Can Ford’s Self-Driving Car Business Improve Austin’s Traffic Woes?

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin — There are so many great things about working from home. Spending all day with your pets is up there, but not having to commute is probably the best.

It’s particularly nice to avoid commuting by car in a city like Austin, TX, that’s notorious for its heavy traffic. The situation is so bad that Ford (NYSE: F) made a point of mentioning how gridlocked Austin’s traffic is, and will be getting, when it announced last week that the company is opening up an office in Austin for its autonomous vehicle test program with its partner, Pittsburgh-based Argo AI.

Ford and Argo run similar programs in Miami, FL, and Washington DC, all of which have the intent of developing self-driving commercial businesses in those cities. Ford is still exploring exactly what those business segments will provide, but the company plans to provide services to both individuals and business, a spokesperson wrote in an email to Xconomy. In Miami, Ford is testing out offering its self-driving car services to small businesses in need of delivery systems—in a blog post from February, the company highlights a florist it has been working with.

In Austin, Ford posted job openings on the Indeed online employment marketplace for a business development person and an operations lead for the business. Ford wants whomever takes the latter position to “establish and measure localized business operations,” according to the post. Argo is hiring an operations manager to oversee the testing of its own technology in Austin.

Ford’s relationship with Argo began in 2017, a year after the startup was founded, when the Detroit-based automaker invested $1 billion. Ford sold $500 million worth of Argo shares to European automaker VW this summer—VW invested a total $2.6 billion of cash and assets in Argo at the time. Those investments thrust Argo into the spotlight, though there are quite a few competitors in the space. CB Insights says there are more than 40 companies working on self-driving cars, including both startups and entrenched automakers.

Like many of its competitors, Argo uses imaging technology such as cameras and LiDAR sensor systems to help its computers observe the outside world and make maps. It processes all the data it gathers with machine learning algorithms. Testing in the real world is a big part of improving and refining the way those systems work.

In addition to selling services like delivery to businesses, Ford and Argo also made the pitch in last week’s announcement about Austin that their autonomous vehicles may be part of the solution to the city’s terrible transportation issues.

Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, published a blog post on the subject last week, setting up the context for that pitch: Austin’s population is set to grow by 40 percent in the next 20 years, but its highway capacity may only increase 15 percent.

“Simply put, Austin has to look towards diverse and innovative ways to move people around,” Marakby writes.

Ford believes that commercial self-driving vehicle fleets might increase the number of people who use shared rides, the spokesperson said. The connected cars have access to real-time information about road conditions, too. So, like a next-level version of the Waze app, self-driving vehicles could optimize routes for many other cars by sharing the traffic news. One study from the National Science Foundation also indicated that just a single autonomous car smooths traffic flow quite a bit by avoiding the overly aggressive braking characteristic of human drivers.

Other researchers, however, say self-driving cars might worsen traffic problems under some circumstances. For example, if a stubborn autonomous vehicle tries to park itself but can’t find a spot, it could cause traffic jams as it futilely circles the block, as NPR noted in 2017. But one expert tells NPR that traffic may not improve as long as human drivers remain on the road with autonomous cars, considering our erratic tendencies. And even if traffic did get better, the researcher says, that might just attract more people to get on the road.

Any reduction in traffic might depend on public adoption of carpooling in autonomous vehicles. But the cost of rides may be prohibitive, and riders may find such services inconvenient. People in Texas do seem pretty attached to their vehicles—and Austin’s public transportation is already limited in both its reach and use. So are gas-guzzling Austinites going to be willing to give up their autonomy to ride with a few other strangers?

Maybe it’s impossible to predict whether self-driving vehicles will improve traffic or not. And we might not find out soon based on real-world experience.

Self-driving cars are fun, but they’ve been heavily hyped and are still probably years away from widespread use. Ford CEO Jim Hackett backed away this year from the company’s earlier prediction that it would be ready to deploy thousands of self-driving vehicles for fleet services by 2021, as Wired reported.

Maybe another solution is figuring out a way to let more people work from home. For a lot of jobs, that isn’t possible. But for some workers, it could happen. Forcing people to commute to an office may not be necessary. More people are actually now working remotely—more than half of companies globally allow remote work, according to Owl Labs. The New York Times says Millennials and Generation Z are making life more of a priority in the work-life balance by working from home.

I’ve worked from home for five years and love the 25-foot-walk from my bedroom to my office. But it’s not like everything about working from home is great. I do miss water-cooler conversations with coworkers, and general camaraderie.

My dog, Norma, is the best coworker I’ve ever had; if a startup could somehow make her talk, I’d never even think about going into an office again.