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All About EVs: Why There Isn’t a Ford in Your Future

Are we putting too much pressure on autonomous electric vehicles to solve all of our problems, from pollution to congestion to traffic safety?




Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“If you think being homeless is bad, try being homeless without a car.”

A couple of years ago in a West L.A. park, I’d hang out with a guy named Richard, who told me he was a former film producer. Long out of work due to an undiagnosed mental illness, Richard had an idea for developing a television show called The Gutter Gourmet, in which he would teach people living out of their cars how to make nutritious meals with makeshift kitchen setups perched on their hoods or tailgates.

I thought the idea had legs, and we started shooting some footage. But one day Richard stopped showing up. When I saw him again a month or two later, both he and his old shepherd-mix dog looked depleted. He told me that his car had been impounded for parking tickets, and he’d just managed to get it back. He and his dog had spent weeks living in the open, where he said he’d been robbed and continually harassed.

“If you think being homeless is bad,” he told me, “try being homeless without a car.”

With every new analysis that comes out on the topic of autonomous vehicles, I think about the Richards of the world. In a study released last May, ReThinkX, a Palo Alto think tank, predicted that by 2030 almost no one among us will still own a car. Instead, we’ll wheel around town in driverless electric vehicles, which we’ll summon with our thumbs on our smartphones, much in the way we order a Lyft or Uber now. Tesla’s Elon Musk has suggested that driving could one day be outlawed due to the dangers of human error, and Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, Inc., which makes artificial intelligence systems, believes that robot cars will be ready to roll out in just four years.

It remains to be seen how a driverless future will benefit the poor. “Transport-as-a-service”
will likely have a deleterious effect on
public transportation.

Lest you conclude that only Silicon Valley futurists with a stake in this revolution buy into its inevitability, consider Bob Lutz, the 85-year-old former vice chairman of General Motors, who says that in 10 or 15 years, you’ll be selling your internal combustion engine Chevrolet for scrap.

There are all sorts of dreamy upsides to this disruption of car culture, beginning with, but not limited to, the climate. The ReThinkX researchers project that “Transport as a Service,” or TaaS, will mean fewer vehicles on the roads driving more miles, completely eliminating urban congestion. Cost, not environmental concerns, will drive the adoption of electric vehicles for autonomous fleets, as EVs are easier to maintain, cheaper to fuel and last for 500,000 miles. The average household will save more than $5,600 a year by not having to own, insure and maintain a car. The oil industry will collapse.

Researchers in Australia have even been studying whether autonomous vehicles could be programmed to avoid wildlife that strays onto roadways, reducing the need for fencing and other barriers, and thus preserving migration routes for animals such as Southern California’s beloved but threatened cougars.

But it remains to be seen how this driverless future will benefit the poor. Transport-as-a-service will likely have a deleterious effect on public transportation, as people with more resources abandon it, opting instead to text, nap and browse Facebook on their solo, driverless commutes. Nor will it necessarily be accessible to people who move through the world without the technology and resources most people in the U.S. take for granted. Right now, the only way to order a rideshare from Lyft or Uber is with a smartphone, and while smartphone ownership in the U.S. has gone from 35 percent in 2011 to 77 percent in 2016, that still leaves nearly a quarter of Americans without the devices.

Rideshare services also require a bank account or credit card, or at least a funded PayPal account. Only seven percent of households manage without bank accounts in the U.S., as compared with eight percent in 2013 — a positive side effect of the economic recovery after the Great Recession. But among black and Latino households, as well as those headed by people with disabilities, close to half remain either “unbanked” or “underbanked,” meaning they have some sort of bank account, but still use check-cashing services.

“We can’t operate from the mindset that everyone is a savvy smartphone user with a bank account, good credit and an ample disposable income,” says Jeremy Martin, head of the clean cars program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Transportation network providers should be required to ensure that payment mechanisms don’t discriminate against anyone.”

“As the footprint of transportation network companies grow,” Martin adds, “our regulatory structures need to adapt along with them.”

