing other hazards that they haven’t been taught to recognize.

Alexis Madrigal, a staff writer at the Atlantic, described a case where a Google car encountered a person in wheelchair, with a broom, chasing a wild turkey down the road. While a human driver should (hopefully) know what to do in this situation, the AV didn’t know what to make of it.

So, for the time being, human drivers will be needed to navigate the busy, complex urban environment. More realistically, human drivers and AVs could work in tandem.

Madrigal and Michelle Quadt, an advisor at Capital Projects and Infrastructure, McKinsey and Company, envisioned how AVs could be used on highways to transport freight. A human driver, leading a “train” of AVs, would pull into a “port” before reaching cities. At this port human drivers would take over and drive the rest of the way into the city.

Seleta Reynolds also noted that there would always be a role for human employees on public transport, as they do more than just drive the vehicle. She explained that drivers often give directions, help elderly and disabled people, and also give people a break on the fare when they don't have enough. And, she continued, for safety reasons, it may always be necessary to employ people as a safety precaution.

We also need to consider the jobs AVs could potentially generate in infrastructure. To make the technology work, streets will have to be in better condition so that AVs can better navigate them. Streets will also have to become smarter, using sensors and cameras that can talk to AVs, giving them information they need to operate. Skilled laborers will be critical to maintaining this smarter infrastructure.

A better transportation future means bringing innovators and policymakers together to make sure the technology serves the people

Even with the innovative technologies being developed and various cities experimenting with integrating AVs, the sharing economy, and better use of infrastructure, there are still steep barriers to progress. Pressed on this point, Darnell Grisby, the Director of Policy Development and Research at the American Public Transportation Association, observed that we're looking at a public sector that hasn't been invested in very well.

The partnerships between the private and public sector have been a bit of a mismatch so far, with innovation outpacing regulation. But Grisby thinks that innovation can be used to push the public sector in the right direction.

We can see potential areas of disconnect that could and should be addressed in how we might regulate safety with AVs. Writing policy that applies from the mountains of Maine to the deserts of Arizona, Reynolds pointed out, fails miserably. Each city and rural community is different and we're going to have to become comfortable with writing laws that reflect that fact.

Navigating static country roads (without potholes, of course) is different from navigating complex, dynamic city streets. Our laws may have to reflect the fact that regulation for these vehicles on the open roads could be less stringent than regulations and laws that govern these vehicles for cities.

This isn't to say that it's up to the public sector to jump on board with all the innovation and stop holding progress back. The public sector's social motives, Gabe Klein, a co-founder of CityFi and a former director of the District Department of Transportation, explained, are its greatest strength. We need policymakers to continue to protect consumers and promote progress that's equitable. But it could do more to entice the private sector and bridge the gap between being profit driven and caring about consumers.

On the flip side, while most of this innovation is great and makes our lives more convenient, it won't truly serve the people unless everyone can use it. There are rural and poor communities that have traditionally been left out of development and progress. Integrating these communities into future plans would not only be more equitable, but it would spread economic growth more widely.

This is where policy really comes in. Klein described how when he worked for Zipcar in DC, the company provided the technology and the city provided the space. Part of the partnership deal was that they had to put cars in all eight wards of the city, which is something they might not have done unless the city made them. What they discovered is that their busiest cars were east of the river.

The former Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, summed up transportation's future this way: "As a culture, we need someone to help us figure out how to make transportation our connective tissue." This is a salient point. If innovators and policymakers can connect on how transportation can best serve people, the future will be in reach.

Matthew Koehler is currently a stay at home dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, DC. When not chasing his three-year-old daughter around, he chronicles he fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing Southwest neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark.