Will Future Cars Be Driverless, Electric and Shared?

UC Davis Leading in Research and Policy Engagement around the Three Transportation Revolutions

Only a few years ago driverless cars were unthinkable, mere science fiction that we’d never see in our lifetimes. Today, they’re being tested on public roadways, and may be only a few years away from commercial reality.

How fast our transportation future might unfold is hard to predict. But a pioneering report led by ITS-Davis researcher Lewis Fulton, co-director at the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) program of ITS-Davis, with researchers from the Institute of Transportation Development and Policy (ITDP), an international nonprofit organization in New York, offers a crystal-ball glimpse of several future scenarios that our rapidly changing transportation future might unfold.

The research report, Three Revolutions in Urban Transportation delves into the impacts of vehicle electrification, automation, and shared mobility. Together, these three transportation technology revolutions could help reduce traffic, improve livability, eventually save trillions of dollars each year, and reduce urban transportation carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent, or more, worldwide by 2050. 

The research report spans eight global regions, including five major markets: United States, Europe, China, India and Brazil.  The research team found that in every region studied government policies will play a large role in enabling one, two, or all of the three revolutions.

“We’ll need a host of creative government policies to succeed in steering these revolutions toward the public’s interest,” Fulton notes.

Accordingly, ITS-Davis has launched a broad-based policy initiative to compliment the research findings —convening prominent academic, government, private industry, and public interest stakeholders to ensure the lessons learned are understood by all stakeholders.

The central research findings of the report show that in all of the regions studied, the best-case scenario comes about when policies support all three revolutions occuring concurrently. Ride sharing is the linchpin of the three; the model projections show the biggest environmental and social benefits are estimated to occur when most transportation is not only autonomous and electric, but also when most trips are shared.

“When it comes to cars, what we learned early in life still holds true—sharing makes everything better,” Fulton says. “All the futuristic automotive technology being developed could make our cities more livable and the air more breathable—but only if we take sharing seriously.”

In this autonomous, electric and shared future, what researchers dubbed the Three Revolutions (3R) Scenario, future global energy use from urban passenger transportation is cut by over 70 percent and there is an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions, compared to a control scenario with little automation, electrification or sharing. Additionally, compared to the control scenario, the 3R Scenario estimates $5 trillion per year in savings to the global transportation system, while the costs of vehicles, infrastructure, and transportation system operation are reduced by over 40 percent.

However, these benefits are not likely to occur without strategic interventions from public and private stakeholders. According to Dan Sperling, Director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis), “Many factors will shape the future, including how willing consumers are to accept new services and technologies and to share rides, how open transit operators are to embracing new mobility services as complements to their bus and rail services, and how inclined automakers are to become mobility companies instead of just car companies.”

The report’s findings complement conclusions of the ITS-Davis 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative, which hosted a well-attended forum in late 2016 and published a series of guest-authored policy briefs in early 2017. One of these briefs titled Capturing the Climate Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles, by Don Anair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, asserts, “Policy options that pair autonomous technology with low-emission electric vehicles and shared-ride services can ensure climate benefits.”

Other briefs focus on the role of public transit, land use and transportation, equity, active travel, governance, and related topics.

Research Methodology

Fulton’s team employed a scenario modeling approach that builds on the method developed by ITS-Davis and ITDP for two Global High Shift scenario reports published in 2014 and 2015. The methodology considers the role of different travel modes in providing mobility, and the amount of potential energy savings and CO2 reduction that could come from a less car-centric world in the future. In this new Three Revolutions report, the research team expands upon the earlier studies by considering the role of electrification, automation, and ride sharing in developing future scenarios that can test the impacts of certain policy levers in achieving each scenario.

Study Scenarios

The first scenario, what Fulton’s team dubbed a Business-as-Usual (BAU) Scenario, means present trends continue, and gas-powered, driver-operated cars remain the standard mode of travel through 2050. It reflects assumptions that strict regulatory burdens prevent autonomous technology adoption, and the market acts alone with little change in policy and minimal public investment in electric cars. Absent change, in the BAU Scenario therefore, population growth estimates are the largest input to the model and create the greatest impact. Total urban (metro area) population is projected by the United Nations to increase by 60 percent from about 4 billion people in 2015 to 6.5 billion in 2050, and this growth results in a tenfold increase in car travel between 2010 and 2050.     

Fulton’s team also hypothesized a two revolution future (2R Scenario), which adds electrification and automation, and applies the population estimates from the BAU. The study assumes that by 2020, 5 million electric vehicles are sold annually worldwide (compared to 750,000 in 2016) and that sales continue to rise sharply thereafter with few non-electric vehicles sold in 2050.

“It is natural to think that these revolutions will co-evolve because of their co-benefits; electric autonomous vehicles (AVs) can recharge themselves easily at convenient times, and electric vehicles (EVs) can easily supply power to the hardware needed to automate vehicles,” the study states.

The 2R Scenario assumes that electrified driverless cars are available on the market starting in 2020. Sales increase rapidly first among commercial fleet vehicles with commercial vehicles sales growing quickly from 2020 to 2030, responding to labor cost savings. Household use of electric autonomous vehicles begins later, and rises slower, with some households maintaining driver-operated vehicles through 2050.

