A transportation revolution can’t run on autopilot

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Why tech visionaries need to have feet planted firmly on the ground

During the first decade of the Information Age, transportation was something of a backwater for innovation. But over the last several years, excitement around autonomous vehicles and ridesharing – the so-called new mobility – and the ways that these technologies could dramatically alter the cities we know today became a very hot topic.

For example, Elon Musk of Tesla put forward his vision of a future dominated by electric vehicles, mostly owned by individuals, but shared with others during certain hours for extra cash. Not long thereafter, John Zimmer of Lyft described his version of the future, in which ridesharing and autonomous vehicles dominate in just five to 10 years.

The problem with both of these visions is not that they are too ambitious or unrealistic (though their timelines for full vehicle autonomy are probably wildly optimistic). The problem is that these visions are being put forward by companies who want to profit from the outcomes described.

Having a financial stake in a future you believe in is not a bad thing, and neither is having a profitable business. Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation is keenly interested in what market signals are telling us about the future of transportation.

On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that a developer of electric vehicles with autonomous capabilities like Musk believes the future is one where people own lots more of those vehicles. Nor is it random that Zimmer, as the owner of a ridesharing company with financials that look much more appealing without the need for drivers would be selling a future of autonomous ridesharing. This is the same reason Uber has made such a splash launching supposedly autonomous vehicles (which actually include drivers and another employee) in Pittsburgh. As a rule, it is not particularly useful to rely solely on people who are selling things to predict the future of their industry and use of their product.

A more useful question to ask, for those of us who care about improving transportation access and mobility, as well as the social and economic benefits they provide, is: Given how technology is changing and the new options we might have available to us, what kind of future do we want? How do those technological tools fit in? And what kind of realistic policy and infrastructure investments will it take to get us there?

The place to start answering these questions is not with technology. Rather, it’s determining the outcomes we want. Technology is a means to an end — not the end. Some goals we might instead consider are those that solve our some of the top problems we currently face in Los Angeles County.

  • Our transportation system is dominated by one mode – private automobiles – that can be very dangerous, both for people in their vehicles as well as anywhere near them.
  • Our transportation system is primarily powered by one energy source – gasoline – that produces emissions in vast quantities that are polluting our air, warming the planet and threatening our way of life.
  • Our transportation system is highly inefficient and delivers much less mobility than its potential — especially for its poorest citizens — mainly because our roadways are underpriced and our transit systems are underdeveloped.

What Musk and Zimmer get right is that technology has the potential to solve these problems, at least the first and second ones (and probably the third, over time). Autonomous vehicles can make automobiles safer to their occupants and those around them. Electric vehicles can reduce emissions from transportation. Shared, autonomous and electric vehicles have the potential to help solve problems that today’s private autos and public transit can’t address effectively.

But these technologies have not delivered on those promises yet, or even come close. These technologies have potential but that does not mean that they will ultimately win. That’s because technology developers tend to assume that if a technology exists and creates major benefits, it will become implemented on a wide-scale. But public policy experts know that this is not necessarily the case.

Air-bags, seat-belts, and other vehicle safety features existed and could have saved lives for years before they became standard. But auto manufacturers resisted mandatory installation because there was no profit incentive. Electric vehicles have also existed for decades. But they are still a small minority of vehicles on our roads because of challenges with cost, fueling infrastructure and range. Without appropriate public policy, the benefits of technology can be minimal.

This is not an excuse for doing nothing or turning our back on technology. OEI is focused on piloting new ideas and technologies that can tackle the challenges above both today and years down the road.

One thing we know for sure is that making public transit – buses, trains, ridesharing, and bikeshare – work better and deliver faster travel times, while also providing incentives to reduce driving, is likely to make progress against the three challenges outlined above. When transit is better and more people use it, fewer people are at risk for death or injury from a car crash. And fewer people are burning gasoline in their personal vehicles. And when transit is better and more people use it, fewer people are stuck in traffic.

The technology is not the vision. The vision is a safer, more sustainable, more equitable, and more seamless transportation system that effectively serves our region.

This post was written by Joshua Schank, Metro’s Chief Innovation Officer

Cover photo: Google.

6 replies

  1. What Musk, et. al. get right is that the future of transit –of just about anything, really– is choice that is tailored to one’s needs. This is the essence of efficiency. If there is a viable transit alternative to private car ownership that can and will accomodate door-to-door trips then that alternative will win every time. Until or unless Metro wants to consider this as a model of transit then all these private companies will one day eat their lunch. Sooner, rather than later by the looks of things.

