United States: Autonomous Cars Are Here To Stay, But Are Cities Ready For Them?

Without question, autonomous cars and autonomous systems are here to stay. As automotive manufacturers, suppliers, and new entrants to the industry dive headfirst into the autonomous vehicle sector, questions remain as to how prepared U.S. cities are as the impending swarm of self-driving and semi-autonomous cars, trucks, and buses hit city roads in the coming years. Cities and states around the United States are facing budgetary constraints which have led to crumbling road infrastructure, overburdened and out of date public transit systems, and increasingly higher traffic congestion. While consumers and industry leaders see autonomous vehicles as the salvation to commuting woes, lack of coordination between transit systems, poor urban planning, and lack of attention to long-term transit solutions may delay or prevent the benefits of autonomous vehicles from ever being realized.

A recently released research report from the Regional Plan Association notes several important facts that cities and consumers must understand as autonomous vehicles hit the road. While autonomous vehicles provide promises of hassle free driving, cities are not built in a way to maximize the benefit of autonomy, but rather cater to the interests of self-driving consumers. In an effort to accommodate autonomous vehicles as a form of commuting, cities will have to consider an overhaul of streetscapes and how autonomous vehicles can plug the gaps and integrate within existing transit infrastructure. This means a concerted focus by cities to commit to a mass modernization of traffic management systems ("TMS") and integrating autonomous vehicles into city-wide transit plans. But, a report by the National League of Cities ("NLC") finds that only 6% of major metropolitan areas transit plans include discussions, let alone plans, relating to autonomous vehicles.

While a few cities around the county have implemented modern TMS systems which account for real-time traffic flow, few cities utilize connected systems between cars and the TMS system. Volkswagen's Audi name badge was one of the first major manufacturers to provide the vehicle architecture system which supports a TMS 2.0 system utilizing Vehicle-2-Infrastructure ("V2I") technology. The Audi V2I system, which was recently launched in Las Vegas, NV in 2016, establishes real-time communication between vehicles and the TMS system throughout a city. In theory, this type of TMS system will utilize real-time data, including location, speed, and destination of vehicles on the road (if known) to efficiently move traffic along select transit corridors. The V2I system will utilize vehicle data to maximize transit efficiency for a consumer in the car, as well as fellow drivers and passengers on the roadway. Furthermore, such systems will notify cars when to move along alternate routes to avoid accidents and re-route drivers if more efficient transit methods exist, such as subways, buses, or light-rails. At its present stage, the Audi V2I system only allows the TMS system to communicate to cars the traffic light changing information. The Audi system currently shows on the Heads-Up Display and system computer the time until the participating traffic lights are to change in an effort to reduce stress "and allows the driver to relax knowing approximately how much time remains before the changing of the light." But, future iterations of this system will likely incorporate more granular data to impact the start/stop features on cars, allow for navigation optimization based on light timing, speed recommendation to maximize green light sequencing, more efficient traffic flow patterns, and coordination with other transit systems to maximize transit efficiency as a connected system. As more vehicles on the road shift towards autonomous and semi-autonomous systems, V2I systems will only become more robust and effective as a tool to maximize transit efficiency and integrate cars into the "tapestry of transportation" throughout a city.

This focus on autonomous and the integration of the car into the "tapestry of transportation" is a necessity for the full benefits of autonomous vehicles to be realized by consumers and businesses alike. While 20% of the cities in the NLC report are entertaining the prospect of a "road diet", only 3% of these cities take into account alternative transit services like Uber, Lyft, bike-share programs and Chariot, despite the fact these systems are ubiquitous in major cities throughout the United States and Canada. In fact, a study by University of California Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies found that while ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft slightly decreased car ownership – a widely articulated benefit of these services – these services also result in the unintended consequence of increased traffic congestion. As a result of Uber and Lyft replacing taxis with a more convenient and consumer friendly form of transit, consumers who would ordinarily bus, bike, or walk are now instead, pulling out their phone to hail a ride. The report authors note that "[r]ide-hailing is ... likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles traveled in the major cities represented in [the] study." As services like Uber and Lyft look to integrate autonomous systems into their ride-hailing fleets, costs of operation are likely to decrease and as a result reduce the cost to consumers as well. As a ride hailing service's "price-plus-convenience factor" outweighs that of alternative transit forms, more and more consumers will shift from public transit, such as light rail, bus, and bikes towards ride hailing apps. This will ultimately result in more autonomous vehicles clogging roadways as consumers shift to transit methods with the highest benefit. Until autonomous systems effectively integrate into legacy transit systems, the utopian benefits of speeding down roadways at uniform speeds and without delay will never be realized in part of full.

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