Friday, May 31, 2013

The Merger of Carsharing and Taxis, and the End of Private Car Ownership

Carsharing services like Zipcar have changed the way we think about car ownership. When Zipcar enters a city, it brings with it a fleet of cars that are place in parking spots, or “home spots,” around the city. Zipcar users pay an annual fee to have access to those car and then pay to use the car by the hour. At the end of the trip, users must deliver the car back to its home spot.

More recently, point-to-point carsharing services like car2go have further challenged how we interact with cars. Unlike Zipcar, car2go vehicles do not have home spots. Instead, they can park in nearly any parking spots in the “home zone,” which often blankets the majority of a city. car2go users use a smartphone app to locate the nearest vehicle, and they are able to reserve that vehicle or simply walk one and tap their membership card to unlock the door. From there, car2go users are free to drive the car for as long as they wish. They are charged by the minute or hour depending on how long they use the vehicle, and are not required to park the vehicle where they picked it up. This makes one-way trips using carsharing possible.

In many ways, point-to-point carsharing services are already like taxis. Users of both services can make one-way trips and with both they have access to a fleet of vehicles that they do not own. The biggest differences between point-to-point carsharing vehicles and taxis are that taxis have a driver, they can pick you up, they redistribute vehicles around the city based on demand, and they cost more money. I believe that with the introduction of self-driving cars, however, the differences between the two types of services will be eliminated. Taxis will become driverless (and therefore cheaper), and point-to-point carsharing services will be able to pick you up from anyone location and will redistribute themselves across a city based on expected demand.

This new self-driving carsharing service could revolutionize how we use the automobile and how we think of public transportation. I believe cities should create citywide fleets of self-driving vehicles to move residents around. There would no longer be a need for private car ownership because a well-designed self-driving carsharing service would offer people everything a privately owned vehicle could and more.

This type of service would have a lot of benefits over private vehicle ownership as well. First off, we would no longer have millions of cars sitting around and not being used all day. Instead, most cars would be utilized throughout the day. Also, we would need significantly less vehicles overall. I imagine a carsharing service like this would be significantly cheaper than car ownership as well because you would only be paying for the car based on your usage.

There would also be a lot less of a need for parking spaces. Cars would spend more time driving around than staying stationary in parking spots. Even at the time where the number of cars being used is at its lowest, cars could park in parking spots scattered throughout the city. There would no longer be a need to couple parking spaces with high-traffic areas, which would free up a lot of valuable street space.

This type of service would also solve the problem of electric vehicle charging. With privately-owned electric vehicles, when the battery gets low car owner have to wait until the battery charges up to drive again. With a self-driving carsharing service, whenever the car battery runs low the car could simply go out of service for a few hours, find the nearest electric charging station, and charge up. No one would have to wait for the car to charge in order to get to their next destination because another car would come in its place. This will allow the entire fleet to be electric, which will reduce the impact the cars would have on the environment.

Car accidents would likely go down as well. Engineers argue that self-driving cars are safer than human-driven cars because they can react faster than humans, they have sensors 360 degrees around them, and they "do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated [...]"

Finally, like with point-to-point carsharing services and taxis, cars will not have to make unnecessary return trips. Cars could bring Person 1 from Point A to Point B, Person 2 from Point B to Point C, and Person 3 from Point C to Point D. It would also make carpooling much easier because you could carpool for one leg of your trip but not the others. If the carsharing service was implemented citywide, a central system could direct cars to where they need to go in the most efficient manner. This would reduce unnecessary driving and could potentially limit VMT.

The biggest issue I see arising from a self-driving carsharing service is that it will be too easy, cheap, environmentally friendly, and convenient. There would mean there would no long be many incentives to walk, bike, and take traditional public transit. This could have a negative impact on people’s health and could lead to a resuburbanization of American cities, as density would no longer be necessary to facilitate environmentally-sustainable transportation. This could decimate American cities, ruin street life, and limit human interaction. Also, just as the building of new highways causes anincrease in VMT, convenient and inexpensive driving would likely lead to more trips and people living farther away from each other. This would require larger distances to travel, which would likely lead to an increase in VMT.

Self-driving cars have a ways to go before they are in widespread use. When use does become widespread, however, I believe citywide self-driving carsharing services will become the norm and for the first time, carsharing services will be more attractive than private car ownership.

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