Thoughts on Driverless Cars (part 2 of 6)

This is a continuation of my thoughts on where we are headed with driverless cars. I would recommend reading this series from part 1.

Previously we discussed “What will the driverless fleet look like and how we will use it?” In this post, I wanted to provide some my thoughts on managing surges.

Managing surges

Many urban planners have to think through how to manage transportation veins to handle the mass transit that occurs on regular basis. To assume that these veins because of driverless cars are going away is misleading. Transportation demands’ peaks and troughs will continue.

What is a surge?

A surge is a higher than steady state demand in transportation. These typically occur during rush hours, specific holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving), in climate weather (rainy days), cultural events (music concerts, sporting events, parades, etc), and many other high-intensity travel moments.

How to manage a surge?

While economics can help mitigate surges, if public transit itself is driverless, driverless systems will need to deal with surges in demand no matter what and ensure that the economics are accessible to everyone.

Machine Learning can use historical records to identify surge behavioral patterns and predict the most appropriate dispatch strategy to appropriately address the surges and ensure economics work for everyone.

That said, these vehicles need to be plentiful and near enough to support these surges. To support these surges then, we will still need vehicles to be near the epicenter of the surges (e.g. downtown in the evening rush hour, or near the basketball game as it winds down). So while cars may be less idle, as they await the surge times, they will need to be ready and available for that spike. As a result, parking lots will still be an ever present fixture in our cities – storing and charging idle vehicles ready to appropriately address transportation demand.

Parking lots will be essential to the future of the driverless age. Parking lots need to provide charging capabilities (and as a result of potentially energy production and storage) to commute drivers to their eventual destination. Parking lots will also need to be able to service each of the vehicles (e.g. cleaning) between rides to ensure an excellent experience for the next set of rides. Parking lots will also be mixed use, hosting vehicles of all types. As a result, it would be cost prohibitive to have OEMs or fleet operators to own and manage their own parking lots – they will more than likely co-own the parking lot with others (similar to telecoms leasing space in towers). These parking lots will need to be strategically placed to support the near availability of transportation and will be essential to the driverless world. If you’re making a bet on a driverless world – bet big on parking lots.


Different vehicle types will be needed at different times of day and on different days. For example, morning hours may require many 2 person vehicles and school buses, evening rush hours may require 2 person vehicles plus some trunk space to handle errands as well as the “traditional” soccer mom vehicle that helps take multiple people. During holidays like Thanksgiving, a more road trip oriented vehicle is required.

As a result, we can deliver vehicles that allow us to modularly change the vehicle to cater to varying needs (allowing for increased utilization), as discussed in part 1 of this blog series or build fleets that cater to these varying needs. The worker commute fleet can at most provide 2-3 40-minute rides during the 7-10am rush hour (rarely are commutes bidirectional so it will need to leave the epicenter to start from the outside suburbs to the downtown area). As a result that will only increase commute vehicle utilization by 2-3X (typically the utilization is <4% – discussed in part 4, so commuter vehicles will be ~12% utilized). I expect varying strategies developed by asset owners and fleet operators to pressure OEMs to support greater utilization.

For vehicles type in high demand or have a low supply, the price will be higher to take a ride with that vehicle type. It will be up to fleet managers to create the proper proportion of vehicle types in their fleet and distribution of vehicles to ensure that the cost. Fleet operators will have to manage the careful balance between maximizing vehicle utilization, proper vehicle supply, and distribution, and facilitate the demand users have. I expect regulation to play a role in helping manage the pricing (planned to be discussed in part 6 of this blog series).

What are your thoughts on how surges should be handled? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how fleets should manage surges in rider demand.

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