Category Archives: autonomous car

Curb Appeal For Autonomous Cars

anairportstop

There is curb appeal, and the future of autonomous cars may depend on it. For reasons that are somewhat novel to transportation planners, curb appeal has new-found meaning. If parking issues were the unintended consequence of human driven cars, curb space might become a thorn for autonomous vehicles, if left to chance.

Fortunately, there are already lessons in developing curb appeal…and they come from an unlikely place- the airport. In a previous blog we wrote about how U.S. airports could become a proving ground for autonomous vehicles.  Autonomous vehicles have the potential to speed up ground-traffic, improve air quality, and make airport pick-ups and drop-offs less stressful.

But, surprisingly, airports provide a double-sided learning curve for automotive engineers and planners.  Today’s airports already have vital traffic control measures in place, ones that will become mandatory when there are more autonomous vehicles on the road.

OPEN CURBS

But first, think city streets: both Uber and Lyft  pick-up and drop-off  passengers in a “willy-nilly” fashion- vehicles pull over to the curb, per customer demand. The pick-up point is set by the passenger, and it might be near a busy intersection or in high-speed traffic. This passenger-set location can interrupt other traffic, cause delays, and sometimes accidents. Today, as Uber tests autonomous trip-taking in Pittsburgh, they may work out a safer protocol for ride-hailing customers.

Meanwhile, most airports have controlled this sort of situation out of necessity. In a recent talk at the Volpe Transportation Center, Professor Anthony Townsend noted that curb management will become one of several policy levers for cities as they search for ways to manage pedestrian/vehicle interactions with new technology.

AIRPORT CURBS

  1. Airports do several things “right” at the curb: First, autonomous cars will come in all shapes and sizes, just like today’s vehicles. The amount of painted curb space at airports favors, multi-passenger shuttle buses- like the hotel and rental car vans that circulate. As autonomous vehicles develop, there are vital reasons for multi-passenger vehicles to get preferential treatment. The current curb configuration at airports helps these longer vehicles glide in and out. Passengers, meanwhile, come to accept that the vehicle stops are not at their door-step, but they are marked, and frequent enough so that they will not have to walk too far.

2. Airports have learned to take their curbs seriously.  Airports assiduously monitor and patrol their curb appeal, particularly after September 11th. When vehicles linger too long, or turn off their engines, the drivers are subject to fines or towing. Major airports have security forces that enforce curb control. Their presence makes airports more secure and keeps the vehicles moving.

In a future, where autonomous vehicles circle on the road, it will be key that they stay on the network and in service.

3. Third, larger airports sometimes have porters and staff at the curb to assist passengers. Although not all passengers will need this as they disembark from their autonomous vehicle, it may be of value for older people or the handicapped. New curb based concierge services might assist passengers as they board or embark. Furthermore, note that most of the vehicles that circle airports today do not charge their passengers directly. They have worked out payment transactions off-site. Keeping the vehicles moving is the first priority.

CURB (SF STYLE)

Meanwhile,  when you depart the “orderly” world of the airport curb and travel to more conventional open streets, the lack of curb control can bring chaos and conflict.

In San Francisco, for example, teachers at a public school joined with activists to protest the painting of an open, un-metered curb section to create a no-parking, white zone for tech shuttles. Again, in San Francisco, intra-city shuttles have operated for more than 30 years, but their use of curb space has remained a hot issue since 2004 when private employers began offering regional commuter shuttles, some with 45-foot long buses.  With the arrival of the autonomous car, the curb may replace parking (think Donald Shoup) as the next premium space to be coveted, rationed, and taxed. It may have all started at the airport.

Autonomous Cars Can Speed Airports

laguardiatrafficThe advantages of fast airplane travel are being compromised by the stop-and- go vehicle traffic  in and out of major airports. The autonomous car may come to the rescue.

In the near future, autonomous cars could help travelers “fly through” the standstill road traffic encountered at major  airports. These vehicles can transform the dangerous, congested roadways for passenger  pick-ups and drop-offs.

Today, most tests of autonomous vehicles are on city streets. But, Uber, which is testing cars in Pittsburgh, PA says it hopes to drive to the airport within months. 

Airports have been inching towards autonomous vehicles for sometime. At least twelve U.S. airports use some type of automated train to connect between terminals, and, occasionally, to outside transport.  Since 2011, Heathrow Airport (UK) has been operating pod vehicles they call “autonomous cars” but they glide on a fixed closed track, not the open streets.  

