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Robo-Taxis in San Francisco – Cost Effective or a Public Health Matter?

Author: Monica Castillo

Guest Editor: Terra Davenport

July 8, 2019 9:43am

One of California’s most popular cities also has unique geographical limitations. San Francisco, a 49 square mile city surrounded by water on three sides, has experienced a high-density population boom which, in turn, has led to more vehicles and more accidents. In the United States, vehicular accidents claim about 40,000 lives annually. In 2018, there were 23 traffic deaths (pedestrians and bicyclists) in San Francisco, up from 22 deaths in 2017. San Francisco recently released its plan to have zero traffic fatalities by 2024. Autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of fatalities in San Francisco by shifting responsibility for driving from humans to automated technology.

This very technology, however, is expensive, in particular when compared to older and arguably more dangerous vehicles, which are more likely to be owned by lower income segments of the population. The question of how to access life-saving technology for those who can least afford it becomes relevant. A possible solution, an offshoot to the widely-popular car services such as Uber and Lyft, would be to offer autonomous vehicles for hire, so called “robo-taxis.” Theoretically, the operating costs of such vehicles would be spread over a large number of consumers, thereby making the robo-taxi more affordable.

A recent study by the MIT Energy Initiative – “Mobility of the Future” – centered on the issue of the reality of robo-taxis becoming cost-competitive with older vehicle ownership in San Francisco. The study concluded robo-taxis are not cost-effective, mostly due to high robo-taxi fares coupled with a 50% utilization rate (how much of these vehicles’ time is spent shuttling passengers around) and high profit expectations from investors. The cost of operating a robo-taxi in San Francisco is nearly three times the cost of owning and operating an older vehicle.

The study suggested the public needs to ponder the future of mobility and its affordability in a radically different way. The study further argued the technology must be affordable in order for those who need it most to realize its benefits, and to avoid fostering greater socioeconomic inequality on the roads. It remains to be seen how San Francisco will achieve its self-professed goal of “zero traffic fatalities” in five years, but robo-taxis do not currently appear to be the solution.

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