When Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia,” he lifted two words from Ancient Greek that roughly translate into “not a place.” Turns out people from the 16th century still understood satire, perhaps better than we do today. After all, we are the ones operating under the assumption that we can remap society in order to build consequence-free transportation network without a shred of humor to keep us grounded.
We may not need satire in this instance, however. A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health asks questions about how just effectively the shift to autonomy will benefit society as a whole. Industry leaders have broadly framed the shift toward self-driving as kicking down the door to an idyllic universe where no one wants for transportation, with autonomous taxis serving as the first wave of this planned paradise. The reality may be vastly different that what’s being sold, however.
The study essentially asserts that the entire concept of robotic cabs doesn’t actually serve poor communities any better than just buying one’s own automobile. Researchers compared the costs of a robo-taxi trip with those of owning a conventional used vehicle in an urban environment. Tabulating the combined costs of vehicle financing, licensing, insurance, routine maintenance, fuel/electricity and everything else they could account for, the team estimated that self-driving taxis would cost a minimum of $1.58 per mile. By contrast, the total cost associated with traditional vehicle ownership (assuming one is trying to be thrifty) ended up being 52 cents per mile. At least, that was the case for their model in San Francisco.
While your author has long suspected that unsupervised robotic taxis might outpace the subway as one of the dirtiest ways to get around (and become potential liabilities for whoever operates them), the general assumption has been that they’ll offer societal and health benefits that vastly outperform private vehicle ownership — almost as if the people making these assessments have never taken a regular cab or piloted an inner-city ZipCar. Other presumed benefits involve improved air quality by making it easier for people to get by without an automobile of their own.
But this thinking comes with some problems. Studies have already shown that ride-hailing firms exacerbate congestion by having a fleet of cars constantly scouring the streets in search of fares. That interim period between riders wastes energy and will be broadly similar when/if autonomous vehicles arrive. Why should we believe they’ll be any different when they’ll be similarly competing for riders and milling around neighborhoods? Even if they’re entirely electric, that energy has to be sourced from somewhere, and much of it will be in service of nothing.
Meanwhile, that thing you have parked in the garage isn’t hurting anybody until you start it up. Yet you can still rationalize autonomous taxis if you think a little outside the box. Consider how frequently poorer people find themselves skipping a chance to seek medical attention or taking a trip to do something that might better their overall situation. Computer-controlled cabs were supposed to help with that, as well. But the study is only getting warmed up with its bubble bursting.
“Even with universal health care, poor people are disproportionately less likely to access health care, because they can’t get there,” Ashley Nunes, one of the study’s authors, told Automotive News in an interview. “There’s been hope that this technology can be used to narrow the gap in health disparity. We find it can’t.”
Modern-day autonomous shuttles have proven themselves similarly problematic, including those trying to accomplish exactly what Nunes is talking about. Most of those efforts were supported by the cities in which they operate, propped up by government grants. Self-driving cabs probably won’t be, and that means companies may have to charge unpleasant prices for the service.
“The real promise of AVs is safe, affordable mobility on demand,” Nunes continued. “That’s the true promise. But is it safe? Safe for whom? Affordable for whom? That was the goal of this particular study. If we give poor people this shuttle, will it be OK? What’s equitable about pooling their rides? Nobody wants to pool a ride, let’s be upfront about that.”
The team actually has a secondary paper that asks these questions with highly similar conclusions. However, it’s less concerned with the social justice aspects of ride-sharing and more of the practicalities of keeping those programs widely available. Nunes and partner Kristen D. Hernandez suggest that capacity utilization rates for AVs would be extremely low at the price levels necessary to turn a profit. The only way to get ridership anywhere near the maximum (thereby wasting less energy and ensuring the public is better served) and make some money is to see the whole program subsidized by the government.