Autonomous Vehicles and Net Neutrality: Life in the Paid Lane

Net neutrality pundits on both sides have likened the internet to a highway. Mostly – up until now – it’s been like a single lane on a public highway or road. Whatever is on it can only go as fast as the car in front of it, and the only way to change that is to change lanes or go on a different road entirely. In a few places, you can even pay to be in a faster lane – though this isn’t always effective. What you can’t do is pay to speed up the lane you’re in, or do what ISPs are supposedly going to do with the end of net neutrality, and send some traffic through the pipes faster than others. Not yet.

The idea is simple enough. I get in an AV and pay more to get where I’m going faster. Not only does the car go at a higher speed, but traffic routing software makes sure that other cars wait at intersections for me to go through first, get over into slower lanes so I can pass, and the routing software even moves cars onto other streets to clear it ahead of me. The municipal system effectively treats me like an ambulance or police car; I’m going where I’m going and nothing besides a real emergency vehicle can stop me. This is the far end of the slider, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation where there’s a demand and traffic based price for arriving x minutes earlier than the standard. Most ride shares now have price tiers based on whether the riders are willing to walk further or wait longer for a cheaper ride together, etc.

The good news for people who are thinking that this is taking pay-for-performance too far is that it may be too difficult to set up as a marketplace. Extending the pricing in the opposite direction by offering an express service mediated by vehicle-to-vehicle communication is dependent on that communication and on an infrastructure that makes it possible. The communication protocols are likely to be implemented since a communication standard will be necessary to make sure that emergency vehicles are recognized and that extraordinary situations like having every lane in a highway made outbound during a natural disaster. The problem isn’t the communication itself, but the marketplace.

Let’s say I’m Uber and I want my AVs to be able to have an ‘express’ option where they go faster and have priority in traffic. In this future, most if not all cars are AVs and move in an optimized manner to get everyone where they’re going as quickly as possible. If all cars are moving in a close-to-optimal manner (a truly optimal path usually requires more computing time and power than it’s worth), then having a car go to ‘express mode’ will cause traffic to stop being optimal in order to improve the performance of a single vehicle. Since this costs the system – and the people in the cars – something, then it will need to be paid for. Otherwise every car would try to move in a way that advantages it the most and traffic control would be impossible. On a more down-to-earth business level, the scenario goes like this: My car says, ‘I want to get somewhere sooner, so cars 2 through N have to make way for me and get somewhere later.’ The other cars reply, ‘What’s in it for me?’ If Uber wants to get their cars somewhere at the expense of Waymo, or if a Tesla needs a line of GMs to take the slow lane for a few seconds, they’ll have to pay for that privilege.

That’s where it all falls apart. What incentive does a carmaker have in participating in the Expedited Arrivals market? Sure, they might make money from people wanting to go faster, but then they have to pay the others for it. The margins are likely to be razor thin at best, or else the price for the consumer would be very high. Imagine picking up an AV at JFK airport in New York and wanting a fast trip to your hotel on Atlantic Avenue, or coming into Reagan in DC and taking an AV cab to Capitol Hill. That cab would need to negotiate with and find a reasonable price with thousands of cars. It can all be automated, but it adds up. A second to you has to be worth much more than a second to them or else they’d win the bid and you wouldn’t be able to pass because not only do you need to pay them to make way, but you also need to pay the city for the right to go faster, possibly extend lights, and then there’s the fee that the AV company would take for negotiating the deal.

On the other hand, I say as I look at this and start to think it might be possible, perhaps the economics work if you modify your expectations. Let’s say I tell my app where I want to go and an AV arrives. Before and during the trip, I have options for guaranteed or variable arrival times, like hotels have for floating or guaranteed rooms. In the hotel, I know I’ll get a room on the lowest rate, but not what kind. With the AV, I know I’ll get where I’m going but not how long it will take. The more I pay, the more my AV can bid to pay cars and the city to get me there faster. If I get caught in traffic, I put an extra five bucks in the slot and the car starts bidding again and pulls ahead.

So far I’ve said how I as a passenger in an AV use my money to get there faster, but what about the people in the other cars? What happens to the money I’ve paid them? Well, that’s where the big fight will likely be. It will naturally go to whoever owns/operates the car. You pay for other people to get out of the way, but those people don’t get paid, they just don’t lose money. Instead, the payments go to the company.

If they own their own car, they might get the funds instead, though. Perhaps that’s how the concept of centralized ownership of vehicles will fail. People will realize that if they’re not picky about how fast they get somewhere, they can pick up a few bucks every trip from other passengers who are in a hurry. Imagine the marketplace where people just toodle around the block near Times Square getting paid to get out of the way instead of getting a job! Get one of those Volvos with the beds, figure out the wi-fi password for the Hotel Edison and just let the money flow in!

Pardon me while I just go and patent something…