Reality Check: What Will Happen When AVs Are Deployed
Tue, April 20, 2021

Reality Check: What Will Happen When AVs Are Deployed

The global autonomous vehicle market was valued at $27.09 billion in 2017 and is forecasted to reach $615.02 billion by 2026 at a CAGR of 41.5%, according to UK-based market intelligence company Trends Market Research / Photo by: jvdwolf via 123RF

 

Imagine it’s 2035 and you are on your way to watch a movie in a theater, said Cameron Roberts of Fast Company, a monthly American business magazine. You fish out your phone from your pocket instead of your car keys because you don’t own a car. You then order a ride to come and pick you up. The vehicle arrives at your doorstep and it has neither a driver nor a steering wheel. The car then drives you to your destination without any glitch. 

This is a common utopian prediction relating to the disruption of the transportation sector. Autonomous vehicles promise us a hands-free solution to various transport issues. There is also a belief that these vehicles will address environmental and social problems without worrying about politics, activism, or even travel time. Sadly, AVs, if left to their own devices, can do more harm than good. Hence, we will have to toggle the autopilot off and reform the system of autonomous mobility to serve our needs as well as the planet’s. 

 

Statistics on AVs

The global autonomous vehicle market was valued at $27.09 billion in 2017 and is forecasted to reach $615.02 billion by 2026 at a CAGR of 41.5%, according to UK-based market intelligence company Trends Market Research. The growing elderly population, increased government focus on streamlined traffic infrastructure, as well as an increased number of high-end passenger cars are some of the key factors that influence the AV market. Moreover, the transition from car ownership to mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) will also provide ample opportunities for growth. 

In the US, 37,000 people died in road incidents in 2017, making it a leading cause of death even though human-controlled driving is a relatively safe activity and therefore there is room for improvement, stated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), the US’ leading national public health institute, as cited by Emily Stewart of Vox, an American news and opinion website. Alarmingly, two million individuals are injured each year due to motor vehicle accidents. 

In a 2017 study conducted by American non-profit global policy think tank RAND Corporation, deploying cars that are 10% safer than the average human driver will save more lives rather than waiting for vehicles that are 75% to 90% better than human drivers. Simply, the more we wait for AVs to be perfect, the more lives will be lost. 

More Cars and Roads

At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Futurama, a General Motors-sponsored diorama, promised that fast and efficient highways would make traffic accidents and congestion a thing of the past. Induced demand clogged up the highways once they were actually built as people leveraged the new roads to embark on new trips that they didn’t do before. 

AVs may pose a similar risk of the same phenomenon. For example, efficient autonomous highways might prompt people to drive further, increasing commute distances, and their ability to work or sleep would make them “think much less of a two-hour commute.”  

Cars might also become less energy efficient because they are designed to meet the demands of people. Passengers may run vehicles at a much faster speed because they’re safer. However, this consumes more energy due to aerodynamic resistance. Hence, car manufacturers may design bigger vehicles to accommodate mobile offices and bedrooms.  This might be mitigated by electric vehicles, but electricity may still come from fossil fuels. 

Furthermore, larger vehicles with larger batteries will emit more carbon as a result of their construction. These processes could be carbon-neutral, theoretically speaking. The best alternative is to reduce the number of kilometers traveled rather than to increase them. 

No to Robo-Taxis

Utopians envision AVs to be shared rather than owned privately, which would be a more sustainable option. But the reality here is that people are attached to their cars. They prefer a vehicle that can be instantly dispatched, using it as a mobile storage locker and showing it off as a sign of their social status. Besides, shard vehicles might be uncomfortable for some people. 

Hence, robo-taxis might have hard plastic, bus-style seats rather than plush, upholstered interiors due to the risk of vandalism and mess caused by unsupervised passengers. Even if autonomous taxis cost $1 per mile, only 10% of individuals would give up their cars, as stated in a survey by Charlie Johnson and Jonathan Walker of Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent non-profit organization. 

Utopians envision AVs to be shared rather than owned privately, which would be a more sustainable option. But the reality here is that people are attached to their cars. They prefer a vehicle that can be instantly dispatched / Photo by: Jaromír Chalabala via 123RF

 

Looking at the Bright Side

What if your future trip to the theater looks a little different? Chances are the vehicle that picked you up “will be more like a last-mile shuttle for public transit.” The vehicle will move slowly but comfortably as it picks up multiple passengers on its way to the local transit hub. The transit hub is where you will board a light rail line to get to the movie theater with time to spare. 

This can complement other existing forms of sustainable mobility rather than competing with them, making car ownership much less of a requirement. Technology’s current roadblocks will be conquered if shared, slow autonomous shuttles are combined with public transit and other forms of sustainable mobility, minimizing the risk of killing or hurting anyone. 
Change will not happen magically. We must take steps in revolutionizing the transport sector through regulations and negotiations. We must also assess the risks of AVs before they are deployed on roads.