On the inner roadways of airports, autonomous vehicles could replace the clutter of long-distance shuttles, limousines, taxis, etc. In the near future, autonomous vehicles would circle the terminals but then  travel to perimeter zones served with rental cars, mass transit and parking. In the distant future, they would connect with longer-distance autonomous vehicles.

The airport is a likely place to begin such innovation as civil aviation is operated by private companies, but under the auspices and safety rules of a federal agency, the FAA.  The public diffusion of autonomous cars may require a similar arrangement: close  federal regulation of public road space so that passenger trips are safe, secure, and efficient (see blog  http://fc8.5b9.myftpupload.com/will-autonomous-vehicles-fly/)

REDUCE CONGESTION & IMPROVE AIR QUALITY

Airport authorities  have a critical need to reduce congestion at the curb. While the number of passengers flying on airlines has grown, the road network around them has not. At LAX, for example, there is an annual volume of around 90,000 vehicles.  A recent article notes that it can take drivers in Los Angeles up to 45 minutes to loop the 1.3 miles around the terminals. Meanwhile, similar delays are encountered at LaGuardia, Washington D.C. airports, and O’Hare.

Autonomous car and bus shuttles bring advantages: they could circle airports predictably, reduce the number of vehicle trips in and out of the airport, and speed up traffic flow. In addition to saving travelers time, they will make a significant improvement to air quality, particularly since most of the travel at the airport involves short distances and frequent stops. The wind-driven hot exhaust vapor from cars and trucks is a source of considerable pollution, and autonomous vehicle operations (preferably electric ones) would help airports green up, and reduce carbon monoxide emissions.

IMPROVE TRAVELER EXPERIENCE

The autonomous car will also make airports safer for their customers, the pedestrians. Pedestrians could walk across lanes of traffic (presumably at a light or crosswalk) knowing that the oncoming vehicles would stop. Significantly, there would be fewer vehicles overall, since bus and taxi services could be consolidated.

Most importantly, new autonomous vehicles could help airport concessions meet their ADA requirements: new vehicles could be designed with the disabled in mind, with roll-on/roll-off ramps so that passengers who are less able to walk have easier access to curbside drop off.  Newly designed vehicles also provide an occasion for airports to reimagine wayfaring and signage, so that airports become more navigable to international visitors and first-time travelers.

THE PROVING GROUNDS

Airports are a cultural United Nations…a spot where people from all over the world converge. Airports also are an innovation zone, where passengers have learned to expect safe and hands-free air travel, in a highly regulated industry.

Likewise, airports could provide a safe haven where consumers can be introduced to self driving vehicles and gain confidence with its safety features. A short airport trip in an autonomous vehicle to a perimeter parking lot or taxi zone is a seamless way to introduce and diffuse the innovation.

Meanwhile, for manufacturers and regulators, the airport provides a controlled and closed environment for testing. Extensive research could be done on vehicle- to- vehicle communications, road markings, and travel under  all-weather road conditions.  The airport is a proving ground where public entities and private firms can come together to explore technology and policy needs.

REPURPOSING THE PARKING

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to airport demonstration will not be the technology of the autonomous car itself, but rather, its predecessor, the gas powered vehicle.  Major airports, like Los Angeles and Chicago  have a ringed inner layout with parking, and it generates significant income. Revenue from parking concessions also helps subsidize other travel connections, like the buses and transit needed to ferry passengers from garages to terminals.  The San Francisco Airport, which is probably at the low-end of parking revenue, indicates in its 2014/2015 annual report that 15% of its operating revenues come from parking and transportation. The LAX annual report (with Ontario), indicates that other operating income, which includes parking was just .4% of their operating revenue, but parking itself brought in $99.4 million.

It is unclear how airport authorities will make up this lost revenue, any more than federal and state authorities will offset dwindling gas taxes. But,  many airports have taken a first step and replaced short-term parking with free, “no charge”  cell-phone waiting lots. Their next step is reimagining how large parking lots might be repurposed into more valuable real estate-  perhaps hotels, convention centers and meeting space.

In a couple of months, the Uber autonomous car may reach the Pittsburgh airport. The bigger, and necessary challenge,  is driving it home to Chicago and airports beyond.

 

Elderly Drivers and Autonomous Cars- Linked

Korea-AV
Autonomous Car for Elderly?

 

Elderly drivers and autonomous cars have an oddball linkage. They share some common denominators despite their gaps in years and tech experience. Both the elderly driver and vehicle tech firms wish to avoid accidents at all cost, keep insurance providers out of the mix, and drive more defensively than offensively.

