For low- and middle-class Americans, upward mobility holds the promise of increased financial security and an improved quality of life, but there are plenty of barriers, like lack of education and limited access to jobs. Many events can spur upward mobility – a job promotion, a marriage – but autonomous vehicles can also play a role. Securing America’s Future Energy’s (SAFE’S) July 2020 report, “Fostering Economic Opportunity through Autonomous Vehicle Technology,” focuses on this potential benefit of AV technology. According to the report, for households facing lack of access to affordable transportation, AV fleets could help connect these households to new job opportunities.

How Transportation Costs Affect Upward Mobility

Individuals depend on transportation for many functions, but one of the most important functions is to get individual to and from jobs. Other transportation needs include traveling to the grocery store, traveling to doctor’s appointments and traveling to run other errands.

For many individuals, getting to work and pursuing a career depend on reliable, affordable transportation, and public transportation can’t always fulfill that need:

  • Limited public transportation schedules may not be compatible with work schedules.
  • Public transportation is prone to delays, making individuals late for work.
  • Individuals may have to travel long distances just to access public transportation routes which may not include their job locations.
  • Many low-income individuals already work long shifts which are made even longer by public transportation commutes.

For low-income families, transportation has to be affordable enough to justify the cost of using it, especially when a household will need to use transportation daily to get to work. If a family needs to take a taxi to get to a bus station to then travel to work each day, the transportation costs could outweigh the income that the job provides.

Some individuals may depend on personal vehicles to get to work. SAFE notes that job opportunities in certain fields, like e-commerce, are only accessible by car. Employees at Amazon’s 60 largest fulfillment centers must access the locations by car, rather than public transportation.

How Transportation Costs Affect Neighborhoods

This dependence on affordable transportation directly affects where and how families live. Housing costs are typically a household’s largest expense, with transportation costs being the second-largest expense. For low- and middle-class households, transportation costs are tightly tied to where a household lives. While living in the suburbs may mean lower housing costs, the higher transportation costs can offset those benefits. SAFE found that transportation costs can increase by up to five times, negating the housing cost savings a family might have enjoyed by relocating.

The problem of high transportation costs affects over two-thirds of Americans, or 75 million households. These households live in neighborhoods that are beyond their means because of these high transportation costs. More than 70 million households live in neighborhoods with affordable housing, but only 30.7 million households live in neighborhoods with a combination of affordable housing and affordable transportation.

How Self-Driving Vehicles Could Make a Difference

Solving the issue of high transportation costs is a complex challenge, but self-driving vehicles could pose part of the solution. As autonomous vehicle technology continues to advance, it’s possible that on-demand electric vehicle transit could become a low-cost, widely available solution. SAFE predicts that an autonomous, shared and electric car will cost approximately $0.50 per mile to operate in 2030. Today’s buses cost $1.31 per mile.

These autonomous vehicles could solve many of the challenges posed by mass public transit options. While mass transit is constrained to routes and schedules, an AV fleet could transport multiple riders to multiple destinations without being bound to routes. These vehicles could double as delivery vehicles, saving small business owners from the cost of hiring delivery drivers with their own delivery vehicles. Because an AV fleet wouldn’t need human drivers, it would enjoy lower overhead costs. Using electric vehicles can help to keep operational and service costs down when compared to gasoline-powered fleets.

Point-to-point travel using AV technology would be more convenient and more affordable than today’s traditional transportation methods. AV fleets could help to connect households living in rural communities to reliable, affordable transportation, creating that much-needed connection to help households get and keep jobs. This reliable transportation could open up new job opportunities so these households not only enjoy steady employment, but so they could also potentially qualify for more and better-paying job opportunities. With shorter commutes, AV fleets would mean that individuals could seek out jobs located in a wider radius from home.

Powering Upward Mobility

The use of AV transportation could reduce transportation costs by up to $5,600 per household per year, or approximately $3,800 per American per year. Even small changes would support upward mobility for low-income families. According to SAFE, reducing transportation costs by 1% would mean that 750,000 households currently living in unaffordable neighborhoods would be able to afford their neighborhoods. Reducing transportation costs by 20% would mean that more than 15 million households would live in affordable neighborhoods.

More affordable transportation can make a tremendous difference in job security and job opportunities for low- and middle-class households. An individual with access to a vehicle is four times more likely to have a job than an individual without vehicle access. Simply maximizing transportation availability can help to reduce economic inequality.

Advancements in AV technology mean that the idea of a low-cost fleet of electric AV vehicles is practical, but there’s still plenty of work to do before that vision can become a reality. SAFE recommends that the following policy measures, among others, be instituted to support progress toward making this fleet reality:

  • Promote both the development and the accelerated use of transportation technologies to prevent over-regulation and ensure market acceptance.
  • Create pilot programs that include low-income households to accurately assess the impact of AV technology in creating upward mobility.
  • Design user fees and regulations to promote shared, electric vehicles.
  • Implement road pricing and transportation fees so that they reflect road-use, differentiating between personal vehicle use and commercial use.
  • Focus on integrating AV vehicles with public transportation, so that AVs can compliment mass transit by bringing people to train stations and bus stations without worrying about parking or congestion.
  • Update housing policy so that federal mortgage policies account for transportation costs in mortgage approval and mortgage insurance.

AV technology has the potential to positively affect transportation and society as a whole. For low- and middle-class households, this technology could also provide a solution to high transportation costs that mass transit can’t solve. With low-cost widespread access to transportation, households will enjoy better access to jobs, positioning them for increased financial security and upward mobility. This can help to improve our society’s wellbeing and financial security as a whole – just one of the many benefits that we stand to see from AV technology.