Driverless Cars: Beyond Tech & Consumer Behaviour

This longer article from PBS’ Nova Next offers a very good summary of the current public conversation regarding the effect of driverless cars on cities. The main point of the article is that three vehicle technologies –autonomous, shared and electric – have the potential to substantially transform our transportation environment into a more sustainable, safer and less congested future – but only if they happen concurrently. Otherwise, the effect would be an exacerbation of current mobility woes: pollution, sprawl and congestion. A bright future, or a bleak one.

I have written about the utopia vs dystopia urban scenarios before, but where the Nova article differs is in its conclusion. In essence, it says something like this: If technology is cheap it will be adopted by the consumer. Thus, the sustainable future will be only possible if sharing and electric technology arrive in time to meet the autonomous vehicles that will be mainstream sooner than we thought.

This conclusion, however, assumes that the ‘boat is rudderless’ and that the future outcomes are merely a factor of technology and price. This argument misses two key aspects: multimodality and public policy.

It is not only the cost of car travel that impacts consumer choice; cars do not exist in a vacuum, but coexist in a mobility ecosystem that provide a bundle of alternatives. Where many options are available, users increasingly become multimodal, choosing the right mode for a particular trip at a particular point in time. The rise of multimodal transportation apps is a testament to this.

In parallel, transportation public policy can also have an influence on consumer choice, as this study by OECD distinctly shows. Car use can be nudged in either direction by initiatives and regulations of the public sector. Think, for example, about strategic investment in transit infrastructure or congestion pricing for no- or low-occupancy vehicles.

Just take a look how commute to downtown Seattle has changed in the last six years through a sustained public policy for multimodality. How else can you explain a 5% drop in car commute share with a 20% increase in jobs?

Consumers don’t make decisions in a vacuum, they do them within a given context, and this context is shaped by the available transportation modes and the applicable public policy framework. When faced with the transition to driverless cars, will we just let it happen or will we shape it intelligently, as Seattle has done? I hope for the latter.

Oliver Hartleben

Oliver Hartleben is the Coordinator of TH!NK, IBI Group’s R&D unit. A perpetual lateral thinker, he has worked over 20 years in the planning, architecture and transportation sectors and is passionate about the pieces that make up a city and how connecting them can produce better outcomes for urban dwellers. Oliver grew up in Guatemala City and moved to Vancouver three years ago from Boston.

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