  2. A very good article, it points out the realistic side of innovation. A key word is “infrastructure”. How rapidly any new technology becomes “mainstream” depends, to a great extent, on the existing infrastructure.

    Electric vehicle adoption is affected by the cost of electricity, which in turn is affected by the energy source used to generate that electricity. Current sources are mainly fossil fuels, primarily coal, which also is detrimental to the environment. Future sources will be mainly a combination of solar and wind, which is very efficient.

    Autonomous vehicles are affected by the other traffic, especially non-motorized traffic, like pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards, etc. For safety reasons, autonomous vehicles will, of necessity, have to be operated slower on average than human-controlled vehicles. Safety, not only for the passengers, but also for people outside of the vehicle, should be a major consideration.

    Currently, both buses and trains have a much better overall safety record than private automobiles. While they have human operators, the passengers have the advantage of being able to read or use cell phones, even listen to music of their choice with headphones or earbuds. Using a smart phone, it is even possible to safely conduct business or study schoolwork while in transit, the supposed advantage of autonomous vehicles. Therefore, the use of public transportation can be more time-efficient as well. As far as cost-effective, especially with monthly TAP cards, public transportation (METRO trains and buses) is much lower cost. With a monthly TAP card, the more you ride, the cheaper it is.

    Right now, the combination of bus, train, bicycle, monthly TAP card, and a smart phone, gets me around very efficiently in terms of both time and money.

    New innovations (I have several ideas) that take into consideration the existing infrastructure as well as future changes will make it even better.

  3. Wow, such a volume of urban-hipster-speak above – please open a window!
    As a resident of a public transit Black Hole (Hawthorne-Lawndale) I will vocally and vehemently oppose efforts to make driving arbitrarily more expensive. We have major parking and traffic congestion in parts of these cities with no meaningful way to offset POV driving. No, Uber is not the solution for people on low / fixed incomes.
    Metro has cut back on #40 (Hawthorne Bl) and #125 (Rosecrans Ave) frequencies to marginal levels, and our Service Council members won’t give us a reason why. Catch 22 – reduced frequency is causing a lower ridership death spiral.
    Time efficiency? Now there’s an insulting joke. At least Amtrak and BoltBus are around to give me long distance transit alternatives.

  4. The next popular transit mode could be thin electric vehicle car share. Like a motorcycle with standard car doors and windows, narrow electric cars can travel between lanes (known as lanesplitting) or thin lanes could be highlighted, drawn, or built for them and motorcycles to travel on. Four thin electric cars could park in the space of one current side by side seated car. The benefits to the commuter would be much faster driving and parking. The benefit to municipalities. would be that a thin electric car share program would cost very little compared to a new bus line or train, but it would serve anyone who has access to a road and electricity. It would be most beneficial for poorer folks who work in richer parts of the city. If I were running a transportation department, I would charge any car or ride share a much higher rate for side by side seating in their vehicles since more vehicle width creates congestion.

  5. I love to read all the previous comments, as everyone has ideas in the right direction. However, the public misses the most important part of the puzzle, correctly pricing infrastructure and transportation. This is highly politically unfavorable which it why as the public we need to change our mindset. We expect any mass transit (buses, trains, planes) to carry huge insurance policies for accidental death and injury, but for a private automobile driver the insurance requirement is tiny. It keeps the cost of owning a car low, but also the disincentives safer cars and driving. We also have roads that are not priced based on their value. If they were priced based on value, many of the great ideas people have regarding car sharing, shuttles, buses would have a strong market once we priced away congestion. Another point that was brought up was lack of electric vehicles. If the public cared about the environment, they would put pollution fees on the use of gasoline engines. We aren’t following a good approach by subsidizing electric vehicles as a public electricity charging station is not price competitive with gasoline. For the same amount of energy, there isn’t a savings to charge at the new high-speed charging stations vs pumping gasoline. The best part of attacking this transportation problem with pricing is that it provides a great funding source. It also will allow transportation agencies to easily identify which traffic corridors should be augmented with train service. Once the price of a congestion free road corridor reaches a certain level, it would make sense to fund the expensive construction of a railway. Who’s with me to start a real transportation revolution!