Will Driverless Cars Help us Drive Less?

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The war on automobiles is real. Backed by a legion of city officials, environmentalists, and new urbanists, the argument to mitigate vehicle has so far been an easy sell – at least in planning circles. Their assumptions echo concerns about the trajectory American cities – the downfall of rural life and open space to name a few.  The problem is the trifecta of pollution, congestion, and urban sprawl. Out with cars, they propose – people could ride high-speed transit instead of sitting in traffic.

But technical innovation could make this proposal more like a plea. Google, along with GM, Ford, and Daimler are now designing cars that drive themselves, making private vehicles more efficient, flexible, and thereby more irreplaceable. The US is not alone. Manufacturers in Japan and Germany are coordinating with their national government to launch their autonomous cars within the next decade. IEEE, a group of technology professionals, says that self-driving vehicles would comprise 75 percent of the global traffic stream by 2040. 

“Currently, a car spends 96% of its time idle,” says Koushik Dutta of ClockworkMod. He says there’s an unforgiving economic incentive to make sure an airplane is always in use, since they spend almost their entire lifetime in operation. To leave a plane idle is inefficient and unprofitable; similar logic applies to parked car. Some predict the autonomous vehicle technology will decrease this idle time as households begin to link their commutes in one car, rather than one car per person. Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounder, believes the technology, now tangible, will be on the market in five years.

But what precisely is this new technology? As it turns out, much of it is not new; a number of automated features can be found in today’s cars: timed braking during collisions, motion sensors that detect distance between the vehicle and what’s in front of it, and adaptive cruise control. Many of the latest features have applications that use advanced sensors to self-park and prevent drifting to adjacent lanes and self-park.

Unprecedented is the use of a network for vehicles to communicate with one another. A study finds that if vehicles use sensors alone, highway capacity can increase by 43 percent, and if all of the vehicles use both sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, the increase swells to 273 percent. Additionally, networks can facilitate information exchange between vehicles and road infrastructure (V2I). With live data streams, cars will be able to inform one another about oncoming traffic, and perhaps even instinctively reroute the car onto less congested roads.

The move to driverless cars will make the private vehicle much more attractive compared to other modes of travel. This is particularly important for older drivers whose ability to drive has diminished; the coming of driverless cars brings them back onto the road. Less reliant on their friends and family as chauffeurs, boomers may happily embrace the ability to travel further and more frequently.

This appeal will extend to all generations. The driverless car offers the current conveniences of the private auto – such as door-to-door travel, safety, and status – while reducing its level of risk and mental stress. Also, the stigmas of driving are eased; self-driving cars are expected to be more eco-friendly, time-efficient, and user-friendly. Once on the market, driverless technology will change lives by saving lives. Advocates of self-driving cars believe that with less human operation and more automated maneuvering on the road, fewer accidents will occur.

But before autonomous cars can save lives, it must squirm through some political barriers. For one, city officials in large metropolitans are glued to the idea that the best communities exemplify mixed used, high-density, transit-oriented development. Hoping to reverse the still far from over exodus to the suburbs, cities like Los Angeles are banking on public transit to revitalize its inner-urban areas. Though public transit ridership has increased in the last two decades, its market share of ridership has being declining. Metropolitan officials hope that millennials, who tend to be more cognizant of mankind’s carbon footprint, will reverse the trend. It is, however, difficult to imagine why any future generation would enjoy the conveniences of taking transit if a car ride can be just as untroubled. Driverless will make vehicle ownership much more attractive. Public transit will lose its status as an amenity. One of the chief advantages of public transit is the fact that one can ride it stress free without worrying about maneuvering to the destination. With driverless cars, this advantage is superseded.

Congestion may increase because more vehicles will find the frustrations of wading in traffic mitigated. Time in congestion can be replaced with a book, movie, perhaps even a nap. But there’s also the possibility that more households will link their trips using one shared vehicle, decreasing the number of vehicles on the road. Some suggest this may help Americans come to terms with letting go of the private vehicle and, instead, embrace the idea of having one household vehicle, a prevailing trend across the rest of the world.

Transportation planners often promote tolls as revenue sources because building high-occupancy and toll (HOT) lanes. The concept is deemed equitable since it links the payers with the users, begetting a sustainable funding model. Much of the funding for these projects is based on the congestion premium - what people will pay to avoid a crammed highway. This is useful in determining how much to price a toll or high-occupancy lane. But since driverless technology will likely lower this premium, the revenue of these lanes may be overvalued.

With the pieces in place, the journey to driverless cars is vastly feasible. In September 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown enacted a state measure to legalize driverless technology in cars running on public roads; at any given moment, a dozen driverless cars are operating somewhere in California. Currently, each vehicle is manned by two testers and marked by a distinguishable license plate. In the future, the vehicle will only be required to have a one driver. And not too far is the idea of a completely unmanned vehicle, what some call the robocar, which will revolutionize not just our mode of travel but our relationship with time and distance.

Jeff Khau graduated from Chapman University with a degree in business entrepreneurship. Currently, he resides in Los Angeles where he is pursing his dual-masters in urban planning and public policy at the University of Southern California.

Retrofitted driverless Lexus photo by WikiCommons user Steve Jurvetson via Mariordo.