Autonomous taxis: Why you may never own a self-driving car

As the once unimaginable self-driving car moves closer to becoming a reality, the next question is “When can I buy one?” At the same time, some researchers, like Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser, and the University of Texas’s Kara Kockelman, have started to wonder whether you’ll ever need to. They envision fleets of autonomous vehicles that will combine the convenience of not having to drive yourself with the flexibility of a scaled-up and always available Uber-like taxi service — and without the cost of hired drivers. Since we first wrote about this topic, the landscape has changed dramatically for the better, both for autonomous vehicles, and for ride-hailing and ride-sharing services. They’re also key to future smart cities, which we’ll be covering all this week here at ExtremeTech in our first-ever Smart Cities Week.

Instead of seeming like science fiction, self-driving cars are now on the roadmap for not only nearly every car maker, but for ride-hailing giant Uber. It’s easy to write off Uber’s investment as hubris, but there has been an increasing amount of research that shows how fleets of shared autonomous vehicles would make good economic sense. One recent study done by researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas, using Austin as a model, estimates that over 1/4 of what would previously have been trips in private vehicles would move to a shared fleet if it was priced around $1/mile. Research firm ARK Invest concludes that the cost of operating a shared autonomous vehicle fleet could be as low as $.35 per mile, less than 1/10th as much as the cost of traditional taxis, and about half of owning a car.

For most of us the idea sounds pretty far fetched. After all, what about peak times like rush hour when everyone seems to want to go somewhere at the same time? Of course, that’s just our intuition, not science. Since we originally wrote about the work Kornhauser and his students had done building and refining a realistic model of actual travel needs and car usage using auto trip data from New Jersey, another resource has become available — a complete database of New York City taxi trips. Researchers are using that data as a proxy for overall transportation demand, and modeling how various types of ridesharing service options could reduce vehicle miles.

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