The autonomous vehicle bandwagon is picking up speed and moving into the fast lane, and Los Angeles wants to jump on board. Officials here are optimistic that the new technology could, within the next two decades, be a solution to one of the city’s most persistent problems: traffic.
Councilman David Ryu, 4th District, last week introduced a motion to make it a top priority for the city to address the crisis that “sucks hours from our lives and billions of dollars from our economy.”
The councilman pointed out that in the 20th century, Los Angeles’ streetcars and freeways set national standards and propelled the quality of life and economy forward. But today, the city is “mired in gridlock, and it is time once again for our city to lead the way, this time into the 21st century, as the trailblazer on autonomous vehicle technology,” the councilman wrote.
Ryu’s motion instructs the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (DOT) to report on the benefits of driverless cars in Los Angeles and the steps that should be taken over the next 5, 10, 15 and 20 years to prepare for an autonomous transit city.
“An autonomous transit city has the potential to revolutionize transportation for the better by bringing transportation equity, greatly reducing traffic and achieving the Vision Zero goal of zero road deaths in the city,” Ryu said.
The move comes after the Obama administration last week endorsed the push to develop the vehicles. Also, earlier this year, the Beverly Hills City Council unanimously supported an initiative to make it the first city in the nation to take a leading role in testing and deployment of a fleet of self-driving city shuttles. The first phase calls for Beverly Hills to develop partnerships with AV manufacturers such as Google and Tesla – two companies that are are predicting they will have the shuttles on the market in two to five years.
In a press release, Ryu’s office noted the “staggering” advancements in autonomous vehicle technology, pointing out that 10 years ago, the concept would have been considered science fiction. But now, with the technology closer to mainstream production, Ryu believes it is not a stretch to suggest that autonomous vehicles “could be commonplace,” and that Los Angeles could become a city with no human-operated vehicles by 2035.
“An autonomous transit city would eliminate the biggest drivers of traffic: vehicles circling looking for parking, vehicles blocking the intersection during rush hour, vehicles making last minute lane changes causing rapid stopping, vehicle accidents and inefficient distances between cars on our roads,” Ryu said. “Further, residents would likely prefer autonomous car shares rather than full vehicle ownership, freeing up land formerly used for parking lots, parking spaces and gas stations.”
Nick Greif, director of policy and legislation for Ryu, said the councilman and his office have been following the advancements of AV abilities, and recent studies from the RAND Corporation and an LADOT fellow on future transportation technologies encouraged them to write the motion. He said their approach is to make sure the city will be ready for what consumers need, not for the government to force a new mode of transportation on the city. In theory, Angelenos who commute alone on the highway will be able to take advantage of AVs immediately. But Ryu’s office recognizes that other households that have two cars might still want to retain a vehicle to transport children, or that some residents look at different transportation plans and think it might not be for them.
Ryu also called on autonomous vehicle companies to bring their technologies to Los Angeles, the largest and most congested automotive market in the United States.
“With Uber launching its first autonomous fleet last week in Pittsburgh, Google test driving cars in Palo Alto, and Tesla adding semi-autonomous functionality to its current road vehicles, we need these companies to focus on the largest market and the one that will benefit most: Los Angeles,” he said.
Even if the congestion remains, consumers could still benefit from the additional time they will have to focus on other tasks such as paperwork, talking or texting on the phone, sleeping, or any activity that could be completed in a car – besides driving, he said.
According to proponents, the most obvious benefit would be to consumers’ wallets. Former General Motors executive Larry Burns estimated the costs of car ownership in the United States could drop 78 percent by eliminating car payments, insurance, fuel and maintenance. Companies and corporations are also set to reap rewards. For example, Uber would be able to retain 100 percent of the rider’s fare, instead of splitting it with the drivers.
Others aren’t as sure how the technology will affect the economy as a whole. For example, Steven Greenhouse, author of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” argues that the new technology could mean layoffs for the 600,000 Californians who drive taxis, buses, trucks or other vehicles for a living. If families decide they don’t need to own a car anymore, auto dealerships or manufacturers could cut workers too, unless they begin to develop driverless vehicles.
Greif said Ryu’s office recognizes that manufacturers that send goods by truck, for example, would be among the first to take advantage to reduce their costs when the truck doesn’t have to pull over to sleep every night.
“There are reasonable arguments to be made,” Greif said. “But [people have] been looking at tech advances and have been afraid of job loss since the beginning of technology. Doomsayers say we are going to lose jobs, but that never happens. Technology is always creating jobs.”
He said as the economy shifts toward more on-demand, subscription-like services, job restructuring could take place, but it won’t be isolated to drivers. The whole economy could adjust and the benefits could spread throughout other industries to bring balance.
Many questions will start to be answered when city staff reports to Ryu.
Experts also suggest that this new technology will likely save lives. The consulting and research firm Accenture notes that self-driving cars have the potential to reduce preventable vehicle deaths to zero.
Ryu’s motion instructs the DOT, with assistance from the Los Angeles Department of City Planning and the Bureau of Street Services, to report to the city council within 45 days on the likely benefits of an autonomous transit city.
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