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The future of sustainable transportation is — Uber Pool?

The rise of self-driving cars could be a disaster unless many of those cars get more than one occupant.

Americans generally don’t like to carpool. The rates of carpooling in the United States actually have dropped over the past couple of decades despite the efforts of transportation planners.

And even with new enabling mobile apps, some people still don’t seem to particularly enjoy ridesharing carpooling services such as Uber Pool and Lyft Line. In these situations a driver picks up multiple passengers going in the same general direction.

But "pooling" services such as Uber Pool, Lyft Line and Via are the future of sustainable transportation in cities, according to transportation expert Daniel Sperling, professor at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies. At the Bay Area Altcar conference Wednesday in Oakland, Sperling told a room full of local policymakers, city fleet buyers and electric car vendors that pooling will be "necessary for cities, for society and for the economy."

That’s because as vehicles transition to being able to drive themselves — using computer vision, sensors and artificial intelligence — some transportation researchers expect that the number of vehicle miles traveled per capita will go up dramatically. Sperling said that research has suggested that when passengers are being driven around and can use that time in the car to do whatever they want (text, read, sleep) they tend to increase the amount of time spent in the car.

As vehicles transition to being able to drive themselves, researchers expect that the number of vehicle miles traveled per capita will go up dramatically.
Basically, being stuck in a car no longer will be a pain point if you can get stuff done as a passenger and your robot car drives you to your errands. In addition, certain studies have found that ride-sharing alone, before automation even arrives, has been increasing vehicle miles traveled, although that’s a little more complicated.

These are both big problems. As more automated cars start driving on roads, if each one is single-occupancy only, that might lead to a transportation and urban "disaster" waiting to happen, notes Sperling, who just released a book on how transportation is moving toward a three-pronged revolution of electrification, automation and sharing.

Heaven or hell

He’s not the first one to call out this fear. As entrepreneur and Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase put it in her essay a few years ago: "If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles." 

Chase described a "hell" scenario where self-driving cars with no one in them roam around clogging streets waiting for their owners to be done with errands.

Sperling sees a potential solution to this nightmare, by encouraging and extending the current pooling services, such as Uber Pool, Lyft Line and Via. "Your mission is to not just support pooling services, but to figure out how to champion them," said Sperling to the audience Wednesday. "We need to build that up and build an inventory of people using these services."

Daniel Sperling speaking at the Bay Area Altcar conference in Oakland

So will Americans ever embrace this car pooling culture that they’ve so far bucked? We’ll see. Lyft originally was founded as a car-pooling company called Zimride, but had to pivot early on to the ridesharing model to kick-start growth.

Sperling said one answer lies in the cost of the ride-sharing car pooling: Make sure it’s ultra cheap and people will use it.

When ride-sharing vehicles are heavily used, and eventually running on battery power, they can have a really low cost per mile traveled. These vehicles can run 100,000 miles per year, which spread out could cost on the order of 15 cents per mile for two people in a car, Sperling said.  

For example, if you wanted to travel from the location of the Altcar conference (Oakland City Hall) to the Oakland airport, it could cost on the order of $1.50, Sperling said. Those are the kinds of costs that could make pooling sticky.

Boosting pooling would also "require a lot of policy," Sperling noted. "We have to incentivize sharing and disincentivize single and zero occupancy use." Policies that could encourage pooling would be to subsidize pooled rides, say, from an airport, or add a toll on single and zero occupancy rides, for example.

Future of transportation

Of course, it’s hard to determine exactly what the future will look like as transportation dramatically transforms. Vehicles are becoming electrified, automated and shared at the same time, but any of these three revolutions could happen more quickly and more slowly than the other, causing various environmental effects.

It’s difficult to determine the effect that a single company such as Uber will have on urban transportation, carbon emissions reductions and driving habits.
Unexpected events could accelerate or halt each of these markets.

For example, the first known pedestrian death from a self-driving car occurred last weekend in Tempe, Arizona, when an automated Uber hit a woman crossing the street with her bike. The event could slow the rollout of self-driving cars, or it could end up having little effect on the emerging market.

It’s also difficult to determine the effect that a single company such as Uber will have on urban transportation, carbon emissions reductions and driving habits. Uber has positioned itself over the years as reducing traffic and transportation-related carbon emissions.

Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a blog post for the company’s fifth anniversary: "A city that welcomes Uber on its roads will be a city where people spend less time stuck in traffic or looking for a parking space. ... It will be a cleaner city, where fewer cars on the road will mean less carbon pollution."

But we’re starting to see data that suggests that Uber is actually clogging up some cities such as San Francisco.

At the end of the day, it’s all about implementation of these transformative transportation technologies.

To Sperling’s and Chase's points, transportation planners, policymakers, cities and tech companies need to put a lot of thought into making sure that these services are making the future of transportation more sustainable — not less.

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