The Great Transportation Wormhole: Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles?

Transportation planners are on to something big and, for the most part, they are keeping it to themselves. The future is a relatively small fleet of shared, electric, self driving vehicles, and it's coming fast. Are we ready?

We may be entering the golden hour for transportation planners. According to a new report, "95% of U.S. car miles will be traveled in self-driving, electric, shared vehicles by 2030." Take a moment to let that sink in. We're hurtling into uncharted territory and the ripple effects of this disruption will be felt in nearly every sector of the economy and society. Are we even close to being ready?

According to the report produced by RethinkX, an independent research group, this historic revolution in transportation will end over 100 years of individual vehicle ownership and reshape the world’s energy economy in the process. Planners love future scenarios and what struck me was how much this story sounded like an audacious description of a fantastic future scenario—a kind of unrealistic but fascinating "what if?" But this isn't unrealistic—it’s inevitable. It's a transformation that is already occurring, and will come about far faster than many think, fueled by economics.  

I attend most of the major U.S. transportation planning conferences every year, and the trend is clear. Conference sessions on the topic of autonomous vehicles are standing room only. Clearly it's top of mind for many planners. The problem with these discussions is that it’s transportation planners talking amongst themselves, miles from the nearest economist, lawyer, or energy expert.

Even in the field of transportation planning the dialog is too often limited to private functions. My work with MetroQuest gives me a front row seat to the range of topics begin discussed with the public to inform long range transportation plans across the country. Given the magnitude and impact of this transformation one would expect the topic of autonomous vehicles to be front and center. After all, these plans purport to look a decade or more into the future. Think again. Too often it's not even mentioned or is little more than a minor footnote. Agencies seem shy on the topic, afraid they might alarm people.

What’s the big deal? Let’s hone in on the words, "self-driving, electric shared vehicles."

15. November 2017

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