The Rise of the
HOW PRICEY AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES WILL TRICKLE DOWN TO THE MIDDLE CLASS by David Zipper The first self-driving cars won’t be cheap: Consumers can expect to shell out around $250,000, according to one estimate. Even if prices fall sharply, the average urban resident probably won’t be able to afford to own one. Instead, most people will occasionally hire autonomous vehicles, or AVS, much as we call an Uber or Lyft now. At least at first, they are likely to be a high-end piece of an urban mobility landscape that includes cheaper and more space-efficient modes of transportation, like trains, buses, biking and walking.
It could be possible to knit these modes together to let urban residents purchase a set amount of transportation, regardless of how they move. There is a term for this integrated, multimodal vision: mobility as a service, or Maas.
We’re already starting to see early Maas systems emerge. In Helsinki, commuters can download an app called Whim, created by the company Maas Global, that allows users to pay for public transportation and bike-sharing, as well as private taxis and car-sharing. Users can buy a limited Whim subscription for 49 euros per month or a more extensive one for 499 euros. Various companies make their trips available to the Whim app, and the app provides customer support if a problem arises (such as helping you board a commuter train if your taxi doesn’t show up and no others are available). According to Maas Global, Whim users had booked some 1.8 million trips as of October 2018.
The Maas concept is starting to catch on globally, with Whim services rolling out in Singapore, as well as Antwerp, Belgium, and Birmingham, England. In the United States, Uber and Lyft have been among the first companies to embrace Maas. Lyft now offers $299 monthly subscriptions that include 30 rides of up to $15 each. In the
future, Lyft could augment its subscriptions with access to the networks of dockless scooters and docked, shared bicycles that the company operates in cities nationwide. Lyft probably would not offer an umbrella service that, like Whim’s, integrates competing services on one platform, however. (It’s hard to imagine the company allowing customers to book a trip on, say, Jump, Uber’s e-bike service.) A true Maas platform would compete on the basis of customer service and user experience, not the brands that are held within its walled garden.
If Maas takes off, it could provide an easy way to integrate shared autonomous vehicles into a city’s mobility network. The Maas platforms can simply add the AV services to their subscription offers, perhaps charging a premium to those who want autonomous trips to be available in their monthly package. Car providers would be able to tap into the Maas user base, and the convenience of the services could encourage residents to get rid of their personal vehicle and opt for ride-hailing, freeing up precious urban space currently used for parking.
The vision is enticing, but there is no guarantee it’s attainable. For one thing, a universal Maas platform would include all available modes, and even Helsinki’s Whim is currently missing Uber, Drivenow and others that haven’t signed on. Subscription services could also create congestion, instead of mitigate it, by encouraging subscribers to use cars, at no extra cost, instead of opting for public transit.
Maas is in its early days; even in Helsinki, Whim accounts for less than 0.5 percent of trips. But if the concept catches on, it will provide the best AV entry point for the middle class.
DAVID ZIPPER is a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a partner in the 1776 Venture Fund, where he oversees investments in smart cities and mobility ventures.
appealing, AV services could offer to match riders according to their social compatibility apps—so that, for example, chatty types are picked up by one vehicle, catnappers and readers by another. Perhaps bankers ride with bankers and artists with artists.
Fancier versions of ride-sharing vehicles could provide each passenger a tiny, private, partitioned compartment, or a double compartment with facing chairs for meetings. Those willing to put up with advertising pitches might have their trip costs subsidized. An additional incentive to ride-share could come from providing a tax rebate, or simply charging a “congestion tax” to those who drive alone.
What would really do the trick, says Texas Tech’s Pearl, is giving shared driverless vehicles their own dedicated high-speed lanes in and around the city, much like the lanes for high-occupancy vehicles on many highways, leaving solo vehicle drivers to stew in traffic. “When people are crawling down the street in a car by themselves and they see other vehicles flying by,” she says, “they’ll switch.”
Cities serious about wringing real transformation out of the AV revolution will eventually have to ban human drivers altogether on the city’s busiest roads. If AVS are free from having to deal with unpredictable, emotional humans, they will be able to go faster and pack themselves more tightly onto the roads for higher traffic flow.
Much of what happens to driverless cars in the coming years and decades will be shaped by government policy, whether it addresses liability, the way cities and suburbs grow, or how to separate human drivers from AVS. Will cities have the wherewithal to impose regulations that ultimately spell the end of car ownership? Would drivers put up with it?
Some European cities are already considering banning private cars from their centers, says Optimus’s Chin. China’s autocratic leaders might have an even better chance. But banning driving could be a tougher sell in the U.S. “You almost need a constitutional amendment to take away people’s cars here,” says Carter.
The danger of inaction is that AV technology turns out to be a sort of Trojan horse, promising new convenience and another leap in mobility but adding to already intractable problems. To create a better future, cities and suburbs around the world need to follow Singapore’s lead and take control of the technology, and they need to do it soon. Without planning and investments up front, it will take years, even decades, of headaches to get to a driverless nirvana—if we can get there at all. “No matter what we do,” says Larco, “there will be unintended consequences that could have dire effects if we’re not prepared.”
Piatkowski agrees, but he worries we’ll flood the streets with AVS first and worry about policy later, after it’s too late. “That’s what happened in 1915, when we first got automobiles. Nobody thought things through, and we ended up with sprawl,” he says. “Fixing policies is hard work.”
Maybe we’ll do better this time. If not, we may soon be pining for the days when one of our worst transportation problems was manure.