Ashley Nunes: Who Really Benefits from Autonomous Vehicles?

09.13.19 | Podcast | By:

Recently, I talked to Ashley Nunes, a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School, whose research examines the economics of innovation. Readers and listeners may recall that I referenced Ashley’s work on autonomous vehicles in a post earlier this year revisiting the RethinkX work. Our discussion was wideranging, with a focus on autonomous vehicles, the Democratic candidates’ views on climate change and the future of transport policy in general.

With respect to autonomous vehicles, we spoke in depth about a study he and his colleague Kristen Hernandez recently completed that was also referenced in The Guardian showing, in essence, that autonomous vehicles are going to be too expensive to really go mainstream. In USA Today, which I referenced during the interview, Ashley said, “Assuming current market conditions persist, our work shows that hailing a Robo-Cab would actually cost consumers significantly more on a per mile basis than owning a car today.” During the interview he noted:

“You talked about a reduction in congestion and a reduction in air pollution. It’s important to remember that when it comes to autonomous vehicles, the two are of course, very different from each other. If you assume it’s the case that an autonomous vehicle did not have an electrified power train, you would certainly still see some improvements in air quality as a result of eco-friendly driving.  That being said, the dream that is sort of put forward is, you will have less congestion. The only way you can have less congestion using autonomous vehicles is if you can incentivize people to engage in ride-pooling, whereby multiple people get into a robo-cab and speed off to their destination or a multitude of destinations. If everyone goes out and buys their own autonomous vehicle, that doesn’t really do so much for congestion, because you have the same number of cars on the road.


Which is the other problem with the robo-cab model, and we have alluded to this in a paper we released a few months ago in which we said, ‘Look, it’s certainly possible that you could incentivize people to pool their rides effectively.’ The problem with this approach is that when you have multiple passengers in a  taxi, what that effectively does is it elongates the travel time. Because now you have people going to different places. The current occupancy in a car in the United States currently according to 2018 data, this is the national household travel survey; it’s about 1.63. The actual estimate we suspect is a little bit lower, but it’s about 1.63. Effectively you would need an occupancy of 2.2 to 2.5, so you would need a  significant increase in the occupancy of a car in order to get some of these economics to work. The question then is, do you really want to pool your ride?”

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