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What is our plan for zero-occupancy vehicles?

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A common techno-utopian vision of the near-future city is one where automated vehicles come when called and whisk you to your destination, as you sit, relaxed and untroubled by traffic. But consider the opposite vision, that gridlock will be made worse by autonomous vehicles, which will spend much of their time driving around the city with no passengers. There is simply nothing about a vehicle being autonomous that makes it more likely to achieve higher occupancy. In fact, the current trajectory of AV deployment roadmaps and our transportation policy response ensures its average occupancy will be lower.

Car occupancy has always been pretty stable, with an average of 1.1 occupants at peak travel times. Outside of a limited number of areas where there are high-occupancy vehicles lanes or toll discounts, little effort has been made to incentivize a behavioral change. A small upward change of average vehicle occupancy (to, say, 1.2 or 1.3) would completely eradicate traffic congestion in our cities. Similarly, a small downward change (say 1.0 or 0.9) will be devastating.

Vehicle throughput versus person throughput. [Image: courtesy of the author]Now consider our driverless utopia: a fleet of cars that we can summon at the touch of a button. Consider that these cars will be empty most of the time –repositioning, waiting, traveling on deadhead return trips. Consider that travel demand spikes predictably two times per day, that cars are idle 95% of the time, and that most people live in suburbs or exurbs. How do empty AVs sitting in traffic........

© Fast Company