Revolution on the Road: The Shift to EVs and Self-Driving Cars

Published Jul 10, 2018

Vehicles expert Dr. Daniel Sperling walks us through the future of transportation and the multiple revolutions needed to make self-driving cars an affordable, convenient, and efficient reality.

In this episode
  • Dan talks about the current revolution in transportation
  • Abby and Dan discuss how self driving cars can be either a dream or a nightmare
  • Dan explains why autonomous vehicles should be electric
  • Abby asks about the new ways we'll be about to get around
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:59)
Intro (0:59-2:27)
Interview Part 1 (2:27-14:39)
Break (14:39-15:10)
Interview Part 2 (15:10-26:30)
This Week in Science History Throw (26:30-26:35)
This Week in Science History (26:35-29:00)
Outro (29:00-30:00)

Related content
Full transcript

Welcome to the Got Science Podcast. I’m your host Colleen MacDonald. Are you waiting for the day when your car can drive you visit mom on the holidays and you can kick back and read a book or close your eyes and listen to your favorite podcast? It’s all about transportation today on the GS podcast. And stick around after the episode for This Week in Science History with Katy Love.

Have you ever found yourself stuck in your boring old wheels-on-the-ground car in a traffic jam, wondering: where are the flying cars and hoverboards I was promised by the TV shows and movies of my childhood?

Maybe it’s just me, but I do wonder a lot about the future of transportation, especially as electric vehicles gain more traction among people buying cars—and as big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, work to electrify their fleet of public buses within the next few years. We seem to be on the brink of some kind of upheaval in the way we get around, and the way we think about driving and commuting. Will we recognize our transportation landscape in ten years?

Joining the show today to talk about what’s ahead in transportation is Dr. Daniel Sperling. Dan is Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, and founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He’s served on the California Air Resources Board since 2007. And he’s written 12 books on transportation.

Our correspondent Abby Figueroa spoke with Dan about electric cars, driverless cars, driverless electric cars…and how after 50 years of the same old cars and highways, we might start seeing system-level innovation faster than we’re prepared for.

Abby: Thanks, Colleen. Hey, Dan. Welcome to Got Science? The UCS podcast.

Dan: My pleasure to join you.

Abby: So today we're gonna be talking about transportation here in Davis, California, a place that a lot of people like to come and think about transportation like they do here at the Institute at UC Davis, where I'm interviewing you. So you have a book that you've wrote recently, "Three Revolutions" where you talk about what needs to happen next in transportation. Let’s talk about those three revolutions. Let's start with the first one, electric vehicles. What's going on with electric vehicles these days?

Dan: Well, electric vehicles is a fascinating topic that I've spent many years on. And now as was mentioned earlier, I'm a board member for the California Air Resources Board. So California is fighting with the Trump administration over electric vehicle rules but electric vehicles are here to...not only here to stay, they're going to dominate. There's almost no question about it. Every car company in the world has made a major investment. They've got the technology, they've got the supply chains, they're really just waiting for policy to really push them and consumers to start buying them. But they're ready to go. And they've got the technology. So it's really a question of how intent are we as a society in making it happen. Certainly in California, we're really committed and we're going to see massive introduction of electric vehicles in the coming years.

Abby: The automotive leaders almost all agree it's coming within 2, 3, 4 years, we're gonna see a big jump. And will we make it to 5 million electric vehicles by 2030 in California, which is the goal here?

Dan: That's the plan. So what will happen is the Air Resources Board which I'm a board member for, we're going to be extending the zero emission vehicle mandate. Right now, it only goes till 2025, we're going to extend it to 2030. And we haven't come up with the number for 2030 but the governor said he wants 5 million cars. So it'll be something like that.

Abby: So electric vehicles is the first revolution that needs to happen in transportation so that we can start reaping the benefits of reduced carbon emissions and better safety and less pollution. The second revolution you talk about in your book is automation, self-driving cars. Tell us a little bit about what's going on in that world right now. How close are we to self-driving cars becoming a reality?

Dan: Well, automation also is inevitable. It's definitely going to happen, there's almost no question. In this case, not just the automotive industry, but many other related companies, all the high-tech software companies, Silicon Valley companies, Google, are all making huge investments. So automation is definitely going to happen. In fact, our cars already are partly automated. Today, you can get some cars that will drive themselves on freeways right now, the Tesla, Audi, Cadillac, Mercedes.

And so they're just adding in more and more technology. We have adaptive cruise control, which means the car automatically adjusts its speed, it slows down or accelerates, depending on how fast the car is in front of it. And then you have Lane Keeping assistance that helps with the steering. So we're basically, a lot of the technology is there, we’re 90% there, but the last few percent are the hard part. The interesting part about automation is that in contrast with electric vehicles, with electric vehicles, it’s policy pulling it into the market. With automated vehicles, it's policy slowing it down mostly for safety reasons.

