Professor Daniel Sperling, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies
Around the world, cities are starting to prepare for the advent of automated vehicles. But increasingly, policymakers aren’t addressing automated technology in isolation. Instead, it is being seen as part of a wider transportation shift that also includes shared mobility services and electric vehicles.
Professor Daniel Sperling, founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, is one of those paying particular attention to the development of these new transportation models.
In our latest interview, we caught up with him to discuss his new book on the subject – Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future – and to find out more about the dream and nightmare scenarios he believes might take place as a result of these three revolutions.
In the book, you explore the three revolutions that relate to passenger transportation. How and in what order do you think these will occur?
The electric vehicle revolution is “already happening”, says Sperling, noting that the market share for electric vehicles (EVs) is now approaching almost 2% in the US. Similarly, he notes that ridesharing – “including the (socially) more desirable pooling” – is already happening.
When it comes to automated vehicles, Sperling says that partially automated cars are already here. However, while fully automated cars are “likely in limited (geofenced) areas within a few years”, these will be in very limited numbers, and in “very geographically constrained applications – mostly with companies such as Uber and Lyft”, he notes.
In the book you lay out both a dream scenario and a nightmare scenario for the future of passenger transportation. Can you tell us a bit more about each?
In the dream scenario, says Sperling, more people – especially young people, those on low incomes, and physically handicapped people – would get access to high quality transportation. At the same time, he believes pooled mobility services will make travel “cheaper for everyone”, while traffic congestion will be reduced.
In the nightmare scenario, he suggests, “conventional transit will atrophy meaning less access for the most vulnerable populations”. At the same time, extra vehicle use by the more affluent members of society will see traffic congestion worsen, while pollution and climate change will increase.
There is some positive news in this scenario – over the longer term (“in many decades”, says Sperling), congestion would start to drop as automated vehicles become ubiquitous. But that still leaves the ‘nightmare’ scenario to contend with first.
Which scenario do you think is more likely?
Sperling believes that without policy intervention, some version of his ‘nightmare’ scenario is likely. But he confesses that that may sound “a little dramatic”.
“The real point is that the dream scenario would be lost.”
Instead, he says, such a scenario “will likely be mildly negative” – meaning additional traffic congestion, somewhat worse travel options for those with low incomes and other mobility disadvantaged groups, and slightly higher overall transportation costs in general.
“But the real point is that the dream scenario would be lost,” he points out, “a scenario where we can dramatically improve the economy, personal travel costs, access for mobility disadvantaged, traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change”.
What steps do you think policy leaders should take to support these three transportation revolutions?
There are three things policy leaders can do, believes Sperling. The first, he says, is to “create incentives and disincentives to support pooling” by managing curbspace to favour pooled vehicles. He also advocates structuring fees and taxes to encourage the use of vehicles with multiple riders – pointing to Lyftline, Uberpool, microtransit and buses as examples – while discouraging single-passenger services.
Secondly, he thinks governments should assist transit services to incorporate modern technologies and link better with ride-hailing and microtransit companies, such as Chariot and Via.
Finally, believes Sperling, policy leaders should work to reform public transport funding to encourage more links between conventional transit services and ride-hailing companies, and should subsidise the use of ride-hailing services by low income and physically disadvantaged riders.
One of the three revolutions is the focus on shared mobility. How can travellers be persuaded that shared vehicles are the way forward?
Sperling believes that a number of incentives and disincentives will be needed to help travellers shift to shared models of mobility. “Pooling will be cheaper”, he notes, “but policies will be needed to further enhance the attractiveness of pooling”, for example by increasing fees or taxes on single and zero-occupant vehicle use, and reducing these fees or taxes where services are being used by multiple occupants.
“Policies will be needed to further enhance the attractiveness of pooling”
Your chapter on vehicle automation talks about a ‘transportation do-over’ – which elements in particular do you think will need reinventing?
There are a number of areas that will need attention, says Sperling. The first is “how we finance transportation infrastructure and services”, including subsidies for conventional transit and paratransit.
Another focus should be on parking management, he says, “such as erasing minimum requirements for new retail, residential, and commercial developments” to reflect the reduced parking needed with pooling and automated vehicles.
The final element of such an overhaul, says Sperling, would be to revisit the existing funding and management of public transportation.
You also look at bridging the gap between mobility ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. What steps should be taken to ensure everyone benefits from these transportation revolutions?
To deliver the greatest benefit from the forthcoming shifts in transportation, believes Sperling, public transport funding should be restructured “to focus on users, not services”. By doing so, he says, subsidies can be targeted at low-income and physically handicapped riders, rather than services themselves.
Sperling also thinks policy leaders should support the expansion of pooling services, and should seek to increase choice by supporting the use of new mobility services, from bikes and scooters to ride-hailing and microtransit. By doing so, he believes, “travelers can give up personal cars – thereby reducing their total costs and gaining access to more and better choices”.
In your final chapter, The Dark Horse, you ask whether China will win the electric automated shared mobility race. What are your views and why?
“China is clearly leading on EVs”, he notes, saying that it seems strongly committed to maintaining that leadership through its industrial policy, its oil dependency and for environmental reasons.
The country also wants to be a leader when it comes to automated vehicles, he says. While they are “clearly lagging” at the moment, says Sperling, “if they commit the resources and the policy environment, they could be leaders”.
Returning to his earlier point on pooling, Sperling also says that neither China nor the US has realised that “pooling is key to the more sustainable dream scenario”. However, if they do realise this, he believes, “they are well positioned to lead”, pointing out that the largest ride-hailing company in the world, Didi Chuxing, is based in China.
“If they [China] commit the resources and the policy environment, they could be leaders”
Finally, what are you personally looking forward to most about the advent of self-driving cars?
“Being able to go anywhere, any time, by pressing a button, and being able to sleep, work, read en route – and that means more mobility (at low cost) as my family and I get older.”
About the expert
Professor Daniel Sperling, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies
Professor Daniel Sperling is founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and author of Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future.
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