Autonomous Cars Will Get Road Rage Too

Picture the scene. It’s a typical morning commute, marked by traffic congestion and frustration. Except this time it’s not drivers complaining to each other about the traffic, it’s autonomous cars. That sounds ridiculous, but it is the current trajectory for the future of personal mobility. The allure of Elon Musk’s vision for autonomous vehicles is understandable, particularly with proclamations that “within two years you’ll be able to summon your car from across the country”, all of the obvious safety benefits to come, and all the cool tech that goes with that.

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However, a missing dimension when we paint this vision is our daily pattern of car utilization. The efficiency of our transportation system doesn’t improve simply because cars will drive themselves more efficiently than we can. A predictable tidal wave of traffic congestion will still hit all of our cities every weekday morning and evening. In fact, it will get worse.

The pervasive wisdom is that autonomous cars will appear and disappear as we wish, wherever we go. Our primary transportation resource (256 million cars and counting) will essentially live in the cloud. Personalized mobility on demand. Most articles written on the subject portray a transportation system that is seamlessly efficient, the ultimate product of the sharing economy. And a recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains that “Twenty-five years from now, the only people still owning cars will be hobbyists, hot-rodders and flat-earth dissenters.” Common perception is, therefore, that this version of the future is inevitable. It is not.

Today, the average occupancy of a car is 1.1 people at commute time. That’s the reason you waste a week of your time every year simply sitting in traffic. Research has shown that even a small (2–5%) reduction in traffic volumes can lead to a giant reduction in total traffic delay (25–27%). And yet, instead of our cities competing on commute-time occupancy scores for federal transportation funding, we continue to invest $80 billion annually on new roads and $87 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity. Not to mention the harmful impact on local air quality, with the American Lung Association reporting that almost half of us are breathing air polluted enough to make us sick.

At the same time as making these investments, we celebrate the arrival of the autonomous car as the solution, with President Obama recently announcing $4 billion over the next 10 years on autonomous vehicle technology. That $4 billion is largely earmarked for safety features, a very worthy cause — but auto and tech companies need to also start investing in better understanding car utilization patterns. Without learning today how society can better use cars, the autonomous car of the future is unlikely to have a greater occupancy at peak travel times, and it will be riderless a large portion of the time, as it moves to and from the “cloud”, thereby driving occupancy rates down further.

Today, the average American household has 2.28 cars, each one sitting idle 95% of the time. For most Americans, there is no alternative. Most people live and work in America’s suburbs and exurbs; they don’t take Uber to get to work, and they don’t live near a transit stop. They’ve been left behind by a downtown mindset in mobility innovation and neglected in our collective vision for Shared Autonomous Cars, if we even have one. A recent MIT studyshows that the entire population of Singapore could be served by approximately 1/3 of the total number of passenger vehicles currently in operation — but getting to that point requires a giant collaborative effort, fueled by Tesla-levels of iteration and inspiration, and ultimately leading to societal behavior change.

There is, therefore, an urgent and fundamental need to change our long-established car utilization patterns. The same (high-occupancy) car that takes you and your neighbors to work must be the same car that takes your colleagues to off-site appointments during the day, and your family to a restaurant or Ikea or the beach in the evening.

At Carma, we're proud to be working with Toyota to make this a reality. Our fleet of Toyota hybrid vehicles are available to Toyota team members for a shared commute to work, and for private errand trips during the day. The logistics are challenging and we learn new lessons every day, but we believe that car utilization patterns are fundamental to the efficiency of our wider transportation system. Not just for the next generation, but for today’s.

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Surely it’s time for Silicon Valley to apply the same urgency to ensuring cars are shared and filled throughout the day as it has to summoning a car from 3,000 miles away. The conversation around autonomous cars has to start encompassing the logistics of how a car gets utilized for 24 hours, not just for 1. That technological and behavioral challenge is one that faces us today, not just in 10 or 15 years time. If we don’t change course, we’re heading towards a future in which zero occupancy vehicles further clog up our already congested roads. And nothing is more likely to trigger robots taking over the planet than having robot cars stuck in traffic every day, right?

A version of this post first appeared in Fast Company (Co.Exist).

Emmett Murphy is Chief Product Officer at Carma