I just visited a couple of the automated vehicle companies in San Francisco last week and they're like General Motors, they have a factory. They're gearing up to start manufacturing automated vehicles in the next couple years. Waymo, that Google company, has just announced they're buying 60,000 vehicles from Fiat Chrysler. So they're agitating to move ahead. The first application is going to be almost for sure the Uber and Lyft type of cars because there, the automation makes so much sense. They're willing to pay a lot for it because right now 75% of their cost is the driver. So all they do is they move the technology and then drive around and they save huge amounts of money. So they're just itching to get those, that technology.

Abby: The car companies are racing forward with the technology. And the legislators and the cities are racing to try to keep up with the policies. And I think with reason people are excited and some folks are feeling more cautious and wary of it all. What's the future looking like once we have these automation, these self-driving cars on the roads? How does that change our commute and the way we get around our communities?

Dan: Well, the automated vehicles could play out in two different ways. They could be just basically superimposed on our current transportation system. In other words, we now go out and we buy our own car so now we would just go out and buy our own automated car. And so it would be the same except that it would be automated. If that were the case, that is what leads to what we sometimes call, the hell scenario...

Abby: The dream or the nightmare that you called it in your book...

Dan: In my book I call it, The Nightmare Scenario. And that's because if you have an automated car, you can spend time in that car doing anything you want. You can eat, sleep, tweet, text, it can be your office. It can be your hotel room. And so you're going to be much more willing to take long trips because you don't mind so much being in the car. And it won't be just being in the car more, cars will be empty part of the time. You go to a meeting, you don’t know quite when you're gonna get out, you don't wanna pay for parking, you just have the car circle around the block. You know, we refer to single-occupant vehicles, we're going to have zero occupant vehicles, you know, zombie cars.

Abby: That would be the nightmare scenario. That's worse than the parking lots full of cars. It's just cars roaming on the road with no one in them.

Dan: So the other way it can play out, and that's what we call the Heaven scenario, the dream scenario, is that these vehicles are used mostly or even totally as a mobility service, as a pooling service, meaning you take Lyft line or Uber pool and some other micro-transit companies like Via or Chariot. And you automate it and now you get rid of your cars, you don't own cars anymore. And you just hit that button, car comes, takes you where you wanna go.

Abby: Is there someone in the car with us?

Dan: There's no one in the car. And the cost is really cheap because you don't have the driver, the automation won't cost that much and the car will get really cheap because it's being used so efficiently. Right now, our cars, they sit 95% of the time on average. Now we're gonna use it 12 hours, 15 hours, 18 hours.

Abby: Much more efficient.

Dan: Much more efficient, so we won't need as many. And because people are gonna pool in it, you know, there are multiple people in these cars. And these cars might not be cars like we know them now, they could get a little bigger, be more like a van, small vans. You know, probably there'll be a differentiation of service, some people will want a more exclusive service and pay more, but the point of this is, that if we do have this pooling, that is by far the best strategy we can imagine to create a sustainable transportation system.

Because it's cheaper, it requires less road space, less parking space, it provides more accessibility to more people, low income, physically disadvantaged, disabled. Now, you know, unless you're, you know, in a wheelchair, then you can use these vehicles easily. So now you've created a system that economically, environmentally, and socially is far better than what we have now, with pooling. So the challenge is, are people gonna pool? Well, you know, the recent history is people don't like to carpool.

Abby: Well, this is a good way of getting into the third revolution which was sharing and pooling. And you're right, the numbers, I was looking at your recent presentation, the numbers are down actually for carpooling. And we've had these high occupancy lanes on the highways but folks aren't using them as much. So how can these three revolutions work together, if people aren't doing one of them?

Dan: Well, we can have the electric vehicle revolution and that will be good. But the automation is going to happen. So it's really a question, is the automation going to happen with pooling or without it? And so, for it to happen with pooling, almost for sure, we're gonna need policy. Policy that incentivizes pooling, dis-incentivizes single occupant and zero occupant vehicles.

And there's many, many ways to do that. You know, we have a team here at UC Davis, where we're developing all of these policies. In fact, in the book, on the end of each chapter, is a list of policy. So we're taking those and refining them some more. We're spending a lot of time talking to local governments. I've done 35 talks in the last 4 months, and a lot of it talking to mayors and city councils and local leaders. And they need to get the message at the local government level because that's where a lot of these decisions are gonna be made. They need at the local government level to be not just supporters of pooling, they've gotta be champions of it, and they gotta do it now.

Abby: Yeah, to pass the policies that are gonna make this happen, so that we can change our behaviors.

Dan: Exactly. We need help.

