A man crosses a street during a traffic jam on the embankment of the Moskva River in downtown Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

The Future With Self-Driving Cars

A new article from Business Insider makes the case that as self-driving cars become more prevalent, traffic will actually increase.  The article seems to support tax surcharges or fees on driverless vehicles to discourage their use.

However, the argument that self-driving vehicles will increase traffic is fundamentally flawed, because it does not consider how transportation would be fundamentally changed by their prevalence.

First, let’s look at the arguments which support the premise that traffic would increase, before looking at ways in which self-driving cars will decrease traffic.

Arguments that self-driving cars will increase traffic:

  1. Traffic is somewhat self-regulating due to people’s natural desire not to be in it.  Thus, people stagger their commutes and work from home occasionally.  In addition, commute times tend to limit how far someone is willing to live from their place of work; or, more often, the radius from their home in which they’re willing to work.  Self-driving vehicles could change this dynamic.  If people could essentially have their car chauffeur them around town, then they could spend their time in the car doing other things: working, sleeping, reading, catching up on hobbies or “side hustles.”  That is, they wouldn’t mind being in traffic so much and therefore the incentive to avoid or lessen traffic decreases.
  2. Self-driving car services offered by the likes of Uber and Lyft could be so cheap (due to the lack of a human driver who needs to be paid), that people stop carpooling and instead opt for the privacy of one of these vehicles.
  3. Once self-driving cars become more advanced, people could send their self-driving cars to the store for them to be filled by clerks at retailers offering curb-side delivery.  You’d place an order at the grocery store, for example, and then send your car and the clerk would load it up; your car would then dutifully return home with your order.

Now, let’s look at the counter-arguments to see why self-driving cars might actually decrease traffic:

  1. The above arguments are consumer-driven.  But what hasn’t been considered is how companies would drive (ha!) the self-driving revolution.  For example, rather than a person sending their car to the grocery store (as in #3 above), the store itself could load up a self-driving van and have it make the rounds through the area, delivering orders according to the most efficient route.  In addition, many people tend to stop at the store on the way home from work.  What if homes were equipped with exterior-accessible storage refrigerators or containers which were accessible via a keypad which vendors could access to deposit orders during the day?  Deliveries could then be done during less-used road times (e.g. late morning, early afternoon).
  2. Part of the joy of owning a car is driving it and setting it up for driver comfort.  If cars become self-driving, would people really want to own one, when if you needed one you could just call one up at will to have it pick you up?  With these sorts of pooled vehicles, carpooling could be very efficient, using algorithms to match people, pickup locations, and destinations to determine the most optimal routes.
  3. Related to the above, vehicles themselves would likely change.  The self-driving vehicles of today look like regular cars, similar to how the first “horseless carriages” looked like carriages.  But, vehicles could be optimized for their role.   For example, “carpool” vehicles could offer private transport within the same vehicle by providing dividers between the occupants.
  4. Parents, schools, churches, and other organizations could use self-driving vehicles to ferry kids to and from locations.  Have a baseball game?  A van could come pick up you and the others from your area.  Businesses could also offer such a service as a perk for their employees to get groups of them to and from work.
  5. Long haul trucks could be equipped to be self-driving, cutting down on transport times and allowing more truck traffic during the late-night hours.
  6. Technological innovation could help optimize road traffic.  For instance, if highways had a self-driving lane, then self-driving vehicles could travel at much higher speeds and much closer together, allowing computers to manage the flow and communicate with other self-driving vehicles in their lane.

These are just some of the potentials in which self-driving vehicles could help us transport goods and people more efficiently.  The initial reaction to any disruptive technological innovation tends to be to try to tax it out of existence and fight it, but the technology tends to come anyway.  We should be looking at the ways in which transportation and our lives would be bettered once we are freed from having to drive everywhere ourselves.


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Aaron Simms

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