A group of researchers at the Organization for Cooperation and Development recently took accumulated trip data for the city of Lisbon, Portugal, and utilized it for a simulation of the effects that self-driving vehicle technology (through the use of a fleet of self-driving taxis) could have on the city.
The findings of the simulation were similar to those of other such experiments — the use of self-driving taxis would eliminate up to 90% of the cars in use in cities, commute times would drop by up to 10%, and large areas of (what was previously) parking would be opened up for other uses.
The self-driving taxis imagined for the simulation would be almost constantly on the move, utilizing “a marriage of mass carpooling and UPS delivery intelligence” to match and predict usage needs.
“Nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 10% of the cars TaxiBots combined with high-capacity public transport could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city,” the paper stated. “For small and medium-sized cities, it is conceivable that a shared fleet of self-driving vehicles could completely obviate the need for traditional public transport.”
The coverage continues, noting that, with the decreased individual car usage accompanying the use of self-driving taxis, “Lisbon alone would have 210 football fields of extra space (or 20% of ‘kerb-to-kerb’ space). It’s also worth noting that there would be significant savings (not mentioned in the report). Because parking spaces increase the cost of construction, expensive development gets passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices on retail goods and rent. One study found that parking spaces bump the price retail goods 1% and the environmental research group, the Sightline Institute, estimated that free parking in Seattle spikes rental costs about $246/month per person.”
Obviously, the sort of future imagined in the simulation is what companies like Uber, Tesla, Lyft, and GM have in mind and expect, but there are some things that still remain to be worked out before such a future is a possibility. Ignoring the remaining software/technical issues (which will likely be overcome satisfactorily in a few years), there are issues of application, issues of ingrained habits and general resistance to change, potential issues with property damage and criminal activity, etc.
Additionally, while this study find a reduction in traffic, other research on the topic has come to the conclusion that traffic would increase (as travelling in a passenger car would become cheaper and people would be more willing to put up with traffic and long commutes when not the ones driving).
While I certainly think that self-driving taxis will be rolled out en masse in the next decade or two, there are likely to be a number of unforeseen issues (as there always are) that will lead to increased costs and reduced net benefits. The sort of scenario outlined in the work above is utopian. It’s likely to be far messier in practice.