The Autonomous Publico

There are two parallel concerns about autonomous vehicles (A/Vs)

  1. New A/V services will out-compete public transportation on ease, cost, and flexibility. If you can summon a driver-less car to take you directly from your home to work for approximately the same cost as bus fare, why would you willingly choose to put up with the vagaries of using public transport? This could lead to a ‘death spiral’ where public transit operators experience diminishing farebox recovery and customer base.
  2. Rapid deployment of A/Vs will lead to an untold number of “zero occupant vehicles” crowding roadways. These vehicles may be carrying small amounts of cargo or simply operating in a dead-head mode. Instead of the promised land of free-flowing traffic, the advent of A/Vs may lead to unprecedented spike in traffic.

As I stated in my last post on A/Vs, basically everything you read, watch, or hear about them is speculation at this point. We simply do not know enough about how they will be deployed to say with confidence how they will affect our cities and our transportation decisions. We do know that the genie isn’t going back in the bottle – A/Vs will be among us soon.

The question is one of how they will integrate with our current transportation systems. Here is one concept I’d like to explore I’m tentatively calling the A/V Publico – aka a 21st century version of the Share Taxi.

From the perspective of a user, here is how the system might operate.

When I buy a transit pass, I am asked if I want to join the Publico network for a small additional fee. I agree to join it and pay the fee. Now I can use my transit app to locate available Publico vehicles around the city.

The next day, by the time I’m ready to leave for work it’s pouring rain and I would prefer not to walk to the bus stop. I open the city’s transit app and see that there are several Publicos in my neighborhood available. I tap the “Hail” button and request one to come to my home for a pick up. When the vehicle arrives I see that it’s owned by a nearby grocery store and used to make small deliveries. I get in the passenger seat. The trip from home to the nearest bus stop is included with the fee I paid earlier.

My transit app informs me that I can extend this trip directly to my destination for an additional fee. (This is possible because my bank account is linked to my transit pass.) The cost for the door-to-door trip is much higher than I’m willing to pay, so I decline. In a couple of minutes I arrive at my bus stop. Once I get out of the car the app asks me to rate my experience with this Publico operator. I give them four stars since the car smelled a bit. The app thanks me for my feedback and reminds me that statistics about my trip may be reported by the city’s transit authority.

Things look a bit different from the perspective of the owner operator.

The company may be able to sell their door-to-door transportation service for a price much higher than bus fare. The company may offer other services to their customers like delivery. The A/V operator arrived at the decision to partner with the local transit operator as a part of their city’s licensing agreement. As a part of the agreement, the company has to perform additional vehicle safety inspections, add the city to its insurance policy, and share trip data.

In effect, the city’s licensing agreement allows transit riders to benefit from this new technology. In addition, the city receives two key benefits:

  1. A/Vs will no longer pose an existential threat to the local transit system. Instead, the A/V operators augment and complement the system. This is especially important in neighborhoods where footpaths are sparse, homes are far from bus stops, and densities can’t support widely useful transit service. (This may lead to increased demand for transit in areas that had not previously been able to support useful service.)
  2. Far fewer “zero occupant vehicles” clog roadways as  demand from transit riders. While the amount of overall automobile travel may increase, it will provide a public service.

At this point, it’s hard to say whether an arrangement like this may be worthwhile for the public sector to pay for. Indeed, many cities already offer fixed route transit services in low density neighborhoods at a steep operating cost per passenger. The city (or transit authority) can afford to operate the A/V Publico program with revenue from passenger fees. (However these fees would likely only be able to cover overhead costs such as program administration, customer service, quality control, &c.).

This is but one of a vast array of ideas that are spawning around the idea of autonomous vehicles. If cities don’t get out ahead of this issue, they will find themselves facing difficult decisions. It will be much easier to make tough decisions about this technology before an incumbent (and possibly monopolistic) company establishes services within your jurisdiction.


PS – It appears it’s driver-less car week in Savannah as there are two headlines in this week’s Connect on the topic:

Self-driving cars and the shifting definition of freedom – Jim Morekis

Bring on the f’n robot cars – Jason Combs