(This story by Jeremy Holmes, program director of RIDE Solutions in Central and Southwest Virginia, was original published by Mobility Lab.)

A man climbs into the cab of a tractor trailer, hauling himself into the massive driver’s seat and shutting the door behind him as if settling into a captain’s chair.

The steering wheel is massive, evoking the wheel of a mighty sailing ship even at it protruds from a dashboard covered in electronic controls and sleek digital displays. The driver engages the engine and, with a few button presses, the truck rumbles to life.

Watching the scenery pass by out the driver’s side window, the man presses another button on the dashboard and, amazingly, his seat swivels clockwise, away from the window. The seat clicks into place, now facing a full 90 degrees away from the windshield, and the driver closes his eyes. The truck is still barreling along the highway.

As this video played behind her, Dr. Myra Blanco of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute stood at the podium in front of approximately 1,000 attendees of the recent Commonwealth of Virginia’s Governor’s Transportation Conference. People increasingly want to be supervisors of their vehicles,” she said to the crowd, “not operators.”

Blanco’s presentation was a glimpse into the future of automated vehicles:
•    Tracing the development of the technology with basic automation like cruise control
•    Through the advancements currently being made by Google and other companies, in which driverless vehicles have been successfully road tested in traffic environments as hostile as Washington D.C., and
•    Glimpsing a future of fully automated vehicles that could drive themselves with or without a human in the car – a future of robot taxi services and highways without gridlock and accidents caused by human error.

Her review of the technology and its trends was remarkable, painting a picture of self-driving vehicles becoming dominant in only a generation or two. And while the benefits are many, from reduced congestion to increased mobility and improved safety, her comments on why we are heading in this direction – and what it says about our transportation choices now – were less science fiction and more basic time management.

The evolving attitude towards driving dovetails with, and sheds further light on, trends we have already seen in the commuter transportation industry:
•    The historically low rates of driver licensing among teens and car ownership among those in their early 20s
•    The return to urban-style living, and
•    The rapid growth of the sharing economy.

While some of these trends may be driven more by economics than lifestyle choices, the investments being made in, and excitement surrounding, automated-vehicle technology emphasize that quality of time as a key factor in quality of life is a growing concern among people.

The cost of congestion and long commutes – up to 3.6 billion hours behind the wheel, 5.7 billion gallons of fuel burned and nearly $70 billion in lost productivity – has long been assumed as the necessary investment needed to live in an affordable suburb, or to access the kinds of jobs that tend to cluster in major metro areas. When our only distractions during those long drives were radio stations, books on tape, or – if we were lucky – a carpool partner, it was easier to accept this cost as unavoidable. After all, what were the alternatives?

Now that technology blurs the line between home and office, where social connection, professional productivity, and even entertainment can be carried out on a smartphone or tablet wherever wireless exists, there suddenly are alternatives. Indeed, drivers are already engaged in those alternatives, as another Virginia Tech study shows that folks behind the wheel spend 10 percent of their time doing something else – behavior that results in an up to 700 percent increased chance of crashing.

What this means for the commuter-transportation industry is that, while full automation technology may be a generation away, the need is already here, and many communities already have the tools available to meet it.
We may not have Google Cars, but what is transit if not transportation that is supervised rather than operated? For major metro areas plagued by long commutes, messaging that concentrates on merely reducing travel time, rather than improving the quality of that travel time altogether, may not be enough.

The implication for smaller metros is even greater. In the Roanoke region, where Virginia’s State of the Commute survey shows that most drivers are pretty satisfied with their 20 minute-a-day commute, the coming generation of workers may look at even that 20 minutes as wasted time if they have to spend it behind the wheel rather than at the keyboard or on their phone. In similarly sized areas, where transit is not as robust and often can’t compete with driving alone on travel time, the emphasis on quality of time may mean that a longer trip, if it’s more productive, is more appealing than a shorter trip. Indeed, the Smart Way commuter bus that connects downtown Roanoke to nearby Virginia Tech in Blacksburg has been an enormously successful service, even though its trip time is almost double that of a drive-alone trip. The bus’s on-board wifi and I-81’s reputation as an accident-prone, delay-plagued stretch of freeway no doubt contribute to this success.

Marketing the benefits of quality of time is nothing new to the transportation demand management industry. We’ve been talking productivity, deferred trips to the gym as a benefit of bike commuting, and similar concepts for a while now. However, the coming world of automated cars puts new pressure on the industry. A world of self-driving, sci-fi vehicles is still a vision of freeways and parking lots jammed full with cars, with all the same environmental and social concerns that we face today.

At the end of Blanco’s presentation, someone at a neighboring table said, “People view driving as getting in the way of their texting, and not the other way around.” TDM agencies have always known that most people view driving as a necessary evil, but simply couldn’t imagine a world without it. That world is here, and along with congestion mitigation and improving mobility, it brings with it new challenges of distracted driving and decreased safety.
Our industry has a unique opportunity to use our expertise in behavior change and marketing to address these challenges now, rather than waiting for science fiction to come and save us.

Photo of Google automated car by Karla Lopez.
About the author
Paul Mackie

Paul Mackie

Communications Director, Mobility Lab

Paul Mackie is communications director at Mobility Lab, a leading U.S. voice of “transportation demand management.”

View Bio