Highway Traffic

The Biggest Public Policy Opportunity of Our Lifetimes

Over the next decade, driverless vehicles will disrupt transportation systems, causing ripple effects across numerous billion-dollar industries. Through the innovative use of public policy, advanced societies can use this mobility transformation as a keystone event to radically improve public safety and security, greatly increase cohesion among communities, and foster economic prosperity. To be clear, autonomous vehicles will become legal and ubiquitous; the public policy opportunity is about ownership.

There is no need for private ownership of autonomous vehicles. If legislators seize the opportunity to lead the driverless mobility revolution and ban private ownership, society will reap abundant returns.

First, this will require manufactures to transform their business strategies from producing goods for consumption-based markets to service-based markets. Society gains sustainability benefits here as incentives for full lifecycle producer responsibility become the norm. Existing product liability laws already hold the producer of an autonomous vehicle at fault if it causes an accident; like it or not, the introduction of autonomous vehicles will disrupt consumer insurance markets as liability shifts from the driver to the manufacturer.

This legislated liability increases the incentives for centralized standardization and fleet management, which in turn improves public safety—Google has already demonstrated that its experimental autonomous vehicle fleet is radically safer than any human driver. A shared fleet also has the potential to improve homeland security—fleet operators will need a way to confidently ensure the identity of passengers (using biometrics, for example) for billing, criminal liability, and vandalism reasons. This will, in turn, improve law enforcement’s ability to locate, detain, and securely transport criminals.

If there is no private ownership of autonomous vehicles, the vast majority of street space reserved for parking can be eliminated as non-autonomous vehicles will eventually retire from service. As a shared resource, fleet operators will seek to optimize the market and keep car supply matched with demand, so utilization could be drastically improved from the current five percent, as shown in a 2012/2013 Earth Institute and Columbia University study. In the same study, researchers found that 18,000 shared use driverless cars could replace 120,000 owner-driven vehicles and achieve wait times of less than one minute for a vehicle to arrive with 70 percent utilization of the fleet. This allows our cities to reclaim vast tracks of road space for public use—biking, walking, cafes, parks, etc. As Bogota has shown, when communities and entire cities reclaim roads for public use, crime rates drop, public health improves, social cohesion improves, and the population feels more dignity and empowerment. More public space is the rising tide that lifts all ships.

The path to this utopia will not be easy, but it is achievable with visionary leadership and strong public private partnerships. The first step would be to pilot the concept in a small city with a dense urban core, paid for by private funding (e.g., Google, GM, Nissan), foundations (e.g., Rockefeller, Ford), and/or government agencies (e.g., DOT, DHS, NTSB). There would need to be a diverse group of stakeholders at the table with a governance structure that values the qualitative and quantitative gathering of data across a range of performance and outcome metrics.

Progressive public sector officials are sure to find friends within affected industries—after all, the largest among them, the automotive industry, is being disrupted whether they like it or not and they now they have a choice be disrupted or become the disruptor. For instance, with its existing fleet services and RelayRides business units, GM will likely enjoy a first mover advantage in this new mobility marketplace. Google claims their driverless cars are less than five years away, and Nissan has set 2020 as a goal for their driverless cars to be available. The time to act is now. This is the single greatest opportunity of our lifetimes to make proactive policy decisions that will not only improve prosperity for current generations, but the prosperity of generations to come.

Steve Tiell

About the Author : Steve TiellSteven Tiell is the thought leadership and strategy lead for Accenture’s Technology Vision, an annual publication of technology trends that guides Accenture’s own innovation agenda and the technology investment strategies of top-tier clients. Prior to joining Accenture, he consulted with corporations and public sector agencies on the use of technology to make cities more sustainable and contributed to Connected Urban Development, Urban EcoMapPlanetary SkinDialogue Cafe, and the Smart+Connected Communities Institute.View all posts by Steve Tiell

  1. Steve Raney
    Steve RaneyDecember 30,13


    I agree with your main point about the benefits of avoiding privately owned robocars. UC Professor Susan Shaheen’s study of carsharing impacts in SF, where each carsharing car replaces 10 private autos, shows great promise in application to robotaxis.

    To further your argument for avoidance of privately owned robocars: Envision a 2025 $5,000 self-driving freeway cruise control add-on for luxury sedans, featuring GM SuperCruise, Ford Traffic Jam Assist, lane-keeping, etc. Envision 5% market penetration. For 90% of trips on the freeway, users can happily text away without looking at the road ahead. 10% of the time, texting is interrupted. In this instance, the add-on prompts users to take driving control of the car within 5 seconds, because there is unexpected construction or some other challenge. Transportation planning can quantify the impact of this self-driving cruise control scenario. This add-in increases the utility of solo driving, inducing travel demand. Peak hour traffic congestion increases. Total VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and GHG increases. Residents are more likely to choose housing locations farther from work (“I can leave my apartment and afford that single family home in Manteca, and the commute will be fine.”) Elites enjoy greater travel utility while the poor suffer.

    The “car discipline” created the thought-providing Earth Institute and Columbia University study of a robotaxi service for Ann Arbor. The transportation planning discipline can provide some helpful rigor to this analysis. For instance, no Ann Arbor travel data was used in the analysis. The transportation planning discipline can show how Ann Arbor’s unbalanced peak hour flows combined with long commutes make the robotaxis much less productive than the Earth Institute claims. The Ann Arbor study is still very thought-provoking, but due diligence does not validate the business case.

    – Steve

  2. David Sucher
    David SucherJanuary 1,14

    Bravo for thinking about (what I agree) is going to be a totally disruptive technology.

    But I don’t think that widespread “banning private ownership” of cars (whether driverless or human-controlled) is either good politics or, really, necessary.

    The logic of the driverless car will tend, I believe, to shared systems (such as Cars-to-Go) and that many people will give up their own personal vehicle simply because it is cheaper and more convenient.

    Others may desire to own a “personal vehicle” simply because they want a more personal interior, fittings etc for, say. longer trips and yet they will also use a “shared driverless car” (like a taxi!) for many trips within an urban region.

    Moreover, I think that the driverless car is going to meet a lot of resistance based on a range of issues from fear of losing sense of personal autonomy to fear of increased governmental surveillance.

    If you want to amp up the driverless car discussion by banning private car ownership, I’d hope that you didn’t. :) It seems to me somewhat un-needed and yet very contentious and emotional.

  3. Byron Zorzos
    Byron ZorzosAugust 20,14

    So, it is proposed that we institutionalize yet another aspect of our lives? Have such measures not already propelled humans into an automaton-like existence? How has this worked out for us so far?

    We must empower people to make their own decisions and take ownership of the results.

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