Carpooling, Autonomy, and the Future

What can carpooling reveal about the future for autonomous vehicles?

How do people use cars today?

Let’s look at commuters first. Simply stated, three of every four commuters drive to work alone. Only one in ten commuters carpools to work.

Where do people carpool?

Most cities share a similar distribution of commute transportation choices: 80% of commuters drive alone, 10% of commuters carpool, and 10% make other choices, including walking, biking, or working from home.

Why do people carpool?

Survey data about why people carpool is hard to find. However, in 2006, the Transportation Research Board conducted a survey of over 4,000 commuters in Dallas and Houston, Texas. The survey’s responses provide some perspective.

Reasons for carpooling

In the survey, carpooling commuters (around 600 individuals) were asked to select and rank the reasons they choose to carpool. The top reason the participants selected surprised me:

Reasons for not carpooling

The same survey asked around 3,000 commuters why they didn’t carpool. The top four responses were:

Who do people carpool with

Not all carpoolers commute with coworkers. In fact, few do:

What We Can Learn

Even in light of some cursory research, our vision of “groups of people zipping from the suburbs to their city jobs and back again” hardly seems to capture the complex needs of different commuters.

  • When the majority of commuters choose to drive alone, when the majority of carpoolers report only sharing their vehicle with one other person, and when the majority of carpoolers commute with family members, it seems quite possible that people don’t like to commute with strangers and would very likely rather commute alone.
  • However, decisions about transportation infrastructure appear to have a real impact on the choices that commuters make and can encourage commuters to share transportation. Again, the primary motivator for Texas carpoolers was HOV lane access.
  • Every city is different. Distance, highway and transit access, socioeconomic components, and cultural factors all combine to create pockets of carpooling commuters in cities. Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft would do well to understand these pockets and super-serve these carpoolers.
  • Motivations for carpoolers suggest new value propositions for future transportation services. Imagine a service that emphasizes social interaction while commuting, another that provides users the most ecologically-friendly transportation options, or another that emphasizes the amount of money that the user saves sharing transportation.
  • Finally, the core commuting unit appears to be the family and not the lone city-bound bread-winner. Companies that build transportation services around the needs of a family — including traveling to multiple destinations, changing schedules, chaining commutes with stops for errands, and storing ephemera — will differentiate themselves while appealing to a larger market.

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