Self-driving cars versus transit: will they compete? Take our poll

Although I’m normally allergic to panel discussions, I actually attended one last month at the Mobility 21 conference on self-driving cars that rose to the level of mighty interesting.

The gist of the conversation: virtually ever major car company is pursuing self-driving cars, the technology is sound, the cars could reduce accidents (in other words, not like human drivers are all that safe) and lawmakers better start getting super serious as to how to regulate them as a lot of them could be on the road within a decade.

And this–the really interesting part: the big marketing push and the big source of demand will likely come from those who can’t or don’t want to drive (seniors, teens, disabled, etc.) but need the mobility a self-driving car could supply. In fact, one of the panelists even proposed that self-driving cars could save government money by negating the need to supply transit in areas where transit is inefficient.

This is already how Google is framing the self-driving car issue:

Not discussed by the panel is another issue I find interesting: if there is a proliferation of self-driving cars, what does that do to transit?

On the one hand, roads will continue to have only a finite amount of space. Yes, perhaps self-driving cars may squeeze some extra capacity from roads by driving more efficiently — but you can only pack so many cars in so much space, presumably.

On the other hand, cars often enjoy the door-to-door convenience factor not afforded by transit. At present, one of the major draws to transit is that it’s a chance for people to relax and/or get some work done.

What happens if you can get that work done in your own car that is driving itself to work? Would sitting in traffic be more tolerable if you didn’t actually have to be the one tapping the brakes and accelerator? Or would traffic still make you go bonkety-bonkers?

Take the poll and comment please.

14 replies

  1. If there was still traffic, I’d use the self driving car to take me to the nearest transit station and then it could drive itself back home and pick me up when I am back. Basically, it would solve the last mile problem.

  2. I think the self driving car thing is a lot of hype at this point. While you will see more semi-automatic cars (similar to airplane autopilot) I don’t think we’ll ever see autonomous vehicles on roadways shared with human beings not in the same vehicles. The liability concerns would be too large. Much like how people throw themselves in front of trains, I could see people killing themselves in front of an autonomous vehicle – there would be no guilt involved, or you have the computer making a decision as to whether to stop suddenly. Also, the average age of the car is getting older and older as cars become more and more reliable.

  3. I see the self-driving car as perhaps an adjunct to transit, rather than a replacement, as a solution to the so-called “last mile” problem.

    Myself, I live about a mile from transit of any kind. If I could take the car to the frequent transit stop, then have it take itself back home to park and come back to pick me up when summoned, that would be awesome.

  4. Self driving transit you mean of all sizes. It is better and cheaper to toss cashmiere seat covers in the trash frequently then deny others the use of bone only shared seats when you would otherwise have to own a car with an offswitch that needs realestate to wait for your rare use of it. The app gets you to where you need to go at a price you most want to pay, or with those or by such path etc.

  5. I think in the end, it’ll come down what the pricing structure of a rent-a-self-driving-car will be like.

  6. Agree with the poster above.

    If Google can figure out a business model on how to make money off from their free search engine, Google will also likely figure out a business model on how to make money off self-driving cars that costs little or nothing for the end user.

    If that becomes the case, then public transit will have a problem. How does Metro, or any public transit agency for that matter, be able to compete with cheap and door-to-door service?

    If Google’s self-driving car becomes cheaper than Metro (Metro’s price today is $75 a month or $1.50 per ride, no free transfers), then everyone will switch to self-driving cars.

    It’s called competition. If there is something better for a cheaper price, that’s what people will move to.

    Of course, we won’t know this until Google actually starts doing self-driving cars and how much it’ll cost to use the service. If it’s more convenient AND cheaper than Metro, than consider Metro’s days over.

  7. Good point about price. It’s all speculative at this point what people will do since we don’t know how much it’s going to cost or no one knows how it’s going to be mass marketed.

    Are people going to be buying these self driving cars at a dealership to own? Or are people going to use it on-demand rental car service like ZipCar? Or is going to be like a taxi where you just hail an empty self driving car driving on the road with an Android app? There’s so much that has yet to be unveiled on how this is going to be sold to consumers.

  8. Self driving cars could be a reality very soon. We already have cars that warn us of a hazard, some automatically brake due to a hazard and lastly some self park. I really don’t mind driving in the city but on long trips it would be nice to just sit back. Remember, taking a bus or rail does not avail one to stop whereever to see or indulge in something on a whim. Also riding mass transit in theory is relaxing when in fact the environment is anything but relaxing and comfortable. Due to political pressures monies that could go to mass transit is diverted for other uses.

  9. Here’s, how I see this evolving: Self driving car (2020), evolves into pods that carry you door to door (2040) then interstate connection hyper tube / evac tube (2060).

  10. There are mutliple other factors involved in this arguement. First, a car is a car is a car. Meaning, self-driving or not, you’re still going to cause congestion with a personal automobile. Second, the cost for a self-driving would probably be significant ($100K for purchase). Third, annual cost of ownership of an autombile is $11K…….not all transit riders have $11K to burn on cars each year.

  11. I see it just being the next step in the evolution of Lyft/Uber type services. The car picks you up and drops you off, then waits for the next person to call it. Lyft already has a business model that provides better and more affordable service than taxis in most areas, and that’s with most of the costs still going to driver labor and with a relatively light saturation of geography. Take driver labor out of the cost structure, and then add in saturation of geographical areas, and you can imagine a couple of clicks on your smartphone, and within less than a minute you have a door to door ride, with the cost of that ride a fraction of what taxis currently charge.
    I don’t think it replaces transit though; I think it will be good for transit because it will increase the number of people without personal cars, or who regularly get around in ways other than a personal car. I might for example take the train to work during rush hour when the service is frequent, but then after staying late, just call a car for the trip home. The same sort of dynamic that currently exists between taxis and transit, but more so.

  12. A car is a car.. It will still out people in personal bubbles.. And just isn’t exciting as riding transit, interacting with other people, WALKING. I think a self driving car is good for those who do oppose transit and would rather stay in the suburbs, but the best thing it will only benefit is less DUIs and ppl will just get more lazy and fat.

  13. LAofAnaheim

    “Third, annual cost of ownership of an autombile is $11K…….not all transit riders have $11K to burn on cars each year.”

    Any proof to cite that? Uh-huh, the folks around my area who go to work with the car to earn minimum wage are all paying $11K/year for their cars. Riiiight.