Autonomous cars are being designed for all age groups, not just the elderly, but for a myriad of reasons, they currently  behave on the road more like older drivers. There is a certain irony here since the older driver may say they have less trust in this technology than younger groups, yet be one of the first groups to benefit from using them.

SPEED NOT

Elderly drivers don’t speed for many reasons; they are afraid of being pulled over and, if so, losing their license and insurance, they want to be prepared and able to stop, and they compensate for their slower reaction time. In the same way, the current designers of autonomous cars want to keep rolling- and that means keeping accidents, like the recent Tesla auto-pilot failure, out of the limelight.

Everyone has a favorite story about the old person who barely reaches the steering wheel, gets on the freeway in the middle lane, and then proceeds to be passed on the left and right by speedier vehicles. The older driver is probably going at the posted speed limit, or slightly under it. In an area posted at 65 mph, other drivers might be doing an average of 70 mph leaving the senior in the dust.

The current crop of driverless cars will behave like the older driver- they do not exceed posted speed limits. A self-driving car can be even more exacting- and reduce speed to conform to the posted limits on yellow advisory signs. (Of course, this could change if a rogue programmer decided to ignore traffic laws or tailgate other vehicles).

WEATHER NOT:

On a bad day, a (wise) elderly driver will stay at home- rather than venture out in their car- and for now, so will the autonomous car. By bad day, we mean one where weather conditions, like heavy snow or torrential rains, obscure markings on the road bed, and make it difficult to “see”.  Automotive engineers are currently working on this problem and reducing the number of “stay-at-home” days– testing has spread from sunny California to snowy, cold Michigan and Sweden. But, like the older person who is afraid of sliding off the road in icy conditions, autonomous cars will also need, at least for the time being, to adjust to and accommodate “weather.”  That said, the technology is overtaking the skill set of many older drivers. Autonomous cars are being tested in low-light conditions, and their ability to navigate at dark is improving. For the elderly, and near-elderly, driving safely at night is often a concern.

FUNCTIONAL YES

The third connection between elderly drivers and autonomous cars can be characterized as more of a design factor, less one of engineering. Elderly drivers often favor plain vanilla, sensible, coupes and older model sedans. The sporty “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” is a rare find. Most older drivers do not use their car to make a statement about their lifestyle or income level. They favor functional cars that go from “point A” to “point B”.

The current crop of autonomous cars has the same sensibility. The Google car is said to resemble a jelly bean, and other test models are small and boxy. Function has overtaken form, at least for now. It may portend a sea change: Mobility from “point A” to “point B” will be the goal, and the vehicle that does it will not need to glam with extra trim and chrome. There may be even less glam, more functionality, as  individual/household cars evolve to shared ones.

SUMMING UP:

The elderly are likely to be one of the first markets for autonomous cars- along with other people with limited vision, and handicapped adults who have difficulty driving today. They will not be looking for a sports car, but rather, a way to safely and reliably to get around. The autonomous car will be a safe choice- and a reliable one. It will less resemble a “car” as we describe it today, and more a mobility aid and travel companion. The picture at the top of the blog gives a hint of things to come: this is a Korean designed self-driving vehicle prototype; to some, it resembles a crossover- that is a crossover of  a scooter and a  motorized wheelchair.  

Meanwhile, future autonomous cars may be “cars” in name only. A new type of mobility may be on the horizon- one that is less about sport, as in motor-sport- and more about safety, speed limits, and security. For the present, the person sitting in that slow car ahead of you could either be an old timer, or a  young techie monitoring the LIDAR array.

Autonomous Cars & Sprawl??

sprawlThe Baby Boomers are the first generation to “sprawl”- that includes the size of their homes, their travel distances to work, their car ownership, and even their waistlines!

Now there is concern that autonomous cars (self driving) will make sprawl even worse. A recent story in the WSJ, for example, speculates whether the savings from not owning a personal car will benefit Millennials will want to escape their cramped urban apartments for “bigger spreads, further away.” (Note: the full article presents both pros and cons).

There are several reasons to challenge the future relationship between driverless cars and urban sprawl. A simplistic answer is that if  “hands-free”  was the key factor, then millions of American commuters would already be taking the bus or train to reach their far-away homes. But, generally they don’t. It is estimated that ‘only’ about 600,000 Americans have extreme commutes of at least 90 minutes each way. 

