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Autonomous Cars vs. Mass Transit, Who Will Win?

Autonomous Waymo Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan undergoing testing in Los Altos, California. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Author Dllu

By Randy Bryan, Co-Founder Drive Electric NH

I have been thinking about this question for some time now. Like a picture puzzle, lots of little pieces (facts and opinions on autonomous vehicles), but I had no sense of the image. That changed last night, in my sleep, when I usually do my best thinking, as the image started to reveal itself. I hope my conclusions aren’t old hat to the reader, as they seem quite new to me.

Guiding my thoughts was an inextricable grounding in what I would want to do. There are lots of aspects to this issue: autonomous cars, autonomous buses, trains, city use, suburban use, rural use, and, oh yeah, human nature. Let’s go through some questions.

Some pundits have said that autonomous vehicles will take over all driving (no steering wheel). As autonomous vehicles prove safer, insurance for vehicles with steering wheels may eventually go much higher than for those without. And who wants to drive in traffic jams and city streets? On the other hand, who doesn’t want to drive on a mountain road on a clear day or take the family on vacation in your own car? My conclusion is most driving will go automated, especially the closer to cities.

Freight transport is another area ripe for automated driving. Trucks can “platoon” (bunch up to decrease wind resistance and fuel use) with the lead truck making the route decisions. If a truck farther back in the chain wants to leave, it will slide out to an empty space and the platoon will re-join. Lower fuel cost, no driver, same start and destinations. This is a no-brainer. Most long route trucking will go automated.

Some pundits have said autonomous cars will kill taxis and local bus transit. I believe this will be mostly true for local travel. The prospect of having my car drive me to any destination is enticing (I can read, watch and text to my heart’s content). Shared autonomous driving (Uber-like service) offers even lower cost options; individual pickup and drop-off is a winning combination. Those who can’t drive will be newly empowered. The hold ups will be timeliness of pickups, cleanliness of the cars, and whether you pay not to share the ride with others and their destinations. Expensive taxis and fixed local bus routes will suffer.

Some pundits have said autonomous cars will kill bus and train transit. Yesterday, I would have agreed. But, according to my revelation last night, this is not so assured. Yes, people will prefer their own car on any roads available up to some painful congestion point (learned from many years traveling on Long Island). That pain point will be easier to tolerate when we don’t drive and can entertain ourselves. The real constraint here is destination parking (availability and cost). Why take your automated car if the destination’s parking is problematic and expensive? This is where cities can control their own destiny. Constrained parking means more people will favor mass or shared transit where no parking is required. But, for mass transit to succeed, travelers will want convenient local travel at their destination. Fortunately, automated Uber-like shared transport (serial or parallel sharing) means affordable individualized transport will be available in most urban and suburban destinations. So, a city no longer needs a comprehensive bus system like greater New York or London for commuters to feel free to leave their car behind.

Will buses or trains win out for mass transit? Buses of all sizes will certainly lower their operating cost when they go electric (much lower fuel and maintenance costs) and driver costs are eliminated. Smaller bus sizes will gain the most. But, as the roads fill up, buses will slow down too, unless high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are available. This is again where city planners can affect their own city’s destiny. HOV lanes versus rail tracks? I am not an expert on this. There are strong advocates on both sides. For me, it is sufficient to know that mass transit can be favored (constrained parking) and available (ongoing investment) as needs and solutions change. City planners have the tools to shape their world.

Randy Bryan is one of the co-founders of Drive Electric NH. Randy has been an advocate for electric cars for eight-plus years. His company, ConVerdant Vehicles, has converted vehicles to plug-in hybrids, including his own Prius in 2008, and developed and sold inverters that turn a Prius into an emergency generator.

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