Autonomous Vehicles for Atlanta?


August 14, 2017

As someone directly impacted by the fiery collapse of a 100-foot-long elevated section of I-85 earlier in the spring of this year, I have a new appreciation for the importance of effective transportation. Atlanta’s ice and fire-inflicted transportation woes in recent years have cemented the metro’s reputation as a city plagued by inefficient automobile traffic. Maybe the solution lies with autonomous vehicles.

Being fortunate enough to live within a mile of a Marta station, I took to the rails this April for my daily commute to our firm’s office in midtown Atlanta. After a few weeks as a daily Marta rider, I began to recognize the faces of many of my fellow passengers.  I was struck by how many of my same-station southbound “neighbors” were also “work neighbors” destined for the same midtown station as me.  I left work from our office building one day with someone who ended up on the same train, exited at the same station, and walked to his car parked next to mine.

While inching along in “bridge traffic” this spring, I am sure some Atlantans daydreamed about better ways to move through the city. As a largely car-dependent metro, Atlanta seems primed to benefit from autonomous vehicles, especially if they can one day move safely at faster speeds in closer proximity.  BCG estimates that by 2035, autonomous vehicles will represent over 25% of the new car market. Increasing choice for consumers across the spectrum of driver-driven to fully autonomous vehicles, and owned vs. shared vehicles, should reduce the cost of mobility.  As mobility gets cheaper, the implications for investors may be wide ranging.  The impacts could affect everything from real estate values to industries built on existing transportation systems like auto insurance, or new ones like shared autonomous vehicle cleaning or storage.  Legal and ethical issues will need attention when designing protocols for accident avoidance in situations where the autonomous system finds no casualty free option.

Last year a semi-trailer hauling 2,000 cases of Budweiser in Colorado completed a largely autonomous 120-mile journey. The directional simplicity and consistent speeds of long haul trucking make it an obvious proving ground for self-driving technology.  Google, Uber, Tesla, Daimler, and Amazon are all developing or planning to leverage autonomous trucking technology.  The implications of autonomous freight delivery are exciting for consumers who now demand goods delivered to their door with increasing speed.  Without mandated stops to prevent human driver fatigue, faster cross-country deliveries become possible.  Jobs for displaced professional drivers remains a big question, but highway travelers should be enthusiastic about the potential safety benefits as the technology matures.

While full adoption of new technologies can take time, it seems like we are on the verge of a major leap for ground transportation in the next decade. As a city built on transport, Atlanta may well play a key role in this shift.

Cam Simonds814