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By Dateline Staff on March 5, 2018

Driverless, electric and shared vehicles represent a trifecta of revolutionary change in the world of transportation — revolution that is underway now, not in some distant future. Such revolutions could usher in an era of reduced traffic congestion, lower greenhouse gas emissions, increased accessibility and affordability, and healthier, more livable cities. But that scenario is not guaranteed. In fact, without careful consideration, these revolutions could increase urban sprawl, raise emissions, and widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

In Three Revolutions, UC Davis transportation expert Daniel Sperling and his collaborators share timely guidance and policy recommendations to help steer those revolutions toward a sustainable future. Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, and his colleagues have found that the most societal and environmental benefit comes when all three revolutions occur at once, with “pooling” as the key to unlocking the dream transportation scenario.

With a tone that is both engaging and easy to understand for policymakers and a general audience, Three Revolutions explores the impact of potential policies through best and worst-case scenarios, examines critical questions — such as, “Will people be willing to share rides and eschew car ownership?” — and provides a vision of a more sustainable, less congested, shared future.

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Q&A with the author

Q: You’ve spent many years studying transportation and writing many books. How is this book different? 

A:  The world of transportation is about to change for the first time in many generations. Since the day of the Model T and the advent of freeways there has been almost no real innovation in transportation. Yes, cars are safer and more comfortable, but they are functionally the same: They carry the same number of passengers, travel at the same speed and use the same energy. Buses and roads are also unchanged.

Now we are on the cusp of three major transformations — all at once! The advent of automated, shared and electric vehicles is an exciting time for all of us. The computer and internet revolutions changed how we read, live and date. These transportation revolutions will be equally profound in changing our lives.

Q: What inspired you to focus on “pooling” as one of the most important strategies going forward? 

A: One weekend I was stuck in traffic in Los Angeles for hours. It was a painful waste of time. Having studied transportation my entire career, I knew that many solutions had been tried, but largely failed: They were either politically anathema (road pricing) or hugely expensive (greatly expanded transit or more roads). My epiphany was inspired by the recent arrival of apps and smartphones and the launching of pooling services by Lyft, Uber, Via and others.

Modern pooling is going to happen, but it will happen much faster and more extensively if policy and policymakers are supportive. The good news is that pooling not only solves traffic congestion, but it also reduces pollution, road infrastructure cost (less is needed), and climate change (less vehicle travel). Perhaps more importantly, it sets the stage for vehicle automation, making sure it serves the public interest (rather than exacerbate inequity, climate change, and traffic congestion).

Q: When will cars be automated? 

A: Automation is on its way. It is inevitable. If you believe the hype — from automakers trying to boost their market value, Silicon Valley companies naïve about the stifling realities of liability and regulators, politicians eager to appear cutting edge, and journalists eager for a story — we will see driverless cars on the road by 2020. Yes, we will see partially automated cars very soon — indeed, they are already here — but if we mean large numbers of truly driverless cars, it will be many years.

Q: Shouldn’t we be worried about automation of cars destroying jobs? 

A: Probably not, at least for passenger travel. Yes, paid drivers will be displaced. But consider that current taxi, bus and ride-hailing services in the United States carry only about 2 percent of all passenger travel. We are imagining a future where driverless mobility services and buses account for 40 percent or more of passenger travel. With such a mammoth increase in commercial ride-sharing and transit use, drivers will be displaced, but far more other jobs will be created — to service the vehicles, manage the fleets, assist disabled riders and handle untold other tasks.

In effect, automated vehicles will be creating a new industry, not just replacing an old one. They will be creating jobs to replace previously unpaid personal driving and vehicle maintenance, not unlike what happened with mechanization, automation, and outsourcing of cooking and other household tasks. The number of lost driving jobs is likely to be dwarfed by the number of new jobs created — and they might well be higher quality and better.

Q: Transit ridership is dropping almost everywhere in the United States. Are Uber and Lyft part of the problem or part of the solution? 

A: Another inspiration for this book were complaints by many mayors that Uber is clogging city streets and airports and taking riders away from transit. These mayors are correct. Uber and Lyft are superior services and thus naturally attracting riders away from transit (and walking, biking and personally owned cars). But these mayors are taking a too limited view.

Uber and Lyft are a necessary first step toward a better transportation future — one dominated by ride pooling. We need to nurture ride-hailing innovations, not quash them. The challenge is to guide these innovations to the public interest — which includes much greater pooling, but also partnerships with transit. These other ride-hailing services can provide first- and last-mile connections with transit, increasing transit ridership and allowing transit to revert back to what it does best: providing service in densely populated areas and along densely populated routes.

Q: In one of your imagined scenarios, you suggest that vehicles as personal property is “a residue of the 20th century.” Are we heading toward a future where car ownership is a thing of the past — where cars are just a means of getting somewhere? Are we going to forgo the thrill of driving and the status of ownership?

A: I know it sounds anti-American, but I do believe this will happen, in part because of basic economics. The advent of on-demand, driverless mobility services will drop the cost of travel so low — far less than the cost of owning and operating our own vehicles — that many people will enthusiastically give up car ownership.

That does not mean none of us will own a car. Large families, plumbers carrying their equipment, people with dogs, many rural residents and others will still want or need to own their own cars. The number of these car owners will dwindle over time, however, as pooled, automated cars become more common, even in suburbs and small towns, and as we adopt policies that encourage pooling and discourage inefficient, resource-intensive car ownership.

Q: But won’t automation make cars even more desirable to own? In the book, you talk about people being much more willing to be in their car — using it as an office, hotel or party room.

A: Yes, exactly. Herein lies the tension between private desires and the public good. If people own automated cars, they are likely to use them more — much more. That means streets will be clogged, energy use will soar, and the gap between haves and have-nots will widen. It will be in the interest of society to expedite the transition to pooling, and away from personally owned cars. It is for that reason we should be promoting pooling now, before personally owned automated cars become entrenched.

Q: When will the electrification of vehicles happen? For trucks and buses also? 

A: Electric cars and buses are already here, pioneered in California but now led by China. Surprising to me, it looks like even many large trucks will be electric. The question is how fast the transition will happen and exactly how. That will depend in large part on policy. Automakers are investing many billions in electrification and are prepared to convert their entire model lines — but they won’t pull the trigger until they see large numbers of charging (and hydrogen fueling) stations, large permanent incentives and more enthusiastic buyers.

Q: Despite the political and policy breakdowns in the United States and potential for a nightmare transportation scenario, you write that you are “more optimistic than ever before” about the future of transportation. What gives you that hope? 

A: Frustration over traffic congestion, the high cost of maintaining and building roads and more frequent and extreme weather events, combined with the appeal of low-cost “chauffeured” cars will eventually induce the public to embrace automated cars that are pooled and electric.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Three Revolutions

A: Two things. Most important is that readers embrace the need for local action — to encourage local leaders to adopt policies that encourage pooled and electric vehicles at airports, downtown cities and even in suburbs. Local governments must not only support pooling, they need to champion it. Second, many of us should embrace the newfound availability of app-based ride-hailing, car-sharing, bike-sharing and microtransit services, and discard one or more of our vehicles. Doing so will accelerate the transition to a sustainable transportation system of pooled, automated, electric vehicles. More engaged local leaders and consumers are key to this accelerated transition to a better world.

— adapted from Island Press