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The Future of Urban Mobility Just Got a Bit Closer

The idea of self-driving taxis roaming the city should gain momentum with the new Ford-Google and GM-Lyft partnerships.

Google's driverless car prototype prepares for a test drive in May 2015. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

For a few years now, people who watch urban mobility closely have seen the future coming in the form of driverless taxis. A shared network of autonomous cabs and shuttles could feed trunk transit lines and render car-ownership optional. The benefits are enormous (less traffic, fewer collisions, smaller cars, and the death of excess parking, among them), and the main drawback (more vehicle miles) is manageable with cleaner energy.

That future is now getting clearer to the general public. In December, Bloomberg reported that Google was planning to make its self-driving car program a stand-alone business unit “offering its own ride-for-hire service.” Meanwhile Yahoo Autos reported that the company had partnered with Ford (busy making its own pivot toward urban mobility) to manufacture a fleet—“a huge step by both companies toward a new business of automated ride sharing”:

Ford executives have been clear for years that the company was ready to embrace a future where cars were sold as on-demand services. Ford CEO Mark Fields has repeatedly said Ford was thinking of itself “as a mobility company,” and what that would mean for its business.

On the heels of those announcements comes word of a partnership between Lyft and GM to create what the companies called in a press statement an “integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles.” Alex Davies at Wired offered a quick take on the city implications:

More to the point, it’s hard to see the benefit Lyft gets from partnering with GM on a car that sometimes needs a human driver: If you’re going to pay a person to drive, you might as well have them drive all the time. So any car GM builds for Lyft must be 100-percent autonomous and capable of navigating the most harrowing urban conditions America has to offer.

The moves represents a significant, if logical step toward the robocab era. Google has a keen sense of this future and a lead on self-driving technology but hardly wants to become a car-maker. The likes of Lyft and Uber have a way to connect cars and riders but still lack physical vehicles and sharp insight into urban transportation networks. Big outfits like Ford or GM have the fleets as well as the marketing muscle to take these progressive concepts mainstream.

What binds these players, public messages notwithstanding, is an eventual hope for big profits. It’s certainly there on paper; scholars Daniel Fagnant and Kara Kockelman, who have done some of the most extensive modeling of shared self-driving taxi networks, believe a fleet of 2,118 robocabs serving Austin, Texas, at a fare of $1 per mile could generate a 19 percent return on investment over the long term. The latest steps suggest the companies involved have reached similar conclusions on their own.

These are potentially great developments for cities—provided urban planners get their acts together and start seriously preparing for self-driving systems of the future. That time isn’t here yet, but it’s clearly on its way.

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