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When people think of autonomous vehicles, they almost always think about cars. As automotive and tech giants race to unveil new vehicles and services, it naturally commands the public’s focus. Headlines appear nearly every day about new businesses forming, and about traditional businesses investing in autonomous vehicles and technology. When an accident on test sites takes place, it grabs headlines for months.


Advocates of autonomous transit point out that most private vehicles are idle 95% of the time, and that electric, on-demand autonomous services solve urban problems such as traffic jams, air pollution and even affordable housing by allowing cities to replace an auto-centric infrastructure such as parking garages with a people-centric infrastructure — housing nearer to jobs.


In the shadow of the spotlight on autonomous cars, a mythology about what autonomous transit means has emerged. Let’s look at three common myths surrounding autonomous mobility, the facts that these myths obscure and the real solution to the vision that they point to.


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1. Autonomous cars will improve traffic.

Not by themselves. A study of Manhattan traffic found that the rise of ride-hailing services from the likes of Uber and Lyft have made traffic worse, putting 59% more vehicles and 81% more empty vehicles, on the street. Swapping human-driven vehicles for autonomous ones alone is not likely to make things much better.



For autonomous transit to deliver on the promise to reduce congestion, shared services will need to be developed. A University of Texas study modeled an Austin neighborhood and simulated weekday travel for a 10-mile by 10-mile zone. It found that if just 5% of residents shared rides, each shared vehicle would replace about 11 private autos and the 20,000 people who made up this shared network would need just 1,700 vehicles to get around. Just 1,700 vehicles for 20,000 people — that’s getting cars off the street!




2. Autonomous cars will increase the use of public transit.

This is highly unlikely without careful integration. While autonomous vehicles and services can, and should, complement public transit, simply adding these vehicles to the streets is unlikely to make that happen. Again, using ride-hailing as an example, a landmark U.C. Davis study analyzed the behavior of users and found that 49 to 61% of people used ride-hailing in place of public transit. Public transit use in the U.S. has been on the decline since the advent of these services — down 2.9% in 2017, which is not good news for commuters. By merely replacing human-driven services with autonomous cars, which is what the ride-hailing services intend to do given their investments in autonomous vehicles, you’re not likely to see different results.



In addition to being shared, autonomous transit will need to be multi-modal — or in other words, synchronized with public transit to solve the “last-mile” obstacle that prevents so many commuters from using public transportation. When homes or offices are too far from transit hubs for convenient access, people stay in their cars. Recent announcements by ride-hailing companies that they will integrate public transit schedules into their apps to streamline last-mile services are an encouraging development. On a positive note, Lyft has launched a program to share public transit schedules on its app to make connections more convenient.




3. It’s all about the car.

The first and second myths have already shown that replacing human-driven cars and services with autonomous ones is not likely to change traffic congestion. A vehicle alone is not a service. Imagine thousands of autonomous cars trying to get to the same place at the same time as human-driven cars do now. The future is not about a car for every person whether privately owned or through an on-demand service.



Shared, multi-modal services are what will be needed for autonomous vehicles to create the social good that we hope they will, which means the vehicles will need to be managed as fleets that work together. Think air traffic control for vehicles, which requires the ability to distribute vehicles intelligently, to match supply with demand, to synchronize with public transit and to pool passengers based on journey origins and destination.




Smart Mobility For Smart Cities

There’s little dispute that the world’s cities are already under tremendous strain. Traffic congestion, air quality and housing shortages already threaten the quality of life in cities. Roughly half of the world’s population live in urban areas now, according to the United Nations, and that number is expected to surge to 68% by 2050. New mobility services have the potential to ease these strains. But it won’t happen if we don’t change the way we think about autonomous vehicles, nor if we apply existing models of vehicle use to the future.



Incremental improvements can be achieved with smarter management of today’s human-driven services with better demand matching, pooling passengers and multimodal synchronization. However, to grow at the scale that cities are growing, large-scale innovation is required. No one knows exactly when it will happen, but autonomous mobility services will eventually be smarter, safer, cleaner and faster than our current transit options. As these services advance, smart city technologies are also being developed on several fronts — for buildings, infrastructure, energy and more. The opportunity to integrate automated mobility services with smart city technology and to reimagine urban living around people instead of transportation has the potential to exponentially increase the quality of life in our cities. The vehicles themselves are just the beginning.


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