Can Self-Driving Cars Stop the Urban Mobility Meltdown?

Self-Driving Cars Are Set to Revolutionize Urban Mobility

Despite COVID-19, Cities Will Embrace Autonomous Vehicles—But This Emerging Mobility Option Will Benefit Some Metropolises More Than Others, a New Report from BCG and the University of St. Gallen Finds

MUNICH—The development of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could make the urban environment greener and more livable and help support sustainable transportation systems. But how the technology plays out will depend on the characteristics of each city and its mobility ecosystem, according to a new report, Can Self-Driving Cars Stop the Urban Mobility Meltdown?, by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, which is being released today.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge negative impact on urban mobility right now, and is likely to favor private forms of transportation such as cars and bikes over shared mobility for the next 12 to 18 months, many cities will embrace shared AVs in the long term because these vehicles can alleviate perennial problems such as congestion, air pollution, and road fatalities.

But while some cities will gain significant advantages by introducing AVs, others will fare better by promoting other mobility options, such as e-bikes and e-scooters. Indeed, in some settings, AVs could exacerbate the problems that municipal planners are hoping to solve. Before taking action, cities must assess whether AVs will be a transportation panacea or a burden.

The report includes the following key findings:

  • Cities achieve significant tangible benefits by actively shaping the urban mobility environment. For example, Los Angeles could cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 2.7 million metric tons a year through policies that promoted shared AVs and curbed the city’s private vehicle fleet. 
  • New York planners could free up the equivalent of about 900 blocks of space currently reserved for parking, if they created the conditions for robo-shuttles to thrive.
  • New physical and digitally connected infrastructure (including dedicated lanes and sensors that would enable self-driving cars to communicate with the surrounding environment) will be essential for AVs to succeed. 
  • Cities that allow private car use to grow in line with past trends will see their urban environment deteriorate significantly, with traffic volume increasing by an average of 6%, and total parking space by 8%.
  • For some cities (such as Hong Kong), promoting micromobility and walking could deliver greater benefits than introducing AVs.

After an initial wave of euphoria in the mid-2010s, self-driving cars have become the object of considerable scepticism. One reason for the change in public perception is the realization that AVs are unlikely to be available at scale soon. To cut through the noise about AVs and gain an objective view of their advantages and likely effects on different cities, BCG and the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, conducted a one-year study that combined qualitative and quantitative approaches with current industry insights.
Using a sophisticated tool that can simulate 1.7 billion trips, they modeled how AVs could improve or worsen the urban environment and quality of life in five urban archetypes developed on the basis of data from more than 40 cities worldwide. The team also simulated the citywide impact of specific mobility scenarios, such as the promotion of micromobility and a strong uptake of robo-shuttles. Planners in any city worldwide can use the tool to help visualize future developments in their transportation systems.

In parallel, BCG and researchers from the University of St. Gallen asked more than 30 leading executives from other universities, cities, and transportation-related industries for their views on the key enablers, success factors, and roadblocks facing AVs.

“Cities need to create a vision of where they want to be in the future and start acting now. If they do nothing, and if the growth in private car use increases in line with past trends, the urban environment is set to worsen significantly,” said Nikolaus Lang, a BCG managing director and senior partner, and leader of the firm’s Global Advantage practice worldwide.

“Our research demonstrates what types of cities will benefit most from AVs, and it examines the benefits and drawbacks of taking different policy actions. This is essential information for city planners. In cities where AVs are the best option, municipal authorities will need to collaborate with operators, manufacturers, and technology companies if they are to succeed,” said Andreas Hermann, director of the institute of customer insight at the University of St. Gallen.

A copy of the report can be downloaded Can Self-Driving Cars Stop the Urban Mobility Meltdown?.

To arrange an interview with one of the authors, please contact Eric Gregoire at +1 617 850 3783 or

About the University of St. Gallen (HSG)

Founded in 1898, the University of St. Gallen (HSG) is Switzerland’s leading business university and consistently ranks among the top European business schools. In 2019, it ranked fourth in the Financial Times European Business School Ranking and its Strategy and International Management (SIM-HSG) program was No. 1 in the world among master’s programs for the ninth straight year.

The university, which offers bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees, is also internationally recognized for the excellence of its integrative education at the highest academic level through EQUIS, AMBA, and AACSB accreditation. Its focus on international, integrative, and practical programs in business administration, economics, law, social sciences, and international affairs attracts a diverse and motivated student body of 8,900 students from 83 countries. The university also hosts 42 institutes, research units, and centers that are managed independently as businesses. They augment its programs with education and research based on real-world conditions and train institute staff at the interface between academia and the professional world. A public university of the Canton of St. Gallen, HSG also offers comprehensive, world-class, executive-education programs for more than 6,000 participants annually.

About Boston Consulting Group

Boston Consulting Group partners with leaders in business and society to tackle their most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities. BCG was the pioneer in business strategy when it was founded in 1963. Today, we work closely with clients to embrace a transformational approach aimed at benefiting all stakeholders—empowering organizations to grow, build sustainable competitive advantage, and drive positive societal impact.
Our diverse, global teams bring deep industry and functional expertise and a range of perspectives that question the status quo and spark change. BCG delivers solutions through leading-edge management consulting, technology and design, and corporate and digital ventures. We work in a uniquely collaborative model across the firm and throughout all levels of the client organization, fueled by the goal of helping our clients thrive and enabling them to make the world a better place.

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