The Promise and Peril of Driverless Delivery

Prototype A/V at 2014 Geneva Auto Show

With the news of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, I began thinking about the potential implications of autonomous delivery vehicles. It is possible that Amazon will transform Whole Foods using some of the technologies in its Seattle “Amazon Go” store, but I think there will be substantial changes outside the four walls of the grocery chain. Amazon, along with every other grocery-deliver company, currently relies on human-driven trucks and planes to ship items directly to customers. However, there is no question that the company is very interested in driver-less technologies that could be used to decrease the cost of delivery.

If you live in a city, you should care about autonomous vehicles (A/Vs). Here is why:

  • Early indicators show that the A/V may be as disruptive to urban form as the automobile. There is strong possibility that an unregulated A/V market would incentivize urban sprawl as they would reduce the time and financial burdens of living far from employment centers. Without some public sector intervention, the A/V could fundamentally reshape cities around the globe. This alone, in my opinion, is a compelling public interest in treating A/Vs different from other vehicles.
  • Public streets have many uses beyond transportation alone. Streets are places for commerce, play and social gatherings. An unregulated A/V market could quickly crowd-out these vital functions with robotic vehicles.  A/Vs will enable children, the elderly, and inebriated people to make trips they can’t currently – thus the technology may lead to higher numbers of cars on the road.  The presence of high volumes of A/Vs could make commercial corridors unattractive to shoppers, unfriendly for families, and uninviting for the community. The public sector has a vested interest in protecting these functions of its street network.
  • In addition to the current traffic, unregulated A/Vs could lead to an onslaught of Zero-Occupant Vehicles performing deliveries and pickups. This has the potential to make congestion on urban roadways worse. We do not have adequate planning techniques to predict the impact of these trips since they are currently impossible. It should be in the public interest to limit these trips until we understand how they will impact our transportation networks.
  • Jobs in the transportation sector may be at risk as A/Vs replace human drivers. While some drivers may be able to transition to other jobs in logistics (or other industries) it is unlikely that all will make a smooth transition. If your city has a substantial workforce in trucking or is a hub for logistics operations, the effects of A/Vs will be consequential to your city’s tax revenues and social benefits expenses.
  • Low priced delivery provided by A/Vs could potentially increase consumer demand for many packaged goods. This consumption will lead to increased pressure on landfill and recycling operations.
  • Early entries into the A/V delivery market may attempt to set up the service as a loss leader. These companies may reduce prices for deliveries to rapidly gain market share. However, these companies are benefiting from highly subsidized road network and low fuel costs.

Continue reading