The best U.S. cities for self-driving cars may surprise you

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Whether or not you’re ready to go hands-free when it comes to driving, now might be the time to prepare yourself. Automakers have announced that by 2021 at the latest, they will put autonomous vehicles on the street in some fashion, and pilot tests are underway today. To make themselves ready, cities and states across America are responding to create the legal structure under which those vehicles will operate.

But any quick look at the variety of communities around the United States and the world will show you that not every place is as well-suited to autonomous vehicle operation as others. What works in a smaller and compact city like Portland, Oregon, won’t necessarily be optimal for a sprawling city like Houston.

If I’m going from my house to work every day, the advent of autonomous cars will not change that. I’m still going to and from the same place.

Recently, Seattle’s INRIX Research published a study that looked at the 50 largest cities in America to determine where autonomous vehicle technology (from the Google car to the Apple car and everything inbetween) is likely to work best in the early phases of the technology. Specifically, INRIX analyzed one year’s worth of travel amounting to nearly 1.3 billion individual car trips in the target cities. Then it focused on intra-city travel, giving weight to shorter and intra-city trips among the total aggregate of trips in each city.

When that analysis was done, INRIX rated the top 50 cities in order of their potential for autonomous adoption.

Digital Trends contacted INRIX to dive a little deeper into this research and understand what it means. We spoke to Avery Ash, Autonomous Vehicle Market Strategist at INRIX about the study.

Digital Trends: Why did you choose trip length rather than how easy a city would be to navigate for autonomous vehicles?

Avery Ash: When we looked at identifying which cities are going to have the travel patterns that are best suited to highly autonomous vehicles, we see in the last couple of years that highly autonomous vehicles are increasingly able to navigate complex scenarios. Whether it’s improved navigation in downtown traffic or it’s highway driving, that technology is moving to the point where the autonomous vehicle is able to operate as effectively and more safely than a human-operated vehicle.

Also, in large part people’s travel needs stay relatively similar. If I’m going from my house to work every day, the advent of autonomous vehicles is not going to cause me to drive 30 more miles to and from work. I’m still going to be going to and from the same place. I just may be able to substitute an on-demand, shared use, highly autonomous vehicle option. So what we looked at are trips that are central to a downtown area, the premise for that being that these vehicles are going to tend to be more likely to use an electric drivetrain.

What benefits do you see coming from Highly Autonomous Vehicles (HAV)?

HAVs tend to get returns on investment much more quickly. The per-mile cost of an electric vehicle is lower than the per-mile cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle, although the upfront cost is more. You don’t want electric vehicles trying to drive between cities, so you don’t want to drive between New York City to Washington D.C. in a shared use, electric, highly autonomous vehicle. Logistically it’s going to be more difficult to get that vehicle back where it needs to be.

Automakers have announced that by 2021, at the latest, they will have self-driving vehicles on the street.

At that point, highly autonomous vehicles stand to have a really positive impact on congestion, so long as you’re able to put more people in these vehicles and more effectively deliver a mobility solution.

That benefit breaks down if you’ve got a lot of these vehicles driving around with no one in them. Which is why it makes sense to focus on centralized, shorter distance trips where you are able to double up and really focus on some of the profits these vehicles are likely to deliver. So that’s why we’ve really focused on these intra-city trips that are less than ten miles.

Do you think that the political climate in a city or in a state will seriously hinder HAV adoption rates, or is this a technology that will come whether people like it or not?

I think what we’re currently seeing is that autonomous vehicles are not political. You’re seeing leaders on both sides of the aisle that are really excited for this technology. In fact, they want to do what they can to ensure that their city is seen to be at the forefront of preparing for or actually conducting testing of these vehicles, and that’s kind of across the political spectrum. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it has the potential to bring a host of benefits, which we go over in the paper.

That said, what we’ve seen is that maybe consumer acceptance of these vehicles could limit adoption. I think we’re already seeing that more now in some of the consumer surveys surrounding this technology. People generally, they’re not quite sure what it means, they’re not quite sure how it’s going to benefit them, they’re not quite sure if these vehicles are safe.

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So it’s going to take a lot of efforts by the public and private sector to ensure that consumers are confident with technology, that they are comfortable with how these vehicles are deployed, and that they are actually seeing material benefits to their mobility needs from the deployment of this technology.

It’s really going to take some time for consumers to acclimate themselves to this technology, but I think the feedback you tend to get, once people have the experience, is that it’s something they really want. They can recognize how it will really benefit their lives.

I noticed that you looked at income and it seems like you believe people under 17 and over 65, as well as people below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, were more likely to use HAVs. Is that because they are currently using public transit and you think they’ll switch?

I think this is really going to be used though across the income spectrum. A lot of cities are already thinking about how these vehicles are going to be deployed in the sense of equity and access.

You’re seeing leaders on both sides of the aisle that are really excited for this.

Some of the complaints, whether it’s streetcars or metro stops or buses or on-demand ride sharing services, is the access to mobility options tend be higher in more affluent areas. You’re already seeing cities wanting to prioritize how do you offer new mobility solutions to populations that are currently underserved.

So we think about it in terms of underserved populations, which could be income base but it could also be those who may not currently have their own car, so those who are below seventeen or above sixty-five.

Getting to the List

So by this point you’re probably wondering where your city falls on the list. INRIX came up with some surprising names both at the top and at the bottom. The top 10 cities for autonomous adoption, in order, are:

Rank Location
1 New Orleans, Louisiana
2 Albuquerque, New Mexico
3 Tucson, Arizona
4 Portland, Oregon
5 Omaha, Nebraska
6 El Paso, Texas
7 Fresno, California
8 Wichita, Kansas
9 Las Vegas, Nevada
10 Tulsa, Oklahoma

Larger cities tended to fall far lower on the list. Miami turns up in 14th place, just ahead of Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Seattle. Sprawling Houston is the 29th best city for autonomous cars, and New York comes in at 32nd place, just ahead of Boston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. The bottom 10 cities for autonomous driving includes Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

You can download and read the entire INRIX report on autonomous adoption here.

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