Why We Need “Air Traffic Control” for Vehicles

William PeatmanBlog

Why We Need “Air Traffic Control” for Vehicles

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that, “One promise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.”

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Those studies, conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the University of California at Davis, and by former New York traffic commissioner Bruce Schaller each draw a similar conclusion. “The emerging consensus is that ride-sharing (is) increasing congestion,” said Christo Wilson, a computer science professor at Northeastern University told the Post.

The MPAC study found that 60 percent of ridehailing riders use the services in place of public transit. The U.C. Davis study found similar numbers—49-61 percent of ridehailers said they used the service for trips they wouldn’t have otherwise made, adding vehicles to city streets. Schaller’s study of traffic in downtown New York City found that a 15 percent increase in ridehailing trips 15 percent increase in ride-hailing trips since 2013 has resulted in 59 percent more vehicles in the big apple, a third of which are empty.

Figures released by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority report that in 2016, “On a typical weekday, TNCs make over 170,000 vehicle trips within San Francisco, which is approximately 12 times the number of taxi trips.” The agency blames ridehailing services for a 51 increase in traffic and 22 percent longer trips in the city.

Autonomous Services Coming Soon-ish

Then there is the looming question about how ridehailing services will live together with autonomous vehicles when driverless services arrive at scale.  “Autonomous vehicles and human-driven vehicles will both be on the road,” Lawrence D. Burns, author of “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It Will Reshape Our World,” told the Daily Beast. Burns thinks widespread autonomy is five years away.

Peer-to-Peer Shortcomings

Peer-to-peer ridehailing providers like Uber and Lyft have little incentive to reduce the number of vehicles on the streets. Why? Empty vehicles don’t cost them anything. They don’t own the vehicles or pay their drivers for idle time, so it’s to their advantage to flood streets with vehicles for hire. Services that use professional drivers or that use autonomous vehicles and own the vehicles they use, though, need to optimize utilization as empty vans or cars lose money. But if these businesses send all of their drivers and cars to the same places, you’ll still have a supply-demand imbalance and the same old congestion.

Air Traffic Control for Vehicles

What is emerging is a need more control of how new mobility services are deployed and managed in cities. This has been described as a something similar to air traffic control at airports, where a centralized agency manages highly automated vehicles (airplanes) from multiple manufacturers and service providers gate-to-gate to ensure safe, efficient operation. For new automotive services to operate with the efficiency and affordability that are hoped-for, they will have to be able to match capacity with demand in real time and reduce the overall number of vehicles on city streets.

While autonomous technology developers from the automotive and tech worlds race to build their own self-driving and ridehailing tech stacks independently, something will need to enable these vehicles to work together.  The control tower will need to be able to communicate with vehicles of any brand, with open source technology and APIs that allow services to connect and communicate.

Can Cities Take Back the Streets

Who will operate the control tower? Cities may decide to step in and take back their streets from the businesses that have relatively quickly morphed into giants with some giant problems. New York City as recently stopped issuing new ridehailing licenses while it grapples with congestion. Cities are also responsible for much of the infrastructure that these services need in the form of roads, signals, parking structures, and utilities; and public transit has the mandate to serve low-income, unbanked, elderly, disabled, and other members of the community that need to get to schools, doctors, and jobs.

Service management can also be performed by the service providers themselves with vehicle -agnostic mobility services platforms capable of communication with both autonomous and human-driven vehicles.

Working Well or Working Together?

The near future will be hybrid. The pace of adoption of new services may be determined not so much by how well each new mobility service works, but by how well they all can work together. Air traffic control for cites may be the solution that can help new mobility services deliver on the promise to improve urban quality of life.