The Rise of the

BACK-SEAT DRIVER

Newsweek International - - FUTURE OF TRAVEL -

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.

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