CITIES AND SPRAWL

There are vital reasons why the “extreme commute” may not happen, even when autonomous cars come to market:

The first reason is that cities are going to be better places to live and they will offer a better lifestyle than today. They will be less car-centric and there will be fewer reasons to own private cars. Cities will also become safer for other transport modes, like walking and biking, since autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit and stop signs. Most importantly, they bring new opportunities to repurpose parking spaces and parking lots. This transformation might be a boon to real estate developers and should increase the green-space, as well as the supply of urban housing.

The Baby Boomers are a cohort that enjoy car-travel, and they have matured  along with an auto industry that has became more reliable and affordable over time. This contrasts with younger generations, who have been weaned on computers, and lean towards life styles that are less car-centric. No one has quite nailed what this means to a cohort of Digital Natives, but there seem to be agglomeration effects. Instead of spending a leisurely afternoon driving to the out-of-town outlet mall or golf course like Boomers, Digital Natives might be more inclined to meet up at a local dive and then take short trips together around the neighborhood. So, while autonomous cars could take them “further” their choices might be closer.

COMMUTE  BUDGETS, TIME BUDGETS

The second reason to question the wisdom of long commutes via autonomous cars is more technical. It is associated with “commute budgets”.  As the term implies, people have fixed resources or  “budgets”; they generally do not exceed one hour of commute travel time per day. This axiom is associated with a transportation researcher called Yacov Zahavi. Athough Zahavi’s work was done in the 1970s and 1980s,  he discovered  across different cultures, and different geographic zones, people did not generally exceed the commute budget. It was something like a law of nature.

(Note: Zahavi observed, before Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), that commuters were unlikely to switch from cars to public transit because of the time-tradeoffs.)

In the future, long distance commuters could exceed the one hour “commute budget”, if travel was done with autonomous luxury and autonomous speed. That is the fear. But, one of the main deterrents is that this travel budget then bumps up into the daily “time budget” which is still fixed at 24 hours.  When commuters spend more minutes per day traveling to and from a distant suburb, they forfeit time spent on other activities.  Instead of sitting in a vehicle, people might prefer to do things such as coach their kid’s soccer game, go to the gym or get on  a bicycle for exercise, and even participate in person at civic activities (think bowling alone). So, while the autonomous car may let people continue to text or work while they travel and perhaps even be VR at the soccer game, it will not substitute for participating in real activities.

Beyond the travel time budget and the 24 hours activity-time budget, there is a third resource constraint: Almost all households maintain a transportation budget. In the U.S. today, the average household spends about 29 percent of its income on travel expenses. While the marketplace has yet to set a rate of “cost per mile” for autonomous travel, longer travel will cost more and potentially tip the economic balance between housing and transportation expense. It will also be subject to state and federal taxes, akin to the tax on gasoline today.

TRAVEL AND HAPPINESS

The third factor that will suppress excessive travel has to do with “happiness”. Even if autonomous cars could bring longer commute trips to more distant homes, travel is a derived activity-it is what “we do” to do something else. There is an interesting subset of research correlating wellness, happiness, and travel time.  Joe Cortright at City Commentary  reports on the literature between quality of life and daily commute time. Behavioral economists find that time spent commuting has the lowest positive rating of all daily activities. Longer commutes are also associated with a high incidence of obesity, back pain, and other health impacts. Even if your autonomous vehicle was super comfortable, these human impacts might continue to plague the trip.

SPRAWL NOT?

Note that the behavioral impacts come from the time spent in the vehicle, not necessarily the traffic. Time budgets are complicated. So, one of the unusual findings from the behavioral research is that more traffic congestion is NOT negatively related to people’s sense of well being and satisfaction.  While this needs further investigation, it is a clue to the future. Perhaps autonomous cars will not help people flee the city.

People generally see some benefits to being in a place congested with traffic- think getting to/from a sporting event, rock concert, school travel, or airport. It is all about being social- not about trekking long distances to reach a greener pasture. The Digital Natives may have already discovered that, and are far ahead of other generations.

Meanwhile, urban settings of the future will appear very different when residents can be comfortable and safe transversing on foot or bicycle, but also be able to seamlessly summon a vehicle on demand. Since the future cost for this transportation has not been established, we do not know the economic constraints (think transportation and time budgets). But, we do know, that people  contemplating long commutes still have to wrestle with a 24 hour time budget, at least for now.

 

Autonomous Cars for Boomers- Model 2016

Baby Boomers will be surprised to learn that their personal autonomous car has been invented…and it’s called the “TNC, Model 2016.”

