The Auto-Auto Race

Cities are a central engine of the modern economy. Enormous gains come from folks interacting and specializing more in bigger cities. What limits these gains, and keeps us from all living in one mega-city, is transportation costs. While the cost of transporting goods and people once mattered similarly, today people transport costs dominate. And while hopes for mass-transit remain, cars clearly dominate human transport today. Thus the near-term future of cities, and of which cities dominate the world, comes down to how cities handle auto innovation. I see three main innovations to consider:

  • Mass Mass Transit – If a big city could coordinate to create subways, etc. on the scale and quality of New York, it could support densities like New York. The level of investment and coordination required to pull this off, however, seems well beyond what any known city can muster.  New York only achieved it accidentally (a dotcom-like boom in private subway building).
  • Congestion Pricing – Pricing road usage to discourage overuse at peak times offers real gains, by encouraging off-peak work schedules. But these gains are limited by the large coordination gains we achive by having similar work and leisure schedules. This is also up against strong public opinion that roads should be free. A few cities like Singapore, Stockholm, and London have managed limited moves in this direction. I’d guess long run efficiency gains here are somewhere near 5-20%; important, but not revolutionary.
  • Automated Driving – In the last month Google told the world it has developed computer driving tech that is basically within reach of doubling (or more) the capacity of a road lane to pass cars. Pundits don’t seem to realize just how big a deal this is – it could let cities be roughly twice as big, all else equal. The main problems here are not technical but legal (& political) – first to not excessively punish tech sellers for related car accidents, and second to sufficiently reward car owners for their contribution to reducing congestion. Achieving these will require great coordination, more than for congestion pricing, but much less than for mass mass transit.

So a huge upcoming policy question is: when will what big cities manage to coordinate to change road law to achieve these huge auto-auto economic gains? Thirty years from now we may look back and lament that big city politics was so broken that no big cities could manage it. Or perhaps history will celebrate how the first big city to do it dramatically increased its importance on the world scene.

Some related quotes:

  • As recently as 1950, only 30% of the world’s population was urbanized. Today, more than half live in urban centres. The developed world is now about 80% urban and this is expected to be true for the entire planet by around 2050. … Doubling the population of any city requires only about an 85% increase in infrastructure, whether that be total road surface, length of electrical cables, water pipes or number of petrol stations. This systematic 15% savings happens because, in general, creating and operating the same infrastructure at higher densities is more efficient, more economically viable, and often leads to higher-quality services and solutions that are impossible in smaller places. Interestingly, there are similar savings in carbon footprints — most large, developed cities are ‘greener’ than their national average in terms of per capita carbon emissions. … Similar economies of scale are found in organisms and communities like anthills and beehives, where the savings are closer to 20%. (more)
  • [Goods] transport … is … becoming less important relative to GDP. … The full-cost of transporting goods – money costs plus time costs – is … rapidly declining over time. Transport costs … still remain expensive in one area – the movement of human beings. …18% of total expenditures for the average household is spent on … vehicular expenses. This cash cost fails to include the far more important time costs of moving people. … [In] Los Angeles … it would take a traveller about 90% longer to make a given trip during peak periods than if the person could move at freeflow speeds. … Over the past three decades, congestion and delay have been increasing in all size classes of cities. … Between 1980 and 2000, commute times rose by about 13% … Commute times are greater in larger cities. (more)
  • Google … has been working … on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver. … Seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. … Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided. … The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. … Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away. … Autonomous vehicles poses thorny legal issues. … Under current law, a human must be in control of a car at all times, but what does that mean if the human is not really paying attention? (more)
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  • Derek

    Automated cars could also be shared within city bounds, diminishing the need for parking spots and thus increasing city density and the number of cars that can fit on the road at one time.

    • Anonymous from UK

      This is a good point. Most city roads waste 50% of the space on parked cars. If this could be eliminated, additional increases in transport efficiency would arise.

      If roads didn’t have parked cars, and robotic cars could pack closer, you might get 4 lanes of traffic on existing 2-lane roads. You might also build thinner robotic cars and get 6 lanes of traffic.

      Suppose also that the cars go twice as fast, and you have 6 times the transport efficiency.

  • Jason

    I’ve thought ever since I’d heard of the DARPA driving challenge that the politically viable route to efficient transportation in the US was your third option — especially since it leverages existing auto infrastructure. Other attempts at using this infrastructure (HOV, Vanpools, etc) run into coordination problems. It is just too convenient for adaptive schedules to have a single-occupant vehicle.

    New Mercedes have systems to maintain safe driving distances, and apply the brakes for obstacles or turning if you seem to be falling asleep and drifting out of your lane. Some cars have automatic parallel parking. Subsidies to put these (now) top-end systems in everyone’s cars could bring evolutionary change, sliding what we mean by human control.

