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Self-Driving Cars Will Be Great For Cities—But Only If We Change How We Use Cars

People need to cede more than the driver's seat: They also need to give up their private vehicles.

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What is the future of self-driving cars? It's no longer a question of if they will hit the road, but when.

That's the conclusion of the Boston Consulting Group in a new report that examines the societal impacts of the new technology.

How might this make our lives better? Potentially, self-driving vehicles (SDVs) could lead to fewer vehicle accidents, more road efficiency, and less pollution. But, of course, it all depends. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) shows in a series of scenarios that the benefits of self-driving extend from the negligible to the considerable, depending how much they're used and how.

The Premium Car That Drives Itself
In the first scenario (roughly for the year 2030) autonomous cars are mostly high-end affairs for the best cars and most time-starved drivers. This reduces the number of cars in circulation only a little (about 1%) but nonetheless leads to a 20% drop in accidents because SDVs are that much safer.

SDVs Rule the Streets
In the second scenario, SDVs replace most traditional cars but they're still mostly privately owned. Only one in ten vehicles is shared, producing an 8% overall drop in circulation cars as a result. Accidents drop 55%, and there's marginally more parking space.

Robo-Taxis Take Over
A nightmare for cab drivers: self-driving robo-taxis become the predominant way to get around. There are 50% fewer cars on the streets because people give up their personal vehicles, and 40% more parking space. Cities disincentivize private travel.

The Ride-sharing Revolution
Finally, robo-taxis not only become the default mobility method, but also people agree to share taxis, further driving up the social gains. "Ride sharing frees up more parking space (54%) and further lowers the number of cars needed to provide the same level of mobility to the population (59%). Accidents decrease by 87%," the report says.

BCG stresses it's not predicting actual numbers. It prefers to think of the numbers in a relative sense. That is, the benefits of SDVs are likely much higher if they provide a better form of private mobility (or, in the case, or ride-sharing, semi-private mobility), rather than replacing people's existing travel patterns.

This is essentially the same point made by Emmett Murphy, chief product officer at Carma, made for us here. If they simply replicate the way we use cars now, SDVs won't do much for us; the big opportunity is to use SDVs to change car use fundamentally.

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[Cover Photo: TasfotoNL/iStock]

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