Lest the picture deceive, TNC, stands for Transportation Network Company, an acronym for services like Uber, Lyft, Lift Hero and other ride share firms. Ironically, both Uber and Lyft are investing in the technology for autonomous cars. While that technology is under beta testing….more conventional TNC service will suffice for the coming years.

A SPRAWLING DEMAND :

The demand for autonomous cars, via TNC, has to do with the geographic sprawl of Baby Boomers. This is the first generation to settle far from urban areas, and develop homes without spatial links to transit or rail. Because of sprawl and low density, it has been uneconomical to provide transit service, vis a vis road building. Only 17 percent of Boomers live in dense cities with mass transportation. An estimated 70 percent live in areas served by limited or no public transportation (see references, Chapter One, Aging in Suburbia). The remainder have settled in semi-urban areas, where it has been difficult, until now, to solve “first mile/last mile” transportation issues so most Boomers drive.

Meanwhile, cabs/taxi service has been scarce and expensive; spotting a taxi driving on these suburban roads is like encountering an endangered species in the wild. Currently, the popularity of the TNCs has made taxis even less accessible there. Taxi drivers are said to be circulating less and congregating more in places where there is reduced TNC competition like airports. It would be unlikely that a suburban resident could ever “hail” a taxi- that is flag down a vehicle just passing by through the neighborhood. Yet, essentially, that is what a TNC app, enabled by a smart-phone, makes possible. The TNC may be the leveler between urban and suburban transportation.

OLDER TNC DRIVERS:

Meanwhile, a TNC presence is growing in suburbia… in many cases because Boomers are signing up as occasional drivers. It is estimated that a quarter of Uber drivers are age 50 and older.  Boomers approaching retirement age find that the gig economy provides them with a spare source of income (next avenue). It also helps them get out and meet other people. And, since Boomers are a generation that generally likes cars, and favors time on the road, driving for Uber or Lyft is an agreeable choice.

Meanwhile, Boomers have a growing demand for an “autonomous car” service. Uber even made a promotional video to explain the benefits.

SEEKING A RIDE:

An essential reason has to do with the age of the Boomer population. Today, the youngest Boomers are age 52 and the oldest are 72. A difficulty driving safely at night is one of the first onsets of advancing age.  Yet it is in the evening that people throw parties, patronize the arts and concerts, and go out to eat. One only has to visit the matinee performance of a Broadway show to understand the demographics of those who do not drive after-dark.

So, having a “designated driver” at night is likely to keep Boomers active and engaged…throughout the evening. Although they will not be taking an autonomous car, the TNCs can meet the Boomer’s current need to keep busy and engaged after dark. Over time, the Boomers will seek their “designated driver” for more occasions, expanding from service at night to more daytime trips.

Medical trips are a second arena where the “autonomous car”, via TNC, is making inroads among Boomers. As they age, Boomers need a way to get to and from doctor’s visits, medical centers, and hospitals and these trips are the fastest growing source of their travel demand.  Driving your personal car from suburbia, often to a large medical complex in a more urban area, is not fun. There’s the anxiety about the visit, the set-aside time to park the vehicle, and, of course, and the for-profit, per/hour hourly parking charge levied by most medical centers. But the real crunch, and need for the autonomous vehicle comes during the ride home. The driver, in this case the patient, is probably tired, and may be somewhat impaired by a prescription drug or pain reliever. It would be useful if someone, or something else, bore the responsibility for a safe trip back to suburbia.

MORE RIDES, MORE BENEFITS:

The future autonomous car brings other benefits for aging Boomers who settled in aging suburbs. The autonomous vehicle can be regulated to reduce traffic congestion, obey speed limits, and make the streetscape safer for pedestrians and bicyclists too. That can only bode well for Boomers who need to stay healthy and fit outdoors, without driving to exercise and spending hours at the gym.

It will seem odd to Boomers, who have spent so many years of their lives in their car, that they can now liberate themselves from it. But, as they gain years, they will need to shed old habits. Keeping fit, healthy, and socially engaged will take priority for them over almost anything else.

Understand Vehicle Trends? Ask a Woman

 

Womens-Favorite-Cars-1024x778

 If you wanted to understand vehicle trends and jumpstart the autonomous car, it is good practice to ask a woman. Although females are underrepresented in the auto industry— they hold only 27% of the jobs in motor vehicles and manufacturing and compose ~14% to ~30% of Uber/Lyft drivers, they have a remarkable ability to spot market niches and trends.  

