Autonomous Vehicles: Coming Sooner Than You Think

Cars driving on a freeway.

One of seven programs of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) provides objective analysis and advice to the nation on complex problems affecting all modes of transportation.

Each year, TRB holds an annual meeting where presenters and panelists discuss and present research on transportation topics to policymakers, administrators, practitioners, researchers, and more. This year Minnesota Design Center Director Tom Fisher took part in one of the most popular of panels at the conference “Autonomous Vehicles: Coming Sooner than you Think.” In this interview, we talk to Fisher about the panel and the future of autonomous vehicles.

Organizers of TRB citied your lecture on autonomous vehicles as one of the most successful panels at the event. Why do you think so many attendees were interested in this topic?

“Shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) and mobility services are coming faster than most people thought. General Motors, for example, plans to have its SAV mobility service available in 2019, and so the transportation community is keenly interested in something that will have a profound effect on everything from public-sector finance and roadway design to land use, public safety, and public health.”

How receptive have you found transportation and government officials to incorporating autonomous vehicles into future planning?

“I sit on a newly formed Transportation Innovation Council and the officials and transportation planners on that council have been cautiously receptive. I think up to last year that many in the public sector thought that this would be a slow change, which led to a lot of caution. But as they see the car companies moving so quickly in this direction, I think many realize that they need to move more quickly to get ready for this change.”

Why is it important that we start to plan for autonomous vehicles?

“SAVs require fewer lanes (typically no more than one in each direction), narrower lanes (8 feet vs the 11 to 12-foot lanes now), and much less parking (which will mainly be in remote lots in the middle of the night). This will free up a lot of space in the public for other uses – bike lanes, green infrastructure, wide sidewalks, recreation space – and as much as 30% of the land area that communities, on average, devote to the parking of cars. This is a huge opportunity to improve the quality of life and the financial and environmental health in our cities and suburbs.”

What barriers do you see to the adoption of autonomous vehicles?

“The barriers are mainly regulatory, since many laws and regulations assume that people are driving gas-fueled vehicles, and perceptual since many people fear something over which they feel they have no control. Those barriers will wane as SAVs become the dominant mode of transportation over the next decade or two, but they are a problem in the short term.”

What advantages are there with the full adoption of autonomous vehicles?

“Autonomous vehicles will be much cleaner (by being mostly electric), and much safer (by avoiding most accidents) than driven cars. As part of mobility services, SAVs will also be much cheaper (by letting people pay only for each ride and not the vehicle itself). These vehicles provide increased mobility to the 25% of our population – children, the elderly, people with physical disabilities – who have limited mobility now.”

What disadvantages do you see?

“The transition will pose the biggest disadvantage as drivers continue to drive into the AV’s that are obeying the law. But I see few disadvantages over the long run. Why wouldn’t we want to save lives, reduce pollution, reduce transportation costs, and increase mobility for our entire population?”

There’s been a lot of discussion about the need to overhaul and improve our nation’s infrastructure. If you could give one piece of advice to officials undertaking this task, what would you tell them?

“Stop building infrastructure for the old technology – gas-fueled cars with drivers – and start building infrastructure for what is coming very soon. My main worry is that the coming investment in infrastructure will widen roads when we need to be narrowing them, expand bridges that don’t need to be expanded, and generally waste a lot of money by not preparing for the transformation in our transportation system already underway.”

Learn more about Fisher’s research on the Minnesota Design Center website.

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