Autonomous vehicles for sustainable cities – An interview with Robin Chase

After the wave of ridesharing, the rise of autonomous vehicles is fascinating both thinkers and entrepreneurs. Today, future of mobility is the new big deal in town, not to say that a myth was born. To get some insights I interviewed Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism.

Today, 75% of cars have only one person on board, the driver. General assertions on ridesharing tend to push for filling cars with more people. In your ‘hell’ scenario, you claim that by 2025, 50% of cars could be empty. How did you end up at this conclusion?

Robin Chase. If we let autonomous vehicles (AVs) drive on our streets with the same rules and incentives we have today, we are in for some serious trouble!  When people think about whether they will take a car for a trip, we consider only the additional cost of the fuel and the cost and effort of parking (ignoring the costs of depreciation, insurance, maintenance, and parking at home). With an electric AV, the marginal cost  moving a car will be about 2 euros an hour, and I won’t even have to factor in the value of my time!  So why would I ever park at a meter (that will cost more than 2 euros/hour) or pay for parking in a garage? I would just have the car drive back to my home parking, or keep driving around until I need it. I also won’t hesitate to send it on very low value errands, because I won’t really care if it is rush hour and it takes the car two hours to accomplish something for me rather than 30 minutes. AVs will become our very low cost assistants who run around and get us things.

In the “heaven” scenario, you assert that future vehicles will be autonomous and shared. Would you also add electric? What concrete steps do you see to achieve this scenario?

R.B. If we are to get close to “heaven,” AVs must not only be electric, but the energy from which we charge must be renewable. Cities (and maybe countries?) must specify that AVs use clean energy, and that the new demand added to our energy grid must be built with renewables.

What are the most significant impacts of autonomous vehicles on land use and social interactions in cities?

R.B. It will all depend on whether the transition to AVs is simply as replacements for personal cars, or whether we use their advantages to demand that they all be shared vehicles. I’m calling these FAVES! Fleets of AVs that are Electric and Shared!  If we manage to replace personal cars with FAVES, we only need between 3 and 10% of the cars we currently use in a city. Imagine no more on-street parking and no more parking garages! Wide enough sidewalks and wide enough bike paths and still plenty of room for motorized vehicles. What we choose to do with this newly freed up space is something that should be considered neighborhood by neighborhood. Does this street or neighborhood need more retail? a school? more green space? trees? community space? housing? We need to legislate the criteria, rules, and priorities that will guide this transformation so that we don’t end up with all the land devoted to the entity with the most money.
I’ve been thinking about this new world as I walk around cities. Online and on-demand shopping is ravaging retail stores. If more short trips can be made conveniently and safely with physically active modes (walking, biking), it would seem that this would really support retail over people moving inside cars. And of course, the more we move outside of cars, the more certain we are to actually see the people we know and say hello.

What are the standpoints of different stakeholders (local governments, transport operators, taxis…) in  the face of this massive change? What would you advise them?

R.B. This is going to be a massive change. With every change there are winners and losers. For me, we need to keep our eyes on the most important prize: sustainable cities. I am throwing a lot into that one word “sustainable.”  We must quickly make transport fossil fuel free, and I believe FAVES is the fastest way to make that happen. We must make our cities livable, free of congestion and irritation and hassle, since cities are the most resource efficient (and innovation efficient!) places to live. We need to ensure that everyone has access to the opportunities afforded by transportation, and that cities are safe for walking, biking, and, yes, even driving.
Local governments should embrace this change. It provides so much opportunity to improve the quality of cities and the lives of people who live in them. For transportation providers, public and private, this is going to be an existential crisis. Drivers of taxi, buses, shuttles, will lose their jobs. We will have a huge fight, but a transition to autonomous will be the ultimate outcome. Worldwide, 1.2 million people die from traffic collisions, and as many as 100 times that are seriously injured. When in-door plumbing and sewage came to Paris, the city lost 20,000 “water carrier” jobs.
That all said, if I worked in the transport sector, I would be very concerned, looking for a new job and/or trying to diversify my income (perhaps with the collaborative economy!), and expecting government to come up with some answers.  See the next question.

You make a direct link between the rise of autonomous vehicles and the necessity to launch experiments on basic income. Why?

R.B. AVs will be a large and fast automation of workers. I think governments can and should start taking steps now to make drivers (and all workers in our dynamic economy) less vulnerable. This would include making it legal, simple, convenient, and without penalty to work one, ten, or 34 hours for a given “employer” (who might be yourself). Right now, regardless of your particular country, taxes have been easier to collect from full-time employees and that is where most employee benefits and workplace rules reside. This used to make sense. Today however, we have the Internet and organizing many small parts has very low transaction costs. The future is already here with the collaborative economy, and as it grows to become the majority of the economy, we need to facilitate diversified portfolios of work and income streams. This will benefits today’s driver to develop a more resilient personal income flow, providing some resilience against the future of AVs.
In addition (I’m getting to basic income), the automation of driving provides us with a very good impetus to start doing some basic income pilots. Labor economists are predicting rapid automation over the next 20 years.  Indeed, some of this will create new unforeseen jobs. But we should think about UBI as a worker insurance in a future of dynamic and insecure job markets. For a century, countries and economists have been chasing productivity gains as the means of raising standards of living. Today, with automation, we will be seeing enormous productivity gains but without the labor. We need to think of an entirely new way of financing government and public services, as well as keeping in mind the redistribute those gains.

Autonomy is trying to get a wide range of stakeholders to discuss how the future of mobility is going to impact cities. What kind of discussion do you expect there?

R.B. If you get all the stakeholders in the room, it is going to be a delightful fight that we need to have. Is the future going to be personal AVs or FAVES? Just picture how different our cities will be if you took every existing car out and replaced it with an autonomous one.  Now, imagine instead, if we replace personal cars with FAVES.

To follow up the discussion on these topics, meet Robin Chase at Autonomy in Paris from October 6th to 8th.

Featured image : Flying Taxi by Rogue-One, street art in Glasgow.