Abby: So of the three revolutions, electrification, automation/self-driving, and pooling, which one or which combination of those three are the ones that can have the best impact on our carbon emissions, the best positive climate impact?

Dan: Well, if we had all electric vehicles, that would probably be the best for just reducing greenhouse gases, because there you can get, as we decarbonize our electricity system, we're talking about a 80%, 90% reduction in greenhouse gases.

Abby: And transportation is the leading cause or source of emission right now. So that's the huge...

Dan: In California, it's over 40% of the total and nationally it's over 30%. That's right. So electric vehicles, if you just looked at it carbon, then electric vehicles is necessary. It's kind of like given you have to do that. The rest of this, the pooling combined with the automation can help us reduce vehicle use. So then we can knock off another 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%.

Abby: So electrification makes cars cleaner. And automation and pooling takes cars off the road.

Dan: Yes.

Abby: So those two things combined will help our carbon emissions again.

Dan: Yeah, maybe a better way of saying it is it reduces vehicle miles traveled. It reduces vehicle use. So we'll have less vehicles around because there's more people in each vehicle.

Abby: And they're being more efficient. The cars aren't parked 95% of the time.

Dan: Exactly.

Abby: Got it. So all the three revolutions really are interconnected, if we are to get to this dream scenario?

Dan: Yes.


Abby: So how far in the future are we talking about? I was reading something about how the automotive leaders are saying 2020, 2022, 2025, they're gonna have these models on the road. Is it really that soon that we can see these changes?

Dan: There will be in a few years, there will be some vehicles that are automated, electric, and pool and offering the pooling service almost for sure, but in a very limited way. The first application of these vehicles will be in use by Uber or Lyft or companies like that, or the car companies themselves. All the car companies are trying to figure out, how do they switch from being a vehicle manufacturer to being a service provider? Because they think they can make a lot more money on service. And besides, they're not gonna sell as many vehicles, so they better do something different. And so they're all trying to figure out how do they provide these services in what way?

So they're going to start out testing this out in the very near future. And the way they're gonna start it out is they're going to, essentially geofence an area, which means that they're gonna identify an area, and then they're going to map the hell out of that, you know, every curve, every fire hydrant, every sign and so that these vehicles know everything in that area. And if you're in that area, and you have a destination that's also within that area, they'll send you this car. That's almost for sure how this is going to roll out in the near term. And then over time, they'll gradually expand that area, that geofenced area to be larger and larger space. So then you can commute, you know, for longer distances between cities and things like that. How fast will that happen?

Abby: How fast and is that the ideal way to roll this out?

Dan: It is. It is a good way. It makes good sense. So you can start we're in California here in downtown Sacramento or Walnut Creek. Even, there's a company that's going to roll it out in San Francisco within two or three years, they say. So it makes sense because you want to be safe, so they need to make sure everything is safe, but they need to be able to attract enough people. If you have it out in the middle of the boondocks, you know, you're not gonna get any riders and you're not really gonna learn much either from, you know, you have to have the vehicles. Okay, the good and the bad, you need to be near people, bicyclists, because these cars have to learn how to behave safely.

Abby: Are there other places in the country outside of California where that they are crying for these revolutions to happen?

Dan: Well, they're prime for parts of it. So Arizona has been very hospitable to automated vehicles, Pittsburgh also, Detroit of course, they have all the companies located there. But I think they're gonna look for areas where the local governments are gonna be hospitable towards them. And I hope they'll also look at places where local governments will favor the pooling type services. So that means that they will provide an incentive for the pooling and a disincentive for single occupants or zero occupants.

Abby: So let's be a little bit more specific about that. Like what does someone like me or listeners need to ask their local city planners and government to be doing? Like, what are these incentives for?

Dan: So right now, almost everywhere, they tax this service by ride. So if you take Uber pool or the Lyft line, they charge the same fee per passenger as Uber X.

Abby: Which would be, when it's human a driver, a single passenger?

Dan: Right. Uber X is like with a single passenger.

Abby: So there's a difference between, you know, me calling a Lyft just to me to get in the car and be driven somewhere versus me to calling a Lyft, where there's multiple passengers going different places. So we're talking about the latter?

Dan: Right? So for the people that haven't used this service yet, you get on the app, you get it, you can press a button that you wanna be the only passenger and for Uber, that's called Uber X. Or you press another button that says you wanna be in a pool service. And if it’s a pool service is gonna stop to pick some others up along the way.

If enough people are doing it, the pooling actually works very efficiently because you would just pick up people along your route. You would take all and very minor deviation because there's so many people using it and I think it'll soon be very effective even in suburban areas as well. And it won't be just in dense cities like San Francisco. So what you need to tell the local mayor and city council is, they should change those pricing, those taxes or fees that they charge, so that for a vehicle offering a pooling service, there's little or no fee. But if they do a single passenger service, they pay a large fee. And it's not just in the city, like at airports.

