Dreams of utopia: The future of AVs

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September 14, 2018

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Earlier this week, UCLA’s own Ryan Snyder — a lecturer on transportation planning at UCLA and principal at Transpo Group — hosted a conference focused on autonomous vehicles. I was fortunate to attend, because as a newcomer to the field of transportation planning and a self-described technological luddite, I found the day spent learning about cars that drive themselves to be an unexpected delight.

For instance, did you know that:

  • The parking structure at the Century City Westfield Mall can be adapted to serve as retail space? David DeRosa of AECOM informed us that as part of the mall’s recently completed $1 billion renovation, the parking structure was built with flat floors, and spiral ramps for entry and exit. This costly alternative to ramped floors allows for the structure to be converted to retail space in a future world, where autonomous vehicles have rendered parking superfluous. And as an added perk, it feels like you’re on Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road whenever you leave the mall. 
  • 14 percent of LA city’s area is parking. There are nine parking spaces per car in Los Angeles, said Renee Dake Wilson, the vice president of the LA City Planning Comission. Autonomous, shared vehicles could reduce parking demand in LA by up to 80 percent.
  • Lyft is now completing over 1 million rides every day, according to Jody Kelman of the company’s self-driving platform. At that rate, if their fleet were to be all electric, they would cut their annual greenhouse gas emissions by more than the total annual greenhouse gas emissions of California and Texas combined.

The world of autonomous vehicles is at once tangible, and distant. These industry leaders are thinking about self-driving cars across a few key axes:

Connected and autonomousAutonomous vehicles use sensors to evaluate their external environment and respond accordingly. Connected vehicles use these same sensors, but also communicate with other vehicles on the road, and send and receive data from waypoints along the road, including information on traffic patterns or emergency vehicles. Connected autonomous vehicles open up a new world of possibility: dynamic pricing by lane, based on traffic patterns; obstruction-free routing of emergency vehicles; and “platooning” of trucks or passenger vehicles for enhanced efficiency and safety.

It has to be electricCars that drive themselves make time spent in the car commuting a whole lot less painful. Autonomous vehicles will invariably induce demand. Transportation is California’s highest emitter of greenhouse gases. Electric vehicles not only dramatically reduce carbon emissions, but they are easier to maintain and last longer: about 500,000 estimated miles, versus 150,000 for a gas-powered car. And electric vehicle technology has a bright future. Solar-powered roads have already been piloted (albeit not especially successfully), and new wireless charging could make electric vehicle charging stations a thing of the past.

Sharing is the futureThe private automobile is not only unsustainable, but it contributes to anomie and social isolation. Lyft has begun to redirect users to shared services on the landing screen of their app. In planning for future policy, the LA Department of Transportation recognizes the need to give priority to services that incentivize shared rides. And transportation engineering firms like Stantec have designed and piloted autonomous shuttles to meet first and last mile transit needs that municipal bus routes might overlook.

Equity mattersDake Wilson put it best: “Cars are profoundly inequitable.” Those with the means to afford a car (and yes, many poor people own cars too) can pay for the mobility that cars provide. But the gap between car-owners and non-car owners presents a huge opportunity gap. As Anne Brown and Brian Taylor write in a chapter from the new book Three Revolutions, “Unequal access to automobility manifests in fewer trips and miles traveled by low-income compared to higher-income households.” The question remains, will this autonomous future close this mobility gap between those who can afford cars and those who cannot? Equity issues manifest in terms of differently-abled people as well as low-income people and households. While ride-hailing services today, in theory, can provide more on-demand service than existing dial-a-ride paratransit, many people are concerned discrimination still exists. In fact, California Senate Bill 1376, currently on Governor Brown’s desk awaiting signature, is trying to ensure greater accessibility requirements for transportation network companies.

The future of automated mobility is near. As Ryan Snyder presaged, “this is all new…there will be many unforeseen consequences that we haven’t talked about, but what’s important is that we start the conversation now.” This conversation will dictate whether autonomous vehicles further inequity in a dystopic, car-centric world; or if they create community, enhance efficiency, and bring us Angelenos a step closer to the utopia we’ve long been promised.


Naveen Agrawal

Naveen was previously an editorial assistant for Transfers and a graduate student in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.