    Lanes that exist now as HOV could be restricted instead to automatic cars.

    One idea that I thought would be great is that since my office is a little too far for me to bike in one go (I currently park at a different campus than my office and bike the rest of the way, but not everyone has that option), I could have my automatic car drive me to some location, get out and bike the rest of the way while the car parks itself. And when I leave, I can call the car to some different location to pick me up, or even all the way to my office if something came up.

    (This is probably not anyone’s chief concern, just my own favorite part.)

  • Unnamed

    Brad Templeton is the go-to blogger on robocars.

    He’s made the point that self-propelled cars can be introduced gradually, starting with the safe case of trips where there aren’t any people in the car (so no risk to its occupants) and the car can move slowly (so only a small risk to others). For instance, the car could deliver something which is not especially time-sensitive, or it could go park itself after its driver gets out (which would allow for much denser, more efficient parking). There could even be something between a zipcar and a taxi, which comes to you unoccupied when you need it, then you drive it around, then when you’re done it goes on to the next driver or to a waiting area.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, why do you think that bigger cities are the wave of the future? Unlike in the past, recent and dramatic improvements in communications, including virtual teleconferencing, telepresence, etc, could (and I think, will) result in substantial migration away from cities. This technology makes it easier for more and more people to be able to work from home, while locating their homes almost anywhere in the country (or even in other countries) that they might wish to live. If it wasn’t for: (1) ever more powerful communication technologies, and (2) the shrinking number of human-intensive on-site hands-on jobs as a fraction of jobs overall, then I would agree with you.

  • Stephen Smith

    New York only achieved it accidentally (a dotcom-like boom in private subway building).

    This is false. Every city in America had a vibrant, robust network of streetcars (subways were a secondary focus, and only now seem important since we’ve done away with the streetcars), and they were built thanks to genuine demand, not an unsustainable bubble. Most modern-day liberals and conservatives believe that such networks are unstable in a free market (see: the GM/Standard Oil conspiracy theory of mass transit decline), but there is another school of thought that believes that a free market in transportation and land use would sustain such systems again, and that only government intervention in favor of automobiles and sprawl can stop it. Unfortunately for private mass transit backers, Americans love mandating sprawl (zoning, FAR restrictions, setback requirements, environmental impact reviews, parking minimums, water runoff rules, subsidized roads, transit authorities owning and underdeveloping the most valuable urban land, etc., etc., etc.).

    If you (or anyone else) is interested in the pro-mass transit libertarian perspective, check out our blog, which I believe is the only one to support from a free market perspective. (There are plenty of anti-transit libertarian blogs, though…)

  • jsalvatier

    I think another large efficiency gain is that taxis will become far more widespread once they no longer require a dedicated human driver. This will save time, and free up a lot of space currently used for parking.

  • Buck Farmer

    Many developing countries seem to have the political will to pull off New York City style mass transit projects. My experience is mostly in China, and I’ll admit that they don’t have anywhere near Manhattan’s subway density, but it seems conceivable they could get there.

    Additionally, cities like Hong Kong are far denser than New York. Should we expect proportionately greater benefits to innovation?

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Great post, except for the scifi fanboy shoutout to us all living in a single city (which doesn’t sound wise from an existential risk minimization perspective).

    Something like 10-20 megacities and then thousands of hardened, time-capsuled, or experimental communities sounds something like the persistence-optimizing strategy to me.

  • inner city cyclist

    There is a reason I ride my bike in the city more often than I drive my truck. There is a reason my legs are sexy. There is a reason my resting heart rate is below 65. There is a reason I rarely pay for parking in a city that charges and collects a lot of money from parking.

    Bikes are the most efficient form of inner city transport. To this day, I am shocked to see/hear/read so little about bikes from economists who study inner city transportation.

    What’s the deal? I understand America’s obsession with fast-techno-sexy, but are reconfigured cars remotely competitive with bikes in the city if all of car’s government and social engineering subsides are lifted? I’d love to see an unbiased study about this.

  • Robin Hanson

    Derek and jsalvatier, yes shared auto-autos could reduce parking and increase taxis.

    Jason, yes letting auto-autos in HOV lanes makes sense.

    Robert, overall telecom and in-person meetings are complements, not substitutes.

    Stephen yes of course there were once lots of streetcars. But that isn’t what got the NY subways built.

    Buck, both density and area matter; a high density in a small area only goes so far.

    Hopefully, if transport made it feasible, I’m not sure one big city wouldn’t be safer.

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      “Hopefully, if transport made it feasible, I’m not sure one big city wouldn’t be safer.”

      But on balance, doesn’t the current available information suggest some geographic, cultural, and other protective barrier diversification seem like a better persistence strategy? I’d like to see you discuss efficiency vs. reserve/diversification trade-offs even if you ultimately come out on the efficiency side.

