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Introducing the AV Mythbusting Series

May 23, 2017 Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor

Growing up in the 80s without cable TV, a Nintendo or the very idea of the Internet, I did a lot of reading. One of my most treasured books, likely published in the 1970s, was full of scientists’ predictions about the future. I couldn’t wait to see some of this stuff come true: telephones with video screens so you could see the other person, cars that could take off from highways and rise to a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, movie theaters with remote controls that let the audience vote on what the main character should do next.

It was fun to read, but ultimately gave me little indication of what the future was going to look like. I never dreamed I’d have a pocket computer with a processing power thousands of times greater than my mom’s IBM 286. Or that I’d be able to instantly communicate with anyone in the world with it. Or, for that matter, that cars would eventually be able to drive themselves. Even in the vision of flying cars, there still needed to be a pilot.

Here’s the thing – the future is very difficult to predict. Even very credible people who specialized in artificial intelligence swore that a computer program could never learn to beat a grandmaster at chess. They were proved wrong two decades ago.

Even today, we can’t predict the future with a hundred percent certainty. The things we highlight about autonomous vehicles are always based on research rather than empirical proof, but we do this because we see so many potential benefits that could come from the technology once it is fully realized. The number of fatalities per year from the current auto culture is staggering and the harm reduction AVs could bring is one of many factors that motivate our optimism.

But there are some out there who doubt. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s a difference between openly doubting and outright sowing of negative myths. And unfortunately, it seems like these doubts, when stated as facts, serve as amazing click-bait for people that are instinctively concerned about AVs.

So we’ve decided to begin a series where we’ll look at a few of these myths and shine some light on them. The potential benefits of AVs are promising enough to demand this approach.

Let’s start with one of the most well-worn chestnuts of doubt.

MYTH: AVs will cost so much that only the rich will be able to use them.

Some people never get past a figure that is oft-cited by AV doubters: $250,000. That’s how much a fully autonomous vehicle is estimated to cost given the current price of sensor technology. And, yes, that is on the surface a prohibitively expensive price tag for the vast majority of people. But it’s founded on two myths: one, that manufacturers will never find a way to make LiDAR sensors at a lower cost. (They’ve already made some breakthroughs there). But the second part of it is that it’s based on an unrealistic picture of what a culture powered by AVs would look like.

A recent study from Columbia University’s Earth Institute suggested that AVs could be run for 30 to 50 cents per mile, down from a $3-5/mile cost to taxi companies under the current regime. In Manhattan, they concluded, the rate would be about 40 cents a mile – whereas today the cost to companies is around $4/mile. If taxis and Ubers were 90 percent cheaper than they are today, would you rather pay to maintain your own car and deal with the regular hassles of repair and regular tune-ups, or spend one to two dollars per day being taxied all around town? Which would be more convenient for making it to work on time or getting your kids home from school? It’s a no-brainer.

This cost reduction could be even more dramatic. Currently, cabs have to focus on one customer per ride. People sometimes share taxis if they know one another and are at the same pick-up point, but rideshare apps have already shown the potential to drastically cut fares even under the $4/mile to operate conditions. If the reduction in costs to operate were paired with the ride-sharing component, getting around town via a hired car would cost far less than it currently costs to own and operate a car.

So, yes, if the technology remains as expensive as it is now – a big ‘if’ – maybe you won’t own your own autonomous vehicle. But maybe you wouldn’t even want to. Imagine never having to worry about changing the brake pads or renewing your registration again while still getting around town just as easily. I don’t know about you, but personally, that sounds like a future I can accept.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.