The Future is Hybrid: Why We Need A Control Tower For Autonomous Vehicles
December 20, 2018 | In The Press
Autonomous vehicles and services are coming as early as next month or late in the next decade, depending on who you ask. Ford, Waymo and GM have all recently announced services that will hit the streets in 2019. Does that spell the end of “traditional” ride-hailing services?
Not likely. “We expect the ride-hailing market to grow eightfold to $285 billion in 2030,” investment banking firm Goldman Sachs reported. In addition, new ride-hailing services are coming to market to exploit the shortcomings of giants Uber and Lyft and to reach niche markets.
BMW introduced ReachNow Ride in Seattle, a professional (its own vehicles, with professional drivers) service to complement its ReachNow care sharing service. “Ride is a great option for those times when you don’t want to drive yourself, like going to the airport, or when you need a safe alternative after a night out,” Laura Gonia, a representative from ReachNow, said.
Indeed, safety is one of the shortcomings exposed by Uber and Lyft. A CNN investigation revealed that over 100 cases of assault have been filed against the peer-to-peer ride-hailing giants (103 against Uber; 18 against Lyft) since 2014. In order to improve the safety of the ride-hailing experience, companies like Alto are launching new services with their own fleets and professional drivers, with an emphasis on personalized, accountable service. (Full disclosure: Bestmile’s technology is used by Alto). Safr, another startup looking to disrupt the ride-hailing sector, has created a service specifically for females, with all-women drivers who “go through a more extensive recruitment, vetting, and training process than competitors.”
If autonomous services are on their way, and human-driven ride-hailing services are growing and expanding, the question is, how will these services coexist? It’s an important question, as one of the most pressing downsides of ride-hailing has been its impact on urban traffic. New York City has gone so far as to stop allowing new ride-hailing vehicles, as data shows these services are worsening congestion.
Transportation analyst Bruce Schaller’s landmark 2018 report, The New Automobility: Lyft, Uber and the Future of American Cities, found that, “TNCs have added 5.7 billion miles of driving annually in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C. metro areas.” The reason traffic is so much worse is that “About 60% of TNC users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available for the trip.”
Peer-to-peer ride-hailing providers flood cities with drivers and vehicles because it’s a volume business. The companies don’t pay for empty vehicles, so if they oversupply the market, they earn a net gain with little added expense. Services that buy their own fleets and pay professional drivers a salary will lose money when a vehicle is empty. They will need to optimize services around vehicle and driver utilization.
Autonomous vehicles and services, if managed (or unmanaged) in the same manner as ride-hailing services, won’t improve traffic because if the vehicles are used the same way, they all flood the same high-demand areas with vehicles. How will autonomous and human-driven services work together in a way that will make traffic and congestion better?
What will be needed is a neutral or agnostic way for service providers and cities to work together to solve the supply-demand challenge. What about air traffic control for vehicles? It could be a central system, like an airport control tower, that safely and efficiently directs vehicles from multiple manufacturers to and from destinations. Like autos, aircraft are highly automated, and different brands use different onboard technologies, but they all plug into a neutral management system. Can you imagine air traffic without this control?
Mobility service providers from the tech and auto worlds are also developing their own onboard technologies. But there’s no reason that they all can’t connect to a centralized management system that prevents a chaotic distribution of vehicles and services. The control tower can monitor and manage traffic in a way that synchronizes supply and demand to move more people through cities with fewer vehicles on the streets. It shouldn’t matter if the vehicles are human-driven or autonomous, whether they were built by Toyota or GM.
Who will own and operate the control tower? Perhaps it will be some kind of third-party agency that all providers subscribe to. If providers don’t adopt some kind of supply-demand management, cities may step in and do it for them by limiting access to city centers, as cities are responsible for the quality of life and access to transit within their borders. In order to maximize efficiency, the system should include public transit for the middle-mile commutes and carefully synchronize first- and last-mile services.
There is likely to be a mix of mobility services available in cities for the foreseeable future. Ride-hailing, robotaxis, traditional public transit and private autos will all be available. The success of any one service may well be dependent not so much on how well it works in isolation or in pilot projects but on how well it works with other services and how efficiently it moves people. Success will depend on how well services are managed and coordinated throughout a city’s transportation network. A control tower-type system for cities may make it possible for future services to avoid some of the unintended consequences of today’s services.