Then there are the people like Richard — people for whom a car isn’t just a way of getting around town, but also a refuge. In Los Angeles alone, there are currently about 7,000 people living in their vehicles. If it’s hard for them to find a place to park now, imagine what it will be like when individual car ownership is outlawed, and parking spaces have been repurposed for office parks.

Experts are not uniformly confident that free-market forces will give rise to the utopian future the ReThinkX report outlines. The fleet of self-driving cars—as many as 24,000—that Uber has agreed to buy from Volvo, for instance, will run on gasoline, though the carmaker claims they’ll save fuel by “eliminating unnecessary acceleration.” It’s entirely possible that people who can afford to own one will, and road congestion will get worse. Only the well-heeled will then have the means to flee the city in the event of a disaster that destroys the grid and all its networks.

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, has long warned that state and local regulation must jump ahead of the technological transformation to avert such a nightmare scenario. “Cities and states need to look at the policy levers they have,” he says, to “discourage single- and zero-occupant automated vehicles.” Some of those levers could be incentives, in the form of preferential parking and tax credits. Some could be prohibitions on independent riders. “From a policy perspective we’ve got to start figuring that out.”

Autonomous rides could be made accessible and affordable to the unplugged and unbanked pretty easily, using the same model urban transit agencies use to pay for bus and rail fares. Cash-only riders can load up cards in advance at kiosks or convenience stores. BlueLA, a pilot electric-vehicle car-sharing program due to launch in 2018, operates on the same principle, offering drivers the opportunity to reserve cars and pay fees at transit hubs and other key points around Los Angeles. The process doesn’t require a smart phone.

State and local governments might also subsidize driverless rideshares for low-income and elderly riders. That might sound extravagant, but in some places, funding a network of shared autonomous vehicles could cost less than funding more miles of bus and rail transit. As Sperling highlights in his book due out in March, Three Revolutions: Steering Shared, Automated and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future, single-occupant Uber and Lyft services currently run about $1.50 per mile. Put two or three passengers in each vehicle and take away the driver, and the cost per mile of travel drops to about 10 cents.

And that’s not just because no one has to pay a driver. It simply costs less per mile, Sperling says, to own a vehicle that drives more miles in a year. “If you divide the [annual] depreciation of a car over 15,000 miles,” Sperling explains, “then the cost per mile is much more than if it’s spread over 100,000 miles.” The same principle applies to insurance, registration and any other fixed costs.

In nearly every urban center, parking takes up enough land to solve a city’s housing crisis.

In theory, the new robot-car society might even offer a solution to Richard’s living space problem. Because autonomous vehicles obviate the need for parking lots, some of the land in cities could be rezoned for low- or even no-cost housing. Or it could just go toward housing in general, which has hit a crisis point in nearly every large city in the U.S.

“Parking takes up premium land,” says Matthew Lewis, a climate consultant and urban planning advocate in Berkeley, California. It’s also richly subsidized land. The way it pencils out, Lewis says, is that city “taxpayers actually pay car owners to use that land.” And in nearly every urban center, parking takes up enough land to solve nearly every city’s housing crisis. Parking in the City of Los Angeles, according to the parking inventory mapping project What the Street!?, takes up about 183 million square feet. That’s enough space to put up 18,300 small-lot multi-family structures, with six to 10 units each.

But ending America’s urban housing crisis may be freighting the autonomous nirvana with a bit too much transformative hope. Especially since, as Lewis argues, we already have the way to reduce congestion and pollution, and to free up parking in urban centers: “Ban cars,” he says. “At least in the urban cores where they make the least sense.” For that, he notes, “You don’t need new technology. You need political will.” If we can’t muster the civic determination to drop parking requirements from new development, establish dedicated bike lanes, and pedestrianize city streets now, it’s hard to imagine we’ll do autonomous vehicles in the fair and clean way in 10 or 20 years.

“The AV folks think they’ve got a car that’s a solution to cars,” Lewis says. “But in the meantime we’ve got a climate crisis and a housing crisis that are feeding each other. We don’t need to wait until parking disappears in 2045 to address it.”

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