Uber, Lyft Say Major Road Block to Autonomy is Lack of City Partnerships

February 28, 2018 by Carly Schaffner, @carlyschaffner

A major barrier to wide adoption of self-driving vehicle technology will be the lack of municipal partnerships and cross-sector collaboration.

Uber and Lyft both say establishing action-oriented dialogue with policy makers will help shape the autonomous learning curve that both ride-hailing companies have been developing over the past decade. Representatives of the companies outlined their strategies at the Autonomous Vehicle Silicon Valley summit in San Mateo earlier this week.

Uber, which started in 2009 with the goal to give rides to consumers through the push of a button, is working toward creating efficiencies in ride-sharing that it believes will pave the way to an autonomous future.

Lyft launched in 2012 with a similar goal. “Most consumers’ first experience in an autonomous vehicle is going to happen through a ride-sharing app, like Lyft,” said Jody Kelman, head of the company’s self-driving program.

While both San Francisco-based companies compete for passengers, their vision of how autonomous technology will roll out is aligned.

“Fundamentally this is about a transition for folks,” Kelman said. Lyft tested its self-driving vehicles via its mobile app during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It gave over 400 autonomous rides to convention-goers who – on average – lost interest in the novelty of the product after “about 15 seconds.”

“People become comfortable incredibly quickly,” Kelman said.

There is an education for consumers required, but the challenge lies elsewhere. While self-driving vehicles will first drive on roads in regions where they’re being tested – like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Pittsburg – true proliferation of the technology will happen when cities and state regulators are on board.

The railroad system built in the 1800s determined what cities became huge, said Justin Ulrich, head of policy, autonomous vehicles and urban aviation for Uber. “When we built the freeways in the ‘50s under Eisenhower, it put new cities on the map and affected how we live within those cities.”

A “great utopian future” where there is increased access to mobility – such as for senior citizens who can no longer drive themselves – fewer vehicle fatalities, reduced air pollution, more green space and less time spent in traffic is in the works, Ulrich said.

But, technology is only as good as a deployment mode, he said. “We have to be really thoughtful about what are the incentives and policy infrastructure that needs to be put in place to capture that world.”

Before Lyft launched its self-driving program in Boston, Kelman spent a week meeting with local regulators to make sure they were comfortable with “every last detail” of the company’s plans.

Lyft's self-driving car company nuTonomy currently has autonomous cars operating in Boston.

Lyft’s self-driving car company nuTonomy currently has autonomous cars operating in Boston. (Photo: nuTonomy)

“We are in day one of our ride-sharing story,” she said. “Still only 0.5 percent of vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. are done via ride-sharing app. As you start talking of the second wave – the autonomous wave – there is no choice but to do this in complete partnership with the city.” 

The long-term implications are significant.

“How do we replace the gas tax and the lost revenue from parking or law enforcement ticketing when that is what has been funding our transportation infrastructure?” Ulrich said. It might “not be there with the new autonomous vehicle movement.”

“We also need to think about how we create the right parking structure, parking incentives,” he said. “Right now we charge very little for parking and we’ve over invested in it.”

“In our driver-based world, we rely on a fair amount of judgement about where we can pull over safely,” Kelman said. “But in an autonomous world, I’m going to need to give that car extraordinarily explicit directions about where it can pick up and drop off safely within the city of San Francisco, for instance.”

“We’re missing that crucial piece of data,” she said. “One of the really critical building blocks of a transition to autonomy is partnering with cities and states to figure out how we formalize this language.”

Cross-sector collaboration also is key to developing the right policies.

To get us all to where we want to be, it “means inviting urban planners, traffic engineers, housing developers to the table,” Ulrich said.

“The road to autonomy and ride-sharing holds amazing potential,” he said. “But the only way it can do so in a way that everyone’s happy about it if it’s done in a collaborative dialogue together.”

“We have the same vision as a lot of urbanists, departments of transportation and policy makers for the next 10 years, but often we get stuck looking at the here and now,” Ulrich said.

Read Next: Why Trucking and Logistics Will Lead the Autonomous Vehicle Revolution

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