Robot Cars Bring Potential for Hike in Traffic Congestion

Self-driving cars are expected to usher in a new era of mobility, safety, and convenience. However, transportation researchers say people will use them too much, causing major traffic complications.

Experts foresee robot cars chauffeuring children to school, dance class, and baseball practice. The disabled and elderly will have new mobility. Commuters will be able to work, sleep, eat or watch movies on the way to the office. People may stay home more because they can send their cars to do things, such as pick up groceries that they’ve ordered online.

Researchers believe the number of miles driven will skyrocket. It’s less certain whether that will mean a corresponding surge in traffic congestion, but it’s a clear possibility. Gary Silberg, an auto industry expert at accounting firm KPMG, compares it to the introduction of smartphones. “It will be indispensable to your life,” he says.

Cars that can drive themselves under limited conditions are expected to be available within five to 10 years. Versions able to navigate under most conditions may take 10 to 20 years. Based on focus groups in Atlanta, Denver, and Chicago, KPMG predicts autonomous “mobility-on-demand” services—think Uber and Lyft without a driver—will result in double-digit increases in travel by people in two age groups: those over 65, and those 16 to 24.

Heavy Freeway Traffic

Vehicles traveled a record 3.1 trillion miles in the U.S. last year. Increased trips in autonomous cars by those two age groups would boost miles traveled by an additional 2 trillion miles annually by 2050. If self-driving cars without passengers start running errands, the increase could be double that. And if people in their middle years, when driving is at its peak, also increase their travel, that yearly total could reach 8 trillion.

Driverless cars are expected to make travel both safer and cheaper. With human error responsible for 90 percent of traffic accidents, they’re expected to sharply reduce accidents, driving down the cost of insurance and repairs. But the biggest cost of car travel is the drivers’ time. That cost comes down drastically when people can use travel time productively on other tasks.

In the best-case scenario, congestion is reduced because driverless cars and trucks are safer and can travel faster with reduced space between them. Highway lanes can be narrower because vehicles won’t need as much margin for error. There will be fewer accidents to tie up traffic. But those advantages will be limited as long as driverless cars share roads with conventional cars, likely for decades. The congestion nightmare would result if a large share of people can’t be persuaded to share robot cars with strangers and to continue using mass transit.

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