Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: Planning Today For Tomorrow’s Possibilities

February 27, 2019 by Dan Hennessey
Autonomous Vehicles
photo credit:davsot  (CC)

Connected and autonomous vehicles are coming (probably) – maybe in five years, maybe in 25 years – and a lot of words have been written trying to guess how they’ll change our commute patterns. For some, it’s an exciting time to be working on this issue, with endless possibilities.

For others, it’s a nerve-wracking time. Those who are trying to take back cities from years of planning strictly for automobiles are currently trying to accommodate dockless mobility services like bicycles and scooters, technologies that just appeared one day without advance planning. What will happen for autonomous vehicles (AVs)?

AVs Are Coming. What Are The Implications?

What will happen once AVs are finally here? We’re assuming safety and convenience will improve – otherwise, what’s the point? Those who cannot otherwise drive will have increased mobility. Those are supposed to be the benefits. There’s already been concern about the change in car ownership rates with shared vehicles and a shifting paradigm for the car insurance industry. But for what else will City planners, traffic engineers, and public safety professionals need to plan?

Connected and Autonomous Vehicles
Automation levels according to the Society of Automotive Engineers. Image Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Netflix and Commute

For sake of this exercise, let’s assume we get at or near full autonomy; a person does not have to be driving the vehicle. A person can be working, watching Netflix, reading a book, whatever their heart desires. It might mean people willing to live farther from jobs, lengthening commutes in search of cheaper homes and more land. A similar effect could be seen for non-work trips; people may be willing to travel farther for a specific restaurant, grocery store, bar, park, etc. Essentially, AVs would decrease a person’s own value of their travel time.

What about when a trip ends? Where does the car go? Does it find a parking space? Or does it circle the block waiting for its next call? Curbside management is an issue now; wait until AVs enter the market.

With all of these effects put together, there is almost no manner in which AVs will reduce the number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT), as compared to a control scenario similar to what exists now.

Connected Vehicles
Image Credit: USDOT

Having connected vehicles will help ease some of this additional congestion, but what level of market penetration will be required for significant capacity increases? Some estimates have shown as little 10 percent, while others suggest as much as 50 percent will be needed for real capacity increases to be seen on our infrastructure. Estimates in the increase in vehicle capacity range from 40 percent to more than 100 percent with full market penetration 40 percent increase in capacity. None of this considered the effects on the very expensive parking industry.

What We Can Learn From Uber and Lyft

We don’t have to wait for automated vehicles to show up to have proof of these concepts. Consider Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), as they’ve branded themselves. They’re really smart-phone based taxi services (with very low prices to the user). These are vehicles not driven by the person making the trip, and they are not parking on either end of the trip. Their effects can demonstrate some of the anticipated changes with AVs.

We know vehicles working on behalf of these companies create additional VMT. Some estimates say that for each trip, the driver travels about 60 percent of the trip’s distance waiting and traveling to a pick-up location. We know that they are not all replacing other vehicle trips; most of these trips would have not been made, or made by walking, biking, or taking transit. And while vehicle ownership might decrease for those using the app for rides, it’s increasing for those using the app for work. We’re beginning to have an understanding on their effects on local transit operations, and on support for local transit agencies.

More Questions Than Answers

There are clearly more questions than answers about the implications of autonomous vehicles at this point; anyone who claims to know exactly what will happen in the future is lying. Just the same, anyone not considering these ideas will be blindsided when they’re here.

At BIG RED DOG, a division of WGI, we’ve started including this uncertainty into our forecasts, with the understanding that we’re no longer planning for a small target in future years. Active planning is required for the changes brought on by new mobility service companies; planning new spaces for dockless vehicle parking and travel, re-imagining how we utilize our curb space, addressing safety concerns with additional modes are all new changes.

We all need to plan for a range of possibilities, and our policy and infrastructure need to be ready for whatever the market brings forward.

Written by Dan Hennessey

Dan Hennessey

Dan Hennessey, P.E., PTOE is Director of Transportation Engineering at BIG RED DOG. Dan holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering (Transportation) from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from The Ohio State University. Dan is responsible for managing our Raving Fans and prospective clients, overseeing the performance of our traffic and transportation engineering design staff, steering our marketing strategy, and spearheading our community outreach and volunteer efforts. Dan’s professional experience and expertise focuses on Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) studies, highway, freeway and arterial operations analysis, signal coordination and synchronization, traffic signal design, travel demand forecasting, and pedestrian and bicycle facility design.