Autonomous vehicles never speed, drive while intoxicated, nor text-and-drive, which gives them the potential to make vehicle transportation safer and more accessible. But seven experts say this high-tech solution to San Francisco’s transportation problems brings what transit-first cities are trying to avoid: More cars on the road.
“The main risk with AVs, whether privately owned or ‘robotaxis,’ is that their convenience seduces us into driving far more often,” wrote Carlo Ratti, a practicing architect and professor of urban technologies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Not unlike other ride-hailing vehicles, such as Uber and Lyft, he added.
Ratti and his colleagues at MIT’s Senseable Lab researched in 2014 how Uber and Lyft would impact the number of vehicles on the road. They predicted that 40 percent of New York City’s taxi fleet might be made redundant.
Instead, however, with cheaper car travel, many people opted for Uber or Lyft instead of the bus or subway.
In fact, a 2018 study by Schaller Consulting, a firm specializing in transportation policy, found that ride-hailing services — underwritten by huge investment from venture capital — were so cheap that they increased the mileage driven by cars across the city. That’s counter to what Ratti and his colleagues had predicted, and it led to more traffic and congestion.
This phenomenon is no different in San Francisco, which sees the highest number of ride-hailing trips per square mile than any other place in California, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The agency found that in California, between 2010 and 2016, ride-hailing vehicles accounted for 50 percent of the increase in congestion.
The phenomenon also moved some riders away from public transit, though just how many remains unclear. The pandemic and remote work continue to contribute to the city’s decline in transit ridership levels: As of October, Muni ridership levels are 68 percent of what they were before the pandemic.
Muni ridership is still far below pre-pandemic levels
Average weekday boardings, in 1000s
Muni ridership is still far below
Average weekday boardings, in 1000s
Chart by Kelly Waldron. Source: SFMTA.
The impact of robotaxis remains unclear
Though some experts predict worsening congestion, others are unsure of the impact that robotaxis which, like Uber or Lyft, will send riders a car at the touch of a button, will have on city streets.
“There’s no parallel for automated vehicles,” said Billy Riggs, a professor of urban planning at University of San Francisco. With ride-hailing vehicles, everyone who had a car could suddenly become a taxi driver, Riggs said. That’s not the case with driverless cars that rely on expensive hardware, instead of an app.
“Automated vehicle companies can’t just introduce 1,000 vehicles into the market overnight,” Riggs said.
Though that is, in fact, what Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt vowed to do, saying cities like San Francisco could absorb several thousand vehicles — and quickly. “As for what it would take to blanket a city like San Francisco, our goal … is to make sure we ramp up manufacturing capacity,” Vogt said, in an earnings call for General Motors, Cruise’s parent company, in July.
In August, the California Public Utilities Commission gave autonomous vehicle companies Cruise and Waymo the right to operate driverless robo taxis 24/7 across San Francisco. A week later, the DMV asked Cruise to halve its fleet after “concerning incidents” involving the vehicles. The company cannot exceed 50 cars on the road during the day and 150 at night. Waymo, on the other hand, has announced an expansion of its fleet across the city.
Cruise and Waymo have pressed their sales pitch on the premise of safety: That driverless cars can get anyone from any point A to point B more safely than having a human behind the wheel.
“Humans are terrible drivers,” said Riggs. He said this technology brings opportunities to make vehicle travel safer. “The number one thing is that they obey the law, and go slow,” he said. And, to the annoyance of some other (human) drivers on the road, they will stop fully at every stop sign.
But any safety benefit we may see from autonomous vehicles is not here yet, said Giancarlo Valdetaro, who works as a Policy Outreach Associate at the advocacy organization Transportation for America.
Autonomous vehicles are still involved in accidents, and Valdatero stressed that emphasizing future safety detracts from the investments cities could make in road safety today, with methods that we know work, like speed limits.
As of August, the San Francisco Fire Department had registered 55 “unusual occurrence” reports documenting times when autonomous vehicles meandered into fire and emergency scenes.
Cars, not people, as the problem
But other experts emphasized that cars are what make streets more dangerous, even if people are not driving them.
Driverless cars push a flawed premise: that “you and I, as drivers, are the problem,” said Valdetaro.
Peter Norton, a professor of history at the University of Virginia who teaches engineering students about the social aspects of their technology, said the most logical solution may be to use automation technology for other forms of transit, namely trains. As many places already have — Canadian cities such as Montreal and Vancouver run fully automated trains.
The refinement of the programs that operate driverless cars, he said, means “unbelievable amounts of tech AI, sensors, radar processors … and then it will probably not even do very well,” he said. “Or, just put the thing on rails.”
Bruce Appleyard, an associate professor in urban planning at San Diego State University, echoed those concerns, saying that people, not cars, should come first.
He calls driverless cars “a considerable threat to the humanity of our streets” that might push cities to prioritize land for car use, for instance, or further criminalize jaywalking.
Do driverless cars benefit public transportation?
For all the opportunities and problems driverless vehicles may pose, each expert noted that their effect will boil down to the policies that regulate them — and whether those policies prioritize the public transit networks we already have.
“There tends to be a willingness to agree that robot driving will make public transportation obsolete,” said Norton, referring to how politicians view robotaxis. Not so much because people actually believe that, but because politicians try to appeal to suburban voters — and it’s easier to promise investment in roads rather than public transit, he said.
“The best way to achieve accessible, effective and eco-friendly urban transport is to go back to basics. Buses, subways, bicycles and walking are not only cleaner and more cost-effective but also more efficient than any innovations Silicon Valley has envisioned,” Ratti wrote.