It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The picture Selika Josiah Talbott chose for her virtual backdrop at the recent 2021 TRB Annual Automated Road Transportation Symposium sums up the mobility challenges that urban and rural locales face with existing infrastructure, particularly in low-income areas. Joining Talbott on this panel were experts opining on Talbott’s insightful comments about autonomous mobility and its potential to provide upward mobility.
Cracked Sidewalks, Poor Lighting, & Unsafe Conditions #
Talbott, Professorial Lecturer Department of Public Administration and Policy at the American University, was blunt in her assessment of the challenge of bringing autonomous vehicles to lower-income neighborhoods with her statement,
“Conditions aren’t fit for walking, much less for autonomous vehicles.”
Cracked sidewalks, poor lighting, and unsafe conditions are some of the transportation challenges for people who do not have or are unable to drive cars. Talbott is quick to point out that these challenges are as great for rural, as they are for urban areas.
Paraphrasing something she saw on social media, NUMO founder Robin Chase, reinforced Talbott’s comment by stating that it is,
“Safer to fly across the ocean than it is to walk across the street.”
Chase sees autonomous vehicles as one part – not necessarily the highest priority – of an overall solution for improving mobility. Chase believes that we need to fix the current infrastructure with an eye towards tomorrow’s developments.
Commenting on Talbott’s opening comments, Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser believes that autonomy offers the opportunity to help those who lack mobility options; for instance, 70% of Trenton households have one or fewer cars, while 70% of Chandler, Arizona households have two or more cars. AVs offer the promise of low-cost mobility that could open new opportunities for those without vehicles.
Brad Templeton suggests that over the long-term, operating costs for single and, what he terms, half-size, shared, electric vehicles will be in the $0.25 per mile range, much lower than existing public transportation costs. He compares the evolution to that of cell phones where the initial deployments were expensive and only made sense for high-value use cases. One of the first use cases for autonomous mobility is the delivery of food, as seen with Starship and Nuro.
The Role of Governments #
Baruch Feigenbaum, Senior Managing Director, Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation argues that a business case needs to be made for autonomous vehicles. As pointed out in his July 14th, 2021 article, decisions by local governments to deploy capital towards light rail reduced mobility options for low-income groups in multiple cities.
There was agreement among the group with his statement that planners have a difficult time getting in front of and understanding the needs of the groups who need better mobility options. Panel moderator Richard Mudge points out that there seems to be little interest in autonomous vehicles at the federal level, based on the current infrastructure bill.
Talbott argues that governments need to take a holistic view of how autonomous vehicles could help deliver better government services to both rural and urban areas. This will require government agencies, regardless of whether at the local, state, or federal level, to cross silos and focus on improving outcomes for the constituents they serve.
That is, the money spent on creating better transportation will show up as savings in other programs. To this point, Templeton says, that when he consulted for Google, he suggested that they initially focus on autonomous vehicle paratransit applications. This meets an existing need and provides a proven revenue stream of approximately $30 per ride.
Talbott, who is also the Founding Partner of Autonomous Vehicle Consulting, LLC, is optimistic about the long-term potential positive impact of autonomous vehicles, including,
- Lowering the transportation cost of fresh fruit and vegetables to food deserts,
- Potentially changing the way communities are policed.
- Improving health care outcomes by making reducing the friction that prevents regular medical appointments.
Simply, autonomous vehicles have the promise to improve people’s quality of life in both urban and rural areas. Still, realizing that vision is, as Robin Chase states, complicated.