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.