Self-driving cars are expected to usher in a new era of mobility, safety and convenience. The problem, say transportation researchers, is that people will use them too much.
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 like pick-up groceries they’ve ordered online.
Researchers believe the number of kilometers 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 said. “It will be all sorts of things we can’t even think of today.”
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.
Vehicles traveled a record 3.1 trillion miles in the US in 2015. Increased trips in autonomous cars by those two age groups would boost miles traveled by an additional 2 trillion miles annually by 2050, KPMG calculated. 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 miles. “This could be massive,” Silberg said.
Driverless cars are expected to make travel both safer and cheaper. With human error responsible for 90% 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 drivers’ time, said Don MacKenzie, a University of Washington transportation researcher. That cost comes down dramatically when people can use their travel time productively on other tasks.
A study by MacKenzie and other researchers published in the journal Transportation Research: Part A estimates that the vehicles can cut the cost of travel by as much as 80%. That in turn drives up miles traveled by 60%.
“You are talking about a technology that promises to make travel safer, cheaper, more convenient. And when you do that, you’d better expect people are going to do more of it,” MacKenzie said.
There’s a fork ahead in this driverless road, says a report by Lauren Isaac, manager of sustainable transportation at WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, that envisions either utopia or a nightmare.