Could Self-Driving Cars Worsen Traffic Jams?

Motor vehicle technology has come a long way from our first tentative experiments with the wheel. Over the years, there has been rising interest in self-driving cars, especially as Tesla’s self-driving technology becomes more popular. As the technology has evolved, there have been talks of how self-driving cars will reduce traffic deaths, drop harmful emissions by more than 50% and eliminate stop-and-go waves by 100%. And Tesla isn’t the only major corporation in the autonomous vehicle game. Players like Uber and BMW are also looking into developing self-driving cars and services.

However, while self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionize the flow of people and goods and increase safety on the road, studies have shown that self-driving vehicles could make traffic jams worse. For instance, a 2018 study sought to see how subjects in the San Francisco Bay area would use self-driving cars by giving them a free chauffeur-driven vehicle for an entire week, and the results were quite interesting. There was an increase in vehicle-miles traveled and the number of trips, especially in the evening hours. Additionally, a substantial portion of the trips were made on a ‘zero occupancy’ basis, with no riders in the car.

According to lead author Mustaphia Harb of the University of California, having a privately owned autonomous vehicle might not only encourage people to take the car for trips they would not have bothered with before, but it could also lead to the rise of what he calls ‘ghost trips’. “A bike or walking trip to the store to pick up a chocolate bar will not be as attractive as the convenient option of sending an empty car to do the pickup,” he says.

“We have been working hard on increasing the number of people in cars and encouraging pooling. With autonomous vehicles, we will actually have cars with zero people on the roads. The problem is that zero occupancy vehicle trips are very convenient.” With self-driving technology, people would be more likely to send out their vehicles for pickups, resulting in more vehicles on the road.

More recent research by Adam Millard-Ball, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz, suggests that self-driving vehicles may decide to stay on the road for longer periods of time to avoid paying for parking. “Planners and EV designers seem to have some expectations that the cars would do what was socially optimal, that they’ll behave with the interests of the city in mind. But we know that’s not how individuals and firms behave. They do what is best for them.”

This is an aspect that may call for policymakers and city planners working together with green auto companies like Nikola Corporation (NASDAQ: NKLA) to come up with remedies to the expected increase in traffic jams once autonomous cars become commonplace.

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