The 3R Scenario builds upon the first two scenarios, adding rapid adoption of shared mobility to increases in electrification and automation. It assumes that by 2020 shared mobility represents a significant share of urban travel in most major cities of the world. 

This includes a range of ride-hailing services and vehicle types, with more right-sized vehicles for different types of trips. Average load factors (people per trip) rise significantly in countries such as the United States, where it is currently below two, and stays high in countries such as India, where it is already high.

The 3R Scenario also assumes trips shorten due to investments in supportive land use strategies that encourage active and public transport. Sidewalks and bike lanes are added to create continuous networks and ensure maximum safety for travelers. A general effort to develop more compact cities with shorter trip requirements is also assumed, with trip lengths dropping by 10 to 15 percent compared to the BAU Scenario, rather than increasing as they do in the 2R Scenario.

Research Findings

While electrification and automation deliver benefits, shared mobility is the third and vital piece that could move global transportation into a future that not only saves energy and emissions but also decongests highways, frees up parking lots for other urban uses, cuts transportation costs, and improves walkability and livability. Shared mobility includes ride-hailing services—but only when these cars carry multiple occupants. It also includes new forms of on-demand public transportation, such as small commuter buses with flexible routes. Active transportation, such as cycling, complements this scenario.

The study notes different global regions vary considerably in their starting points. For example, the United States is highly car-dependent, whereas India’s challenge will be to preserve and enhance shared mobility options they already have. Yet, across the globe, the researchers found the 3R Scenario to hold the most environmental and societal benefit.

Researchers are quick to caution that electrified, driverless cars—without sharing—could actually increase traffic congestion and decrease air quality. Consider a busy, urban core where zero-occupant, driverless vehicles continuously circle the block waiting for their owners to call them back into service instead of parking. Talk about unthinkable!

Policy Implications

Bringing about these revolutions won’t be easy, the authors recognize. The report outlines desirable policies and says unprecedented levels of policy support and coordination are needed at the local, state and national levels.

“The findings point out that urban transportation has to evolve beyond single-occupancy vehicles and a single HOV lane,” said Jacob Mason, transport research and evaluation manager at ITDP. “If passenger vehicles do not become predominantly shared by 2050, our cities will continue to be choked by congestion and defined by sprawling land development and the massive emissions this system generates. Instead, the urban residents of tomorrow should ride electric, automated, and shared vehicles into a cleaner and healthier future.”

Three Revolutions in Urban Transportation was released the week before an international climate change meeting in Bonn, Germany. The climate talks were to focus on implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which targets a 2 degree Celsius or lower cap on rising temperatures due to global warming. This target requires all nations to cut their CO2 emissions dramatically by 2050. The authors note that the 3R Scenario would meet that benchmark for cities, and possibly go further.

The report assesses policies including those that incentivize widespread adoption of electric and driverless cars as well as ride sharing, public and active transport, and land-use planning that helps shorten most vehicle trips. Such policies could consider fees tied to vehicle CO2 emissions, vehicle occupancy, and possible restrictions or heavy charges on private ownership of autonomous vehicles, along with strong disincentives for zero-occupant trips. Bicycle and e-bike sharing systems also need to be encouraged along with transit system innovations.

The ITS-Davis 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative has also provided insight on how public transit can evolve to meet the needs of a future that looks like the 3R Scenario. In a policy brief titled Three Transportation Revolutions: Synergies with Transit, guest author Steven E. Polzin, Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, writes, “The fundamental goals of public transportation – making quality mobility publicly available while minimizing resource consumption and negative externalities – is complementary to the goals underlying the three transportation revolutions. Thus, the future of public transportation and shared, automated and electric mobility are inherently related.” 

There are also important equity implications of the three transportation revolutions. In March 2017, the 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative surveyed 40 transportation policy experts who attended the inaugural 3 Revolutions Conference the previous fall. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said that without government interventions they believe the benefits of shared, automated vehicles will not be evenly distributed across income levels.

Both the 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative and Fulton’s research team appear committed to continuing the conversation to identify what the future holds for transportation and how to ensure that all communities and the environment benefit from the three transportation revolutions.

The Three Revolutions in Urban Transportation report was funded by ClimateWorks Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Barr Foundation. The 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative is funded by ClimateWorks Foundation, Pisces Foundation, The National Center for Sustainable Transportation, and the Energy Foundation.

More information:

  • For a copy of the Three Revolutions in Urban Transportation report, click here. For further information on the report, contact Lew Fulton or Jemilah Magnusson below.
  • For learn more about the ITS-Davis 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative, click here or contact Mollie D’Agostino below.


  • Lew Fulton, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, 530-601-3904, lmfulton@ucdavis.edu
  • Jemilah Magnusson, Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, 646-380-2357, magnusson@itdp.org
  • Mollie D’Agostino, ITS-Davis 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative, 510-309-1594, mdagostino@ucdavis.edu

Media Contacts:

  • Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530 752-7704, kekerlin@ucdavis.edu
  • Steve Kulieke, UC Davis Transportation and Energy Programs, 530-752-2039, skulieke@ucdavis.edu