The story behind how Detroit's grand prix raced back downtown

Cities face host of problems in self-driving future

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Detroit — The benefits of autonomous vehicles and mobility-on-demand services also come with potential problems – issues that U.S. cities are only now beginning to understand.

Mobility-on-demand could free people from the need to own a vehicle, opening up the world to those who can’t afford their own car or are physically unable to drive one. And autonomous vehicles are seen as a solution to the 30,000-plus traffic deaths that occur in the U.S. each year.

But when any Detroit resident can summon a ride at any time with a swipe on their cellphone, what will happen to the city’s bus system? If autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services increase the number of drop-offs taking place on city streets, what happens to the safety of bike lanes? What becomes of downtown residential neighborhoods if driverless vehicles make the idea of commuting over long distances – with the ability to work or be entertained during the ride – no longer such a drawback to living farther and farther away?

“When we make changes to the transportation system, the secondary and tertiary impacts of those changes are far greater than the primary impacts,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, director of strategy at Nelson/Nygaard, a transportation planning firm. “This is game theory, and you need to play out the chess game 10, 20 steps further because that’s where you start to see the real impacts.”

Tumlin spoke Wednesday as part of a panel on the future of cities at Autonomous Vehicles Detroit. Experts participating in the conference at the MGM Grand Detroit highlighted a series of concerns city officials face when trying to prepare for new transportation technologies.

Those technologies tend to be advanced and promoted first in areas and ways that return profits on investment. And that’s not always synonymous with helping those most in need.

As an example, Ford’s Jessica Robinson, the automaker’s director of city solutions, pointed to high-definition mapping – the creation of detailed data sets that tell a car’s computer all about its environment and where the vehicle is.

“One of the tensions will be in the early years for autonomy, businesses will want to map and invest in infrastructure... in places where there is a high opportunity to make a lot of money,” she said. “Those are dense city centers, probably are the most economically successful cities.

“And if we want autonomy to be part of improving mobility access for everybody, a question I have (for city officials) is... how should we as company work with you as a regulator and in a public framework to make sure that that’s a part of an outcome that is achieved.”

Detroit population has decline steadily since the 1950s. With the arrival of new anchor businesses downtown in the last decade, that trend continues but at a slower pace. Last month, the Urban Institute predicted the city would add 60,000 residents by the year 2040.

Yet, that trend could be threatened by the expansion of robotic cars that allow commuting time to be used effectively.

“As you give people autonomous vehicles, that doesn’t make the system more efficient, it allows people to live farther away because the time and financial cost of mobility is dropping significantly...,” Tumlin said. “Why not live three hours away from work if you can talk on the phone and watch Internet cat videos and do God knows whatever else in the car on your way?”

Public transit systems could be hit hard in a similar way. Tumlin said New York City has been losing 10 percent of its bus ridership annually since 2013, a change he attributed to the expansion of Uber and Lyft. That’s a trend that doesn’t bode well for municipal revenues as well as the pension systems attached to public transport systems.

(Public sector pensions) are all at the brink of bankruptcy and they are dependent on a stable public sector workforce in order to keep them solvent,” Tumlin said. “So if a public transit agency is contracting – losing 10 percent of the workforce every year in order to respond to changing mobility options – their pensions are at risk.”

Staying on top of the newest technologies is necessary in order to know what a city should invest in or what trend it should try and get ahead of. A cash-strapped city risks backing the wrong technology at its own peril.

As one audience member put it: “With a lot of the technologies, once the city invests in it they are stuck in it – it’s the whole sunk-cost thing. How are cities supposed to keep up with that changing technology and ensure their infrastructure it where it needs to be?”

Tumlin’s answer was not encouraging, underscoring the fact that cities and technology companies “don’t share the same language” and “never show up in the same space.”

“Plus, cities are grossly underfunded and understaffed,” he said. “And nobody has time to sit around and think about stuff.”

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