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.