According to a new Morgan Stanley Research report, autonomous cars can contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the US economy, with global savings estimated at more than $5.6 trillion. The report attributed the savings to a number of factors, such as a decline in costs for fuel and accidents, as well as $507 billion in annual productivity gains, since people could work, not drive, in their cars while commuting to work.
This kind of thing really bugs me. I suppose I should be grateful to Morgan Stanley for calculating the savings from less fuel use, fewer accidents, and shorter commutes. I’m annoyed because they seem to imply these gains can only come from this new gizmo, and not from good urbanism. If everyone has a short walk to work, or to rapid transit, then we will also see less fuel use, fewer accidents and shorter commutes. We’ll also see improved health, wealth and socio-political (‘community’) gains from many little streets that are nice to walk along. Good urbanism is not a new idea: the new idea is our failing post-war suburban experiment, of separated zoning uses and car-first sprawl.
I’m excited about robotaxis - and I use that term because it’s absolutely inevitable that autonomous vehicles will be shared, not individually owned - I’m excited about robotaxis, because I think they’ll hasten sprawl repair. Sprawl is any built environment above rural-like densities (lets say a Kent family farm per hundred acres) that is car-first, that is designed so that the obvious and natural way to move around is in a car. I think a big barrier to sprawl repair today - backlash against everything from boulevarding and complete streets, to laneway houses, rowhouses, liner buildings and corner stores - is the sunk cost of automobile ownership. And I think that allowing people to live in such environments without that sunk cost - by ordering or scheduling a robotaxi on demand, and for goods deliveries - will allow them to self-identify as “people who sometimes use a car”, instead of as a driver. And I think that will take the wind out of a lot of nimby sails.
Robotaxis won’t undermine rapid transit on ‘ridership' routes because that's a geometry problem, both for capacity and headways. You'll never fit as many people in individual vehicles as in shared vehicles, and ordering up (and waiting for) a robotaxi will never beat the the invisible predictability of really short headways. (Robobuses, like today's skytrain robots, will help maintain short headways.)
“Gizmo Green is a part of true sustainability, but only a very small part.” The problems of the developed world are not problems of technology or capital, but of design.