In a recent blog, we noted that older women will be the “first responders” for autonomous vehicles. There are numerous reasons: women are likely to be living alone in far-flung suburbs, but recognize, at an earlier age their limitations as safe drivers.  Women are also more inclined than male drivers to ask directions (!), to use public transit, and be less wrapped up in an image-driven car culture.

The ability of women to nail transportation trends has a long, if somewhat muted, history.

The electric vehicle (EV) was, and perhaps remains the woman’s vehicle of choice. In 1898, the first woman to buy a car selected an EV and  in 1908 Henry Ford bought one for his wife, Clara. Electric vehicles were favored by women. Although the EVs did not have the range of gas powered vehicles, they were quieter, did not smell of petro, and importantly, were easier to start since gas powered cars had to be cranked by hand.  Since they EVs were used for local city travel, range-anxiety had yet to be invented. There might have been a niche market for the electric car, but the desire for acceleration and range took hold and left the electric car in the dust.

Speed up 100 years though, and we again have women pioneering electric vehicles. According to a recent Forbes Asia story, while Tesla and Apple are (re)working electric car technologies, a women entrepreneur from the Southern Indian city of Coimbatore is pioneering a different segment- electric cycles, scooters, and load carriers.

The entrepreneur, Hemalatha Annamalai, is focusing on the mobility needs in smaller towns. Her customers are farmers, shopkeepers and rural traders. These communities have been overlooked by the big automotive players, even Tata. She has also, per Forbes, developed a battery-powered vehicle for the disabled that travels 16 miles per hour, and has a 25 mile range.

While some might see India as a special case, a female entrepreneur here in the U.S., also succeeded when she identified a new automotive niche. Robin Chase, challenged the model of individual car ownership. Chase, the former CEO and founder of Zipcar, then started a peer-to-peer car service that was sold to Drivy. Chase has never valued speed, style, and beauty over the more basic intrinsic need to get from point A to point B.

Returning to the story of the electric car,  UC Davis researchers noted in 2012 that women composed just 29% of Nissan Leaf owners, 24% for the Volt , and just 16% for the 16% of Tesla S.  When the researchers  studied the driving habits of electric vehicle adopters, they found that women had more anxiety about range. Perhaps their mindset went  like this: “What if…the kids gets sick, what if… grandma needs a ride, or someone asks me for a lift…”.  

The men (and women) designing cars might take note. On the one hand, they can either continue to market gas powered cars with better mileage, or… and this is the clinch…address range anxiety by engineering an easy way to swap out batteries, provide flash recharging stations, or keeping a small petro cache.

There are multiple ways to harness a new technology, and a trajectory of different paths that could be followed. The key is that if women ruled the automotive boardroom (today they are just 16%) and were more influential in engineering and planning, we would probably be on a faster path towards developing a quieter, electric, and fully autonomous car. Even so, we will probably get there, but it will be, ironically,  a slower journey.

 

Boomers Shape Auto Industry Trends

car+phoneBaby Boomers have shaped auto industry trends over the past forty years and they will continue to be influencers. Although America may have passed “peak auto” this cohort has not peaked when it comes to Detroit. The Boomers, currently ages 52 to 70, will have a substantial effect on the types of vehicles that are produced, and provide a ready market for innovation.

The underlying reason has to do with their sheer number, and demographics. Plus, of course, aging-in -suburbia.

AN OLDER, READY MARKET

In 2020 when the first self- driving cars reach the market, the oldest Boomers will be reaching age 75. Safety and mobility issues will be high on their agenda. By 2035, when most new cars are predicted to be capable of driving themselves, the oldest Boomers will be close to 90 and the youngest will be in their 70s.

Polls show that even today, there is a surprising level of interest in the self-driving car among older people. Autonomous cars will find a ready market with Baby Boomers as they grow older or frail. In contrast to other types of innovation, it is the disenfranchised- in this case, those who cannot or should not drive, who could be innovation pioneers. A Google car spokesperson, Chris Urmson, intuited this in a recent talk.

The Boomers differ from other generations in how they think about the need for cars. For this cohort, travel by car is synonymous with independence and well being. This association might have been cultivated by 40 years of popular culture- think images of cars and the good life depicted in TV shows, movies, SuperBowl Ads, and billboards. Having access to a car will continue to be vital to aging Boomers, as the majority do not know of a different lifestyle.