I mean, this would solve a lot of the airport problems because Lyft and Uber have really created, have created congestion at the airports. And I mean, the rental car companies are suffering, the taxis are suffering because it really is fundamentally, you know, a superior service. But what they should do is, at the airport, they should do the same thing in terms of the pricing, but they can also do it with curb space. They say, "Okay, we're gonna create a lot of curb space for the pooled cars and vans. So airport city's first step is to create curb space for the pooling and much less so for single passenger.

Abby: So for pooling, one thing we can do is, one, use these pooling services now to create the demand, and, two, ask our local city governments, county governments to be incentivizing the pooled services versus the non-pooled services. With electrification, one thing we could do is purchase an electric car as our next vehicle. What else can people, individuals like me, like our listeners, do to help these revolutions come along?

Dan: Well, I think...

Abby: Especially in the electrification or the automation.

Dan: Well, you know, the big picture here is that, yes, you can just buy an electric car or just buy an electric car and use it. But I think big picture here is we're trying to reduce ownership of cars. And it sounds kind of un-American when you say that, but it really is just the opposite. What we're doing is creating choice and we're making it better for people. I mean wouldn't you rather have a chauffeur? And the chauffeur is either a human or a robot? I mean, most of us would rather be we like to drive? Some people do but most do not.

So what we need to do is create choice. We've created in the United States these car-centric cities, car-centric lifestyles, car-centric transportation system. And now if we do anything, if we raise the gas tax, like in California, we raised the gas tax 12 cents. And people are up in arms and they're up and arms...okay partly it's a political issue. But partly it's just that people feel like they're being punished that they have no option. They've got to buy a car, they've got it that's the only way to get to work...

Abby: I have to get to work somehow, I have to get to school somehow.

Dan: Yeah, and there's no alternatives.

Abby: And the bus takes four hours to get across town and…

Dan: Exactly. There's no alternative. So the first thing...what these revolutions are really about is creating choice. And okay, you know, it's like Uber and Lyft were a really good start. They've opened up the door, and we should really be appreciative of that because they've made it possible now to bring in this whole new set of services that really are so much better for us as individuals as well as us as a society. And it opens up the possibility of these micro-transit services, these Uber pool and all these pooling services. And so we need to create the choice then we can do the policies that otherwise would be seen as punishment because now they don't have choice. But if you have choice, okay, if there's a higher fee or tax on single occupant driving, then...

Abby: Then I choose...

Dan: Choose pooling…

Abby: Yes.

Dan: … and save money. And so you have choice. Right now, you know, we just have almost no one has real choices.

Abby: Yes. We have to get in our cars to get to where we need to go. Yeah.

Dan: Yeah.

Abby: Well, this is a very interesting time to be alive. And these revolutions are going to be as profound as, you know, when rail and street cars and airplanes came onto the scene.

Dan: Yeah, let me add, that's exactly right. And if you think about I've been working in this field, you know, several decades, almost no innovation, no system level innovation in transportation in half a century. And now all of a sudden, we're seeing these big changes. And so it really is, it's exciting as a researcher, it's exciting as a policy person, it's exciting as a business person, it's exciting...

Abby: Driver and a rider.

Dan: Driver's exciting for all of us. But we wanna make sure we channel that excitement towards the social good of the public interest. And that is the challenge before us now and we've got to get...before automation becomes widespread, we've got to set up the policies and processes for pooling. So that's why I tell these mayors, I said, "You can't be just supportive of Uber pool and Lyft line and micro-transit, you've got to be a champion of it and create those policies so that when automation comes along, which is really gonna be transformational..."

Abby: And really soon.

Dan: "...and it could be fairly soon, we're well positioned to, you know, to take advantage of it in a good way."

Abby: Well, thank you for explaining all that to us. And it's exciting. It's exciting to talk to you and I'm really glad to hear about all of these changes that are happening and that are coming. So one last personal question for you, how do you get around?

Dan: Because I'm the on the Air Resources Board, where we're the ones adopting a zero-emission vehicle mandate for everyone else, my wife told me, I've got to walk the talk. So I bought a hydrogen fuel cell car, but I hardly ever use it. And that's because my favorite vehicle is another zero-emission vehicle, my bicycle. I love it. I ride to work every day. It's really made a big difference. And I vanpooled and drove a car for 30 years. So I'm very excited.

Abby: You're in the right city then, you're in a very bike friendly city to be using that bicycle. Well, thank you, Dan, so much for talking to me and we do look forward to following your work and these changes to come. I'll be keeping tabs on all this stuff.

Dan: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Abby: Thank you. Well, back to you, Colleen.

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This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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