    • Stephen Smith

      The implication of your statement is that subways, and only subways, can support New York-like density. My point is that this is not true – it only appears that way to modern observers because subways are the only vestige of the private mass transit network that’s left. Like I said, the streetcars and elevated lines were far more extensive than the subway system has ever been, and could support the density just fine. In fact, many of the subways were duplications of existing elevated lines, and on net didn’t add much capacity. (You can argue that elevated lines are unseemly and not suited to the modern day, but the Chicago real estate market seems to be doing alright. And for passengers, els are actually a lot nicer and are generally perceived to be safer than subways.)

  • Ben

    What limits these gains, and keeps us from all living in one mega-city, is transportation costs.


    I somehow doubt that most people, when asked why they don’t live in a bigger city, would list transportation costs as a key factor. It’s a factor, sure, but if you suddenly reduced the commuting time by 50% in urban areas, I don’t think there’d be a huge amount of net migration towards cities. Is there data on this?

    Robert, overall telecom and in-person meetings are complements, not substitutes.

    I assume you’re referring to a study such as this one. A couple concerns with the argument: first, as telecom continues to improve, and people learn better how to use it, the observed effect may change. Second, it’s not sufficient to show that telecom and in-person meeting are, in aggregate, complements. If a significant chunk of the population finds technology solutions to be appropriate substitutes for in-person meetings, as many telecommuters already do, they’ll leave cities, as Robert suggests.

    While the cost of transporting goods and people once mattered similarly, today people transport costs dominate

    The real value comes from transporting the information that is being communicated by people in-person. If it becomes cheaper to communicate this information electronically, then humans need not live near one another–the mega-city will be a virtual one.

  • Brad Templeton

    Hey Robin, I have some essays coming up on these topics. The essay at discusses how much less parking we’ll need, letting us convert all those parking lots into other uses.

    The upcoming essays on capacity make much stronger claims that you say above. I predict about an 8-fold increase in road capacity is readily doable, with a theoretical increase of about 20x using private cars. If you throw in extreme use of on-demand robotic buses which travel high-load routes when it is identified that 40 people are all about to travel the same high-load segment, a theoretical increase of 100x is possible, not that we would ever go that far or want to.

    We’re quite inefficient in our use of roads. We mostly have a single person in a 10 foot wide lane, and most roads use 18′ for street parking. Half the lanes are mostly vacant in the anticommute direction. Without metering or congestion charging, we routinely overload roads and reduce their capacity, and while it is last on my list, robots can also run with shorter headways. We also have many roads that are underutilized while some are clogged, just due to lack of information.

    On top of all this, while we do want to work together in the office, we don’t have to all be there for the same 8 hours. Sharing 6 hours inperson and 2 hours via super-HD videoconference is pretty good and allows spread of the commute.

    There’s no shortage of road capacity for a long time into the future.

    • Robin Hanson

      Brad, I suspected the capacity improvement was more than x2, but quoted what I had. And I suspect a x2 capacity improvement would more than x2 increase city size. Rather than get bogged down in the technical details, I want to focus on the coordination issue: huge gains are possible very soon, but quite possibly won’t be actually achieved for many decades. That might be a huge foregone opportunity. This deserves to be discussed in political, legal, and institutional terms, not just in technical terms.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        To speed up implementation, I recommend pushing hard on federal govt. and the military specifically to implement driving automation for the efficiency benefits. This will provide an example and a large familiarized population to extend driving automation to the larger public.

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  • Peter Gordon

    The ranking of U.S. urbanized areas (not just their central cities) is remarkably stable at the top. These areas have advantages that matter and that are durable. These areas are also able to spawn (and extend into) new land use arrangements (often at their peripheries) that are favorable. Fixed-rail transit can never be flexible enough and is a serious option for meaningful numbers of riders only in NYC. The new fixed rail systems have not mattered much — except on the cost side. So auto-orientation is here to stay. Congestion-pricing would be great. Robo-cars, who knows?

  • Greg

    My big problem with platooning automated cars (which is what I am sure Google is counting on to double the capacity of a road lane) is that automobiles are NOT virtual entities. They exist and operate in the real world where even if the computer’s reaction time is essentially zero, the space needed to stop a car decidedly non-zero. If one such car has an accident, then all the cars in the platoon have an accident, a chain-reaction pileup on steroids.

    Then there is the factor that when you automate something like driving, the person making the decisions no longer has “skin in the game”. I have been part of software development teams for my whole career, and while most of the participants of such teams are diligent, I am not sure that they are as diligent as they would be if messing-up involved the possibility of dying (as it does in driving). Excessively punishing sellers for car accidents is the very _least_ you can do to preserve such incentives. If they *execute* the development team and management in the event of a massively fatal chain reaction pile up, then and only then would I find that sufficient incentive to get in an automated, platooned car (good luck finding someone to do such work, I wouldn’t go near such a project). Automobile platooning is a techno-disaster waiting to happen.

