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Groups Advocate Banning Privately-Owned Autonomous Vehicles

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Last year this newsletter reported on the ongoing modeling efforts of OECD’s International Transport Forum, which claimed that Lisbon, Portugal could meet all its surface transportation needs via shared mobility, while significantly reducing vehicle emissions—if only all individually owned vehicles were banned. Well, I thought, that’s Europe for you. But now the idea is being promoted here in the USA.
A statement called “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” was posted online in February by a coalition of environmental and transportation groups. It sets forth 10 principles, mostly feel-good ideas about equity and a zero-emission future. It also supports fair user fees, under which “every vehicle and mode should pay their fair share for road use, congestion, pollution, and use of curb space.” But then comes the big one. Principle 10 states that the only autonomous vehicles (AVs) to be allowed in “dense urban areas” should be those operated in shared fleets.
Brittany Hunter of the Foundation for Economic Education pointed out in a blog post on March 1st, “It is highly probable that once [AVs] get to the point of mass production, the use of regular cars will be limited naturally . . . . If [conventional vehicles are] not prohibited, mass [AV] adoption is likely to occur regardless, making autonomous vehicles the only real game in town.” Hunter goes on to explain that “If ‘regular’ vehicles are no longer on the roads, prohibiting private ownership of driverless cars would effectively mean banning the private ownership of vehicles altogether.” And that seems to be the point.
Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute highlighted the fact that the Shared Mobility Principles document was the brainchild of Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar. And besides a number of green groups (NRDC, World Resources Institute, etc.), the companies endorsing this document are notable for including Uber and Lyft. About two dozen other “service providers” are also listed as endorsers. Hunter and Scribner rightly charge these fleet operators with engaging in a form of crony capitalism. As Scribner put it, “Uber sees the competition of the futureand it’s you.”
A transportation planner might argue that the restriction to fleet-only AV operations would apply only to “dense” urban areas. But that would likely be a very slippery slope. Ban privately owned AVs today in the urban core, and tomorrow the same groups will demand that the ban be extended to inner suburbs, and on from there.
Hunter noticed an interesting omission from the list of endorsers: Tesla. She noted that Elon Musk has proposed a Tesla Network, under which the owner of a future autonomous Tesla would be able to add the car to the Tesla shared fleet, to be earning money for the owner during those hours of the day or night when the owner was not using it. While I doubt if I would want random strangers using my AV, the extra income might make an autonomous Tesla considerably more affordable to many would-be owners. This is a market-based alternative to the Shared Mobility Principles that would be enforced on unwilling vehicle owners.
The Economist last month included some speculations on potential AV futures, pointing out potential problems as well as benefits. In its summary, titled “Who’s Behind the Wheel,” its editors wrote, “Autonomous vehicles offer passengers [sic] freedom from accidents, pollution, congestion, and the bother of trying to find a parking space. But they will require other freedoms to be given up in returnespecially the ability to drive your own vehicle anywhere.”
AVs, per se, will require no such thing. And I doubt if most Americans would stand for being forbidden to own a motor vehicle.
(This article first ran in the April issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
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