My turn: Self-driving cars must not leave the rest of us behind

By Alvaro Sanchez and Susan Shaheen, Special to CALmatters

Starry-eyed predictions aside, critical issues are missing from the discussion about how self-driving cars will revolutionize  transportation.

Low-income Californians cannot lift themselves out of poverty if they lack reliable transportation. Without it, they cannot gain access to jobs, education and other opportunities.

Too often, transportation decisions prioritize the movement of personal vehicles that are often out of reach of low-income households. We must break this cycle.

Available figures consistently show that lower-income Americans spend a higher percentage of their income on transportation than the wealthy do, and a Harvard study found that a lengthy commute impairs a person’s ability to escape poverty.

People who drive increasingly get stuck in traffic. No wonder many people see the coming age of driverless cars as just the sort of magic bullet that will solve these problems. They are wrong.

Self-driving vehicles won’t fix these problems. The problem is not one of technology. Rather, the problem stems from a failure to prioritize people over cars.

Many supposed transportation revolutions, from buses and streetcars, to interstate highways and Uber, have led to increased segregation and growing wealth gaps between the rich and the poor.

Self-driving technology could exacerbate entrenched social and environmental problems, if we don’t make deliberate policy choices, especially for marginalized groups.

We can easily imagine a dystopian scenario in which people with money purchase personal self-driving cars, while the rest of us are mired in congested streets, with reduced mobility as public transit gets short-changed due to ridership loss.

We could have a society of transportation haves and have-nots even worse than what we see today: The affluent few whisked around effortlessly in self-driving cars, while the less well-off struggle to get around.

Unregulated, we could see a driverless car future that increases inequality, as high-income people become the natural early adopters, with companies catering to them and leaving poor people and people with disabilities behind.

Waymo autonomous vehicle, photo courtesy Bay Area News Group.

Further contributing to the wealth inequality associated with the deployment of self-driving vehicles is the potential job loss associated with automation. Our research shows this will particularly impact African-Americans and Latinos, who hold a high percentage of transportation-related jobs.

So how do we make this technological revolution work for all Californians.

  • We must seize this opportunity to create a transportation system that is rooted in people and promotes vibrant, healthy, and clean places for people to live, work, and play—places that prioritize  the movement of people over the movement of cars.

When The Greenlining Institute reviewed the issues in depth, we found that part of the answer lies in what some call FAVES–fleets of automated vehicles that are electric and shared–if governments guide their development with smart policies designed to meet the needs of all users, including marginalized populations.

  • Second, equity must be a central focus in the research, development, and deployment of fleets of automated vehicles that are electric and shared, and other forms of driverless vehicles to ensure that these emerging mobility services meet the needs of all marginalized groups.

Money saved by having driverless trains and buses can be used to lower fares for low-income riders and improve service. We might also require fleet operators to not limit their services to high-profit areas but also provide mobility in rural communities and low-income neighborhoods.

We could also mitigate job loss associated with automation by guaranteeing a just transition for impacted workers, with training programs that have real jobs at their conclusion and a strong social safety net for people who can’t find new employment.

And we should consider requiring fair labor standards for the new jobs this emerging industry will create, in addition to prioritizing the hiring of marginalized populations.

  • Third, we must embrace mobility equity. Automated vehicle technology should support and contribute to creating a just and fair transportation system that provides mobility options for underserved populations, reduced pollution, and enhances economic opportunities.

With focused policy interventions, we can create a clean transportation system that works for all, bridging the divide between rich and poor rather than worsening it. A transportation revolution is arriving. This is one time we can’t be asleep at the wheel.


Alvaro Sanchez is environmental equity director at The Greenlining Institute, [email protected] Susan Shaheen is an adjunct professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley and is co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, [email protected] They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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