Three Take-Aways From TRB

In early January I went to the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. For transportation nerds, it’s a truly magical conference: 13,000 researchers and practitioners, experts and neophytes, all crowded into the Washington DC Convention Center discussing hyper-technical aspects of transportation. Bombast and pontifications flow alongside paper-cup coffee and greasy hors d’oeuvres – ideas spread, findings shared, and collaborations begin. 

The conference is complemented with the DC Transportation Camp, a one-day event guided by the participants, typically skewed younger and more technology-focused than the TRB conference. 

Between the TRB Annual Meeting and Transportation Camp, I gleaned three main take-aways from my week in DC.

1. Electric Vehicles Won’t Fix Climate Change

As you know from prior blog posts, I’m extremely concerned about and interested in climate change. Since electric vehicles (EVs) promise to cut down society’s carbon footprint, I attended a couple of sessions on them. 

I left these sessions disillusioned. While I think corporate and public transportation fleets will continue to electrify, the household consumer market is going to be slow-going. One set of researchers looked at characteristics of everyone who bought an EV in 2013 – income, ethnicity, housing type, etc. They used that demographic profile to estimate the maximum percentage of the total car market for EVs under peak conditions – if everyone like these people bought an EV. The results? A whopping 2.44% market penetration. The other 97.66% would still drive gas-powered cars. (Understanding Potential for Battery Electric Vehicle Adoption Using Large-Scale Consumer Profile Data by Rubal Dua, Kenneth White, and Rebecca Lindland.) 

Another researcher, Dan Welch from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, discussed how EVs tend to be more expensive up-front but cost less to operate than regular internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, the break-even point is after about 8 years. That’s a time frame which, in my opinion, isn’t short enough to attract any but the most far-sighted consumers, who are already motivated to buy an EV.  However, that leads to another set of research showing…

The cost isn’t even the biggest obstacle to getting EVs into the market. The biggest concern is “range anxiety,” that drivers will have to go more than 50 or 100 miles sometimes, turning their car into a really expensive hunk of useless metal in their driveway.

typical-daily-miles
Source: manitobaev.ca

Axsen, Langman, and Goldberg from Simon Fraser University dived into this and other consumer concerns in their paper Confusion with Innovations: Mainstream Consumer Perceptions and Misperceptions of Electric Drive Vehicle Technology. Beyond range anxiety, there are fears about:

  • Resell value
  • Pace of technological change (and speedy obsolescence)
  • Poor understanding of battery maintenance
  • Obstacles for those urbanites without garages (and, thus, without a spot for a charging station).

Put differently, most people will look at them and see an inferior, risky product that costs more than the alternative. So without one of two necessary conditions:

  1. Even more massive government subsidy or
  2. Dramatic reduction in the cost of batteries

I am skeptical that EVs will ever do anything more than just scratch the household consumer market, especially in the time frame needed to put a dent in climate change.

2. Autonomous Vehicles Will Increase Congestion (Probably A Lot)

Transportation Camp had a session where Robert T. Milam from Fehr and Peers used regional Transportation Demand Models to look at how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is going to affect traffic congestion (notes here). Assuming all vehicles in the region are automated (a big assumption, I know, but bear with me), the result was an increase in VMT between 12% and 68%, and a reduction of transit trips between 16% and 43%.

20170107_120901

That’s huge. Aside from the environmental catastrophe, the congestion impact from even the low-end of the prediction is likely to be dire.

Then there’s the blow to transit. One reason so many cities like Seattle and LA have been able to pass referenda on increasing transit funding is because higher-income people are finally starting to use it. If those high-income riders are siphoned off from the system into autonomous vehicles, then transit is likely to re-enter the death spiral of the 20th century.

Boosters of the technology will dismiss these findings, arguing that if we use AVs as a shared service (like autonomous Uber or Lyft), then VMT might actually go down at the same time that costs go down. Sure, it might work that way in a few places like New York or San Francisco; the rest of the country is in for another spurt of autophilia.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Boosters Are Too Dismissive of Automation’s Economic Impacts

In numerous interactions I had with those lovers of AV technology, a common thread was a disregard of the economic impacts. Those bullish on automation insist that the people whose jobs will be taken can just go on to do other, more meaningful work.

Perhaps I am especially sensitive to economic dislocations right now – underemployed Rust Belt voters just installed a president with empty promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, many of which were lost to automation. Looking at transportation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 3.6 million workers drive a truck, taxi, school bus, or transit bus for a living. We should all take a moment to think about what it will mean when 3.6 million more people are forced into lower-skilled, lower-paid work.

job-in-each-state
Most Common Job in 2014. Source: Planet Money

With so much news about what’s real and what’s fake, about truth and lies, TRB struck a special chord for me this year. Truth is hard to find, and often even harder to accept. I wanted to hear that electric vehicles are our savior, that vehicle automation will fix all of our problems. The truth is messier, more complicated, and takes work to uncover. TRB reminded me that there are literally thousands of smart people dedicated to revealing the truth, just in my tiny corner of the research world.

Godspeed, I say, and keep fighting for the truth – no matter how inconvenient.