Opher Baron and Oded Berman are professors of operation management and Mehdi Nourinejad is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto
Driverless cars are poised to radically change our lifestyles in the future. For example, imagine taking a nap as your car drives you home after a long day of work. But not everyone shares the same level of optimism.
After dropping you off at your destination, the car, with no occupants on board, makes a “zombie trip” to pick up another passenger. The skeptics of driverless cars envision a grim future with urban gridlock and an average vehicle occupancy of less than one.
We see great potential in driverless cars. Our view is contingent on government implementing appropriate policies and making timely investment in infrastructure. We believe that a fair assessment of the viability of driverless cars relies on three major C’s: connectivity, comfort and collaborative consumption.
Connectivity is the ability of driverless cars to communicate with each other and the infrastructure. In a futuristic scenario, traffic lights are eliminated and driverless cars weave through each other at the intersection without stopping. This vision is not far-fetched. Audi is currently connected to more than 2,250 traffic lights in 10 cities including Phoenix, Houston and Washington. In contrast, ineffective inter-vehicle communication, or lack thereof, may actually impede traffic as driverless cars keep large headways from other vehicles to avoid accidents.
Comfort of travelling in a driverless car is higher than in a regular one. There is no driver who has to focus on the road. As an example, the Volvo 360c is a concept car that offers passengers with all of the comforts of home including an onboard bed, similar to but more comfortable than reclining aircraft seats. This additional comfort is perceivably positive but may stimulate people to travel more, causing congestion – you are more likely to visit your in-laws if you can watch a movie on the way there.
Collaborative consumption, the shared use of vehicles, becomes increasingly convenient, because driverless cars can self-relocate between consecutive ride requests. Waymo, a Google sister company, is running a pilot robo-taxi service in Phoenix. The program is geo-fenced, where cars are restricted to a specific area using GPS, with more than 400 participants and will gradually expand into new neighbourhoods of the city. But the zombie trips, required for relocation, create additional congestion that irritates other travellers – imagine the frustration of a traffic jam when you look around and find your surrounding cars are all empty.
The impact of driverless cars on cities relies on the manifestation of the three C’s. Their benefits can be promoted and their disadvantages can be mitigated with implementation of appropriate policies and investments.
A first step is to geo-fence the locations the driverless cars can travel. California began piloting driverless cars by allowing them to drive on designated streets and highways. High exposure to the same restricted area allows driverless cars to collect accurate maps of their surroundings. If a vehicle passes a school many times a day, it learns to be aware of the presence of children.
There must be investment in new infrastructure in telecommunications and traffic controls as the existing systems are outdated. The 4G network must be fully replaced by the upcoming 5G networks, which is critical in the control of driverless cars. Traffic light technology has also remained unchanged for decades. Upgrading the infrastructure improves vehicular communication – thus increasing the chances of driverless cars to success.
The nightmare of congestion caused by empty cars as suggested by some critics must be addressed. One way of reducing zombie trips is to price them. State-of-the-art pricing technology should identify the number of occupants on board using image-based recognition systems such as the ones implemented in licence-plate detection, which is used for tolls and congestion charges. The objective is to make empty vehicles pay more. Pricing policies hinder unnecessary trips in the transportation network.
Government could subsidize the use and ownership of driverless cars by offering rebates to households or firms that provide robo-taxi services. Currently, fully driverless cars are not affordable for the general public – at least not at their initial release. They can cost upwards of US$100,000 because of their embedded automation technology.
Although the price would eventually decrease with better production, it might remain high for a while. Subsidies have proven successful with electric vehicles in countries such as Norway. The ultimate goal is to improve the social well-being of the entire community by improving traffic, reducing emissions and enhancing accessibility to mobility.