  • Matt Young

    So far the linear path of safety improvements is secure according to insurance companies. The more technology you apply, the lazier the driver; one still ends up with better safety records.
    Liability in an accident
    Take the black box data, run it against the driving rules and the offending robot is identified.
    Robocar technology can drive large vehicle on the road at sustained speeds of 150 MPH. When you drive up speed, transaction times go way down, less queuing.
    HOT lanes:
    Even with human drivers and no digital assist, the HOT lane transponders can signal to all drivers on the hot lanes and each driver can use electronic collision warning, with an add on dash top device.
    Robocar technology allows us to build buses with five to six carriages moving five hundred people.

    Security from terrorist threats?
    A difficult but solvable problem. The black boxes need tamper proof packaging, built in hardware checksums, and more frequent inspection.

  • Ian Bicking

    A possible fourth possibility is Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)public transit, but not mass transit. Sometimes I am optimistic that it could lead to another boom in public transportation, that it can be both far more economical than traditional services, while also providing much better service. New York transit is nice, but it’s also a freakin’ slow and a pain in the ass. I think it is exulted too often.

    Other times I’m rather pessimistic about PRT, but I think it at least has as much potential as automated cars — it is technologically much simpler, but more requires more infrastructure than automated cars. I am mostly biased because I personally would much rather live in a community with PRT than automated cars.

  • Jake

    Information technology has largely changed the neolithic basis of civilization and additional innovations will usher in a postcivil era of much richer human choice and sustainability. Postcivil society is coming. The transition will be rough. Empty the cities now to minimize human suffering during the transition.

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  • matt

    While I love the concept of automated cars, I can’t find it in me to endorse the way they are being introduced, with you, me, and the general population as non-consenting test subjects. Google may have every safety precaution in the world in place, but the people this robot interacts with are not informed of the risks they face. I feel it is unethical unless the cars wear big signs along the lines of, “Warning! I’m a driverless robot”.

    • Robin Hanson

      Do you really think nothing should be allowed to change in the world around you without your informed consent?

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Do you really think that companies should be allowed to impose arbitrary risks on the general public without the public’s consent?

    • TGGP

      Human beings in cars also impose risks on you. Seems to me we could impose the same responsibility for accidents on owners of driverless cars as we do on operators of normal ones. Might be even more effective since you can’t punish a bad driver after he’s killed in a crash, but the owner of the driverless car will presumably be safely far away at the time of the accident.

      Your warning proposal sounds like a low-cost workaround. Robin, do you object to that?

      Another possibility is to start introducing lanes for driverless cars, and then once people get comfortable with them allowing to operate on more road.

  • Octahedron

    I wrote about it yesterday after seeing Tyler’s article about it, but I agree that it’s largely going to be political:

    “Do you really think that companies should be allowed to impose arbitrary risks on the general public without the public’s consent?”

    Why do we need the publics consent? Why shouldn’t the driver/company be liable for any damages caused if they were responsible? If these cars really do up end up being safer then chances are, it’s going to be human drivers being the ones causing these accidents and then blaming it on the computers.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      We need the public’s consent because a large fraction of the risks are imposed on them. After-the-fact legal responsibility is a poor substitute for before-the-fact precautions. Also, large corporations routinely wriggle out of legal responsibility for damage they cause. (Consider how little Union Carbide paid for Bhopal, for instance).

      I think greg has an excellent point – even diligent programmers have much less skin in the game than drivers do.

      In principle, I agree that if these cars wind up being safer than human drivers, that could be an advantage – if this doesn’t wind up pissed away in compensating changes (such as platooning) that crank the risks back up again. In addition, there are some common mode failure risks that would be introduced that aren’t there now. The simplest is just that if, as Prof Hanson advocates, this development was to generally increase the size of cities, then it makes the cities more attractive targets, both for conventional military attacks and for NGO asymmetric warfare attacks. Less conventionally: Computer security is lousy. If 10% of the cars on the road are automated, with their steering controlled by computer, the first security hole that some hacker discovers can then be used to physically crash 10% of the cars at once. There is no analogous hazard today.

      • Brad

        A hacker could only mass-crash cars if they were controlled by a central agent. Most robot cars are driven by an on-board computer that senses the environment around it and reacts accordingly. The only thing it needs to talk to is GPS and that is pretty hard to hack.

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  • mulp

    How does the City of New York deciding to replace the elevated railroads with subways, and then issuing bonds to fund subway construction constitution a dot com boom in private subway construction?

    Was the dot com boom fueled by government borrowing to contract for buying all the new technology made by private industry?

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