About 1.5 million Floridians have moved inland to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. Such evacuations can be perilous — but in the future, networks of automated vehicles could help shuttle people out of harm's way more efficiently, Axios' Kim Hart and I write.
Yes, but: Two colliding trends will likely make evacuations in this storm-prone population center trickier in the interim.
- People are moving to south Florida in huge numbers, which will put far more people at risk.
- Battery-powered AVs and the infrastructure to support them are still a long way off.
Why it matters: That means Floridians — who drive alone more than the rest of the nation — could have to choose between toughing it out on choked evacuation routes or staying put and riding out future storms.
Context: Evacuation orders are supposed to keep people safe, but sometimes create their own disasters.
- Before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, 2.5 million Houston residents tried to flee, only to be trapped by gridlock for up to 20 hours, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 100 people died in the exodus, including 24 nursing home evacuees whose bus caught fire.
- In Florida, 7 million people tried to escape Hurricane Irma as it marched the length of the state in 2017, leading to traffic jams and related problems.
AVs might help make evacuations more efficient, Florida's former emergency management chief Bryan Koon, now a VP at disaster consulting firm IEM, wrote in a 2018 blog post.
- Platoons of connected AVs could shuttle groups of people at a time to a safe destination, reducing the number of cars on the road.
- By communicating with other cars, they could travel faster and closer together. This could maximize traffic flows and reduce traffic-jamming fender benders.
- Smart cars could also identify less congested routes and even direct people to available shelters or hotels.
- "If you take the need for drivers out of the equation, you can move 30% more people in the same space, in theory," agrees Louisiana State University professor Brian Wolshon, who has worked with local governments on evacuation planning.
But, but, but: The slow transition from personal car ownership to shared mobility, and from gasoline engines to electric cars, could actually make mass evacuations more difficult over the next couple of decades, Koon tells Axios.
- As EVs proliferate, for example, the number of gas stations will fall and the number of charging stations will rise. But during the changeover "there could be a chance that we don't have enough of either" to handle a large-scale evacuation, he says.
- As people give up their cars in favor of ride-hailing, it's also possible there won't be enough vehicles to accommodate everyone who needs to flee in an emergency, he adds.
- "We might no longer be able to say, 'Just get in your car and drive away.'"
What to watch: Florida's population is projected to increase by 6 million people, to 26 million by 2030 with much of the growth in vulnerable coastal regions.
- Restrictions on growth in the Florida Keys are tied to the county's ability to quickly evacuate people in a hurricane. Other regions could soon face similar limitations, Koon warns.
- Government leaders need to factor in changing transportation trends, as well as the growing population, when crafting their emergency management plans.
Go deeper: The latest on Dorian