How Will Autonomous Vehicles Change Public Transportation?

Kady Harper

Imagine hopping into a car, setting the coordinates of your destination, and then sitting back to take a nap or read a book while the car safely transports you across town. Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, no? Well, prepare yourself, because autonomous, or self-driving, cars are coming, and they will be here much sooner than you might think.

Interior of an autonomous car © chesky - fotolia

Interior of an autonomous car © chesky - fotolia

In fact, thanks to ever-advancing technology like Microchip’s Controller Area Network (CAN) improving application communication speeds and integration with digital signal controllers and more — both within cars and other electronics, autonomous vehicles are already showing up at automotive industry shows, with several companies predicting that it will only be a few years before cars can drive themselves.

The idea of removing drivers from the equation has a number of implications, from changing how car insurance is calculated to potentially reducing the environmental impact of the manufacture and use of autos, but one area that’s also receiving a great deal of attention is public transportation. Undoubtedly, when cars can drive themselves, it will change public transportation significantly — but the question is how?

Scenario #1: Autonomous Cars Signal the End of Public Transportation

The first potential scenario regarding autonomous cars and public transportation doesn’t necessary spell good news for public transport: Some experts predict that self-driving cars will end public transportation as we know it, replacing city buses, subways, and even taxi cabs or ride sharing services like Uber. With a fleet of self-driving cars, city dwellers can easily travel around, enjoying door-to-door service without the inconvenience of having to travel specific routes, or pay high fares for taxis or private car services. For comparison’s sake, the typical Uber ride in San Francisco costs about $7, meaning that taking an Uber to and from work would cost the average person about $14 per day, putting it out of reach for most.

When you use a self-driving car, the need for a paid driver is eliminated, ostensibly reducing the cost of the ride, especially when you consider the overall lower cost of maintenance on an autonomous car as most will run at least partially on battery or electricity power and will be less likely to get into accidents than a vehicle driven by a human. Therefore, the cost of a self-driving car could potentially be lower than that of taking public transportation, attracting more people to use the shared rides rather than trains or busses.

Scenario #2: Autonomous Cars Will Change, But Not Eliminate Public Transportation

© Martial Red - Shutterstock

© Martial Red - Shutterstock

While some might envision broad highways with fleets of efficient autonomous vehicles whisking us to and fro, the reality is that autonomous vehicles are most likely not going to change public transportation all that much.

For starters, city planners point out that the typical city public transport route carries thousands of people in each direction every hour, something that would likely to be impossible using autonomous vehicles without creating gridlock. In fact, traffic patterns would be a major challenge, since citywide transportation options run on a grid designed to maximize efficiency and reduce traffic in specific areas. Again, with hundreds or thousands of cars on the road rather than busses or trains, traffic would only increase.

And of course, many of the predictions about the demise of public transportation rely on an assumption that individuals who already own vehicles will choose to use the self-driving vehicle system instead of their own cars. This may be a faulty assumption, seeing as even with the availability of public transportation many people continue to own vehicles. In fact, some predict that the availability of autonomous vehicles will actually increase the amount of traffic on the streets and contribute to additional urban sprawl. 

While many people choose to live closer to cities to shorten their commutes, when they no longer have to worry about driving and can do other things during their commuting time, people may be willing to live further away from work — potentially causing cities to spread for hundreds of miles beyond the city center. 

So while the idea of self-driving cars is quickly becoming a reality, the eventual effect on society and public transportation remains to be seen. Additional issues, including the cost of making the switch from current arrangements to self-driving cars and the need to adhere to the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act and ensuring access to public transportation, will undoubtedly influence whether and how self-driving cars will be used in cities across the country. 

However, one thing is for certain: Self-driving cars are no longer only limited to science fiction, and they will influence our lives in some way in the very near future as more car manufacturers get involved.

You might also be interested in the following articles:

Daimler Using Deep Learning to Teach Autonomous Cars to Drive Themselves

Mercedes Autonomous Bus Takes Passengers Towards a Future of ‘Spectacular’ Smart Cities

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IQPC Gesellschaft für Management Konferenzen mbH
Adresse: Friedrichstrasse 94, 10117 Berlin
Telefonnummer: 030 20913 -274
Fax: 49 (0) 30 20 913 240
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Geschäftsführung: Silke Klaudat, Richard A. Worden, Michael R. Worden