CHANGING THE OWNERSHIP

Meanwhile, as the autonomous car both prequels and propels mobility, there is a second trend that the Boomers will need to assimilate. Although Boomers may be accustomed to owning or leasing their personal vehicle, they are likely to discover, and prefer, a different business model.

Rather than owning a vehicle that sits idle 96 percent of the time, Boomers and other users will transact mobility with their cell phones in order to order a trip-based vehicle. Even in the suburbs, cars might evolve into a “travel-on-demand” service. This radical change has benefits for older people, who no longer need to buy and maintain a vehicle, and bear rising insurance costs. A car-on-demand will help ensure safer travel in a state-of-the-art vehicle. And, in keeping with their reverence, the car-on-demand might turn out to be stylish and luxurious too, a vehicle that can reflect their personal tastes, as well as the more basic need to travel.

EMPTY GARAGES AND FULL TRIPS

Meanwhile, imagine the emptiness of the suburban home with its capacious two- car garage and 400 to 600 square feet of open space. Planners have begun to talk about repurposing the parking spaces that the autonomous car will free up (up to an estimated 24% of the area in U.S. cities) but they have not paid attention to the more lowly suburban garage.

Boomers have had a love affair with the car throughout their lives, and current data suggests that they are not cutting back on their driving as they age. This is the generation that has innovated with cars in many ways: they ushered in the two car family, vastly increased VMT (vehicle miles traveled), and substituted vehicles for short trips instead of on bike or foot.
As they get older, the Boomers will continue to be the generation on the forefront of automotive change. As their age and infirmities bring new mobility needs, the automotive industry (and tech firms) will find this generation to be ready first-responders.

Hollywood Meets Autonomous Cars

connected_mobility_web-grafik_en_02__mediumHollywood has prepped us for the autonomous car. It’s just that the message was subtle and it took a while to register.

In countless movies and shows, we witness the ultra-wealthy whisked away in black limousines and chauffeured vehicles…to consummate cliff-hanging phones calls and business deals from the back seat.  Another vivid Hollywood image is of stretched limos and tricked out Hummers occupied by jubilant rock stars and celebrities. Inside the blackened windows, we imagine an ongoing party replete with food, drinks, and more.

It is not clear that image of  the black car or the stretched limo  well describe our future autonomous cars, but they do provide context. In fact, a recent Ford motor executive commented on a future that looks like the movies.  At the 2015 LA auto show, Sheryl Connelly, said the future cabin could become a productivity capsule, helping people move with their office. Or, she noted, the car could be a place that shields people from incoming calls and email,  where they relax in comfort until they reach their destination.

Millennials and Baby Boomers are “miles apart” in their expectations for self-driving cars. A Carnegie Mellon survey polled 1,000 respondents  respondents about  what they would  do with the free time when the car took over the driving duties. Baby Boomers said they would read more. It is noteworthy that older respondents said they’d appreciate the increased safety provided by self-driving cars, especially at night, in heavy traffic, on unfamiliar roads or on the highway.

Younger people  had a different take: they dreamt of hosting mobile parties, eating lunch in the car, putting on makeup, and, of course, doing work. Perhaps the youngest  Millennials  watched a lot of Hollywood movies. Or, perhaps they saw the future and decided to claw back 50 minutes a day. 

The average commute time in the U.S. is 25 minutes. This does not include additional minutes spent searching for a parking space, parking, and walking the final leg.  And, at the end of the day the commuter turns around and does it all again….Often in a slog of afternoon or evening traffic.

This has not gone unrecognized. A recent report, circulated at the LA Auto Show, suggests that there is a relationship between time spent in congestion and interest in autonomous cars. In India, 85 percent of the surveyed population saw themselves using autonomous cars, while this figure in the US was 40 percent. People in crowded cities where parking space is scarce, waste hours in  traffic each day, so they see the immediate benefits of  the autonomous car. Note that the actual sample and statistics for the survey are not provided in the link.

Baby Boomers, a generation that celebrated driving, have routinized the commute- and found “audio” things to pass the time. They have been party to a succession of entertainment features, from over-the-air radio, 8-track cassettes, CB radio, CD players, and now, Sirius radio over the Internet.  But the phone, whether handsfree or handheld, has had more impact, and may accelerate the need for driverless vehicles. The National Safety Council’s annual injury and fatality report, “Injury Facts,” (2014) observes that the use of cellphones causes 26% of the nation’s car accidents,

Millennials have  taken it one step further and sought transportation options that let them take their hands and eyes off the wheel.

This may partially explain why they are the first generation to delay getting their drivers’  license, and to favor urban areas and  public transit.  Millennials have been the first to embrace Uber and Lyft,  although their elders (The Boomers) are now following suit. Millennials “get”  the benefits of autonomous cars, particularly the environmental impacts. But, the driverless feature may be of greatest significance for anyone who uses the phone while driving, and for aging Boomers, the elderly, and the disabled.

It may take a while before government indexes – the measures that capture GDP and Productivity catch up with what we are doing in our cars. Maybe the mobile office will let people work an extra hour or two everyday, as the Millennials wish. Or, eat on the go, literally. Perhaps  there will just be more time for games, downloads, and chat. If it turns out to be about entertainment, Hollywood will continue to inform us of  entirely novel things we can do in the confines of a moving vehicle.

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Autonomous Cars-Rewritten

 

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Getting Autonomous Cars  to market may require some non-conventional reviewers. Today’s car reviews and videos are peppered with a Motown/macho sensibility.  Flashy stories and pictures shout performance and peak power… and drill down on automotive features that can be measured like torque, acceleration, or braking time.

Car reviews are fun to read, but they support the normative. When a new technology is being introduced that challenges the mainstream, the established regime will set up roadblocks. Think of the headlines you read today about the autonomous car, “Who will be liable in the case of the inevitable accident?… Should the car be programmed to save its ‘driver’, or an assembly of pedestrians?… Can the autonomous car pull a boat out of the water and tow it?”

There are many questions about the autonomous car…they all should all rise to the top, but so should the interests of people who want and need to use these vehicles. Here is the disconnect: The people who are likely to be the first users, and those who will immediately benefit are not the same demographic as the writers, or the readers, of car reviews.

THE NEW AUDIENCES FOR AUTONOMOUS CARS

The autonomous car will be favored by people with visibility issues; that was a remark made by Google’s Chris Urmson at a recent Volpe labs talk.  Seniors are likely to be in this group of supporters, since 21 percent over age 65 do not drive. Unfortunately, the visually impaired and those over 65 do not play a large role in the car industry and its reviews. There are an estimated 7,237,000 Americans that have a visual disability; About half are seniors over age 65.  (National Institute for the Blind, 2013).

A second group that will benefit from autonomous cars are the people stuck in traffic- Most likely they are commuters, spending an average of 50 minutes per work-day in their car. They have limited flexibility to travel at off-peak hours when the roads are clearer.  Although many of these commuters are the fans of automotive reviews, they are aware of other issues. They might be worried about the gas fumes, their health, and spending so much time in the car. And, if they could predict traffic and get home in time to see their kid’s softball game, that might be a game-changer.

Today, 76 percent of commuter’s drive-alone, about 106.7 million solo-vehicles. The numbers who are frustrated with their car commute is less…but,  say a guesstimate of one-third, there is still significant support for autonomous vehicles.

THE URBAN, AND OTHERS

A third group of potential users are urban residents. Urban residents are seldom found strapholding and reading a car magazine. Most likely, they do not own a car, and if they do- wish they did not. It would simplify their daily routines and bring relief if there was an alternative way to get around without recalculating stops, distance, and time of day. The US Census (2010) cites 132 areas, plus the Manhattan boroughs, that have a population density of more than 10,000 people per square mile. These cities range from Honolulu on the West to Sweetwater/Miami in the East.

There are many other collectives that are needy and will clamor to use autonomous cars- think adults who have received a DUI and cannot get to work easily; people who have been dropped by insurance companies or cannot afford to keep their automobile insurance; teens without licenses…..Each collective represents a substantial number of fans for the autonomous car.

OLD WORDS, NEW MACHINE

In fairness, we note that many car reviewers do seem to “get” the autonomous car and they marvel at the engineering feats. But they write that the rollout will take a decade or longer, and then some. More problematically, some of these writers often frame it as a collision of values: the self-driving car is in conflict with American independence, free choice, our national freedom to roam. They see this conflict, despite the fact that we all take trips on driverless trains in airports (Atlanta), have a few driverless buses on the road (Gizmodo), and sanction drone planes (without passengers).

There are large, user-ready, self-made markets for the autonomous vehicle. They just happen to be quieter ones- and they don’t write or read car reviews.

(Editorial note: Not to single out the over-worked, underpaid  auto reviewers and video makers – a forthcoming blog will consider the role of advertising. Automotive spending exceeds $35.5 billion for just TV and digital media).