The Point, Counterpoint on the Dystopian Vision of Driverless Cars – Part 2

In Part 1 of our two-part series, I discussed my views on a dystopian vision as it relates to driverless cars. Dystopia is defined as “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.”

As a traffic planner I thought it was worth providing my point of view. Many are worried what will happen when driverless cars hit the roads. But, like anything new, it doesn’t happen all at once and humans are good at changing and incorporating new ways of living into their lives. Remember a time before email? This second post hopefully provides additional real-world views of life with self-driving cars.

One of the points in the dystopian view suggests that there will be many more new activities in self-driving vehicles, such as working, sleeping, board games, technology entertainment. This is most likely true. But there is also the thought that self-driving cars will turn into meth labs on wheels, similar to the TV series “Breaking Bad.” As with most things in life, you can use something for good, or bad, purposes. It really depends on the person.

Another dystopian view indicates that there will be poorer outcomes because people will not have to walk as much with a point-to-point delivery system. Whether or not walking and biking will be reduced with automated vehicles is something that is clearly possible and where the jury is out on the results. But, people will still enjoy biking and walking for other purposes, such as enjoying the great outdoors, exercising, or spending time with friends or family.

Currently, there are roughly 2 million jobs associated with drivers of cars and trucks. There is no question that those types of jobs will be lost. The onslaught of the computer revolution also resulted in the loss of jobs but they did not happen overnight and clearly, those who had jobs that were displaced by the computer revolution were retrained or found better paying jobs. Essentially, the jobs evolved into other, different jobs within the same industry.

Incident traffic, such as rubbernecking, and major car accidents will be dramatically reduced. It is predicted that most, if not all, of the 30,000 deaths currently caused by motor vehicles each year in the United States will be wiped out!

Right now, only six percent of government agencies or state DOTs are taking positive actions to deal with the future’s autonomous vehicles. Government will need to face the fact that these types of vehicles will be on our roads. Driverless vehicles may very well replace public transit buses. Is that a good thing? In my opinion, yes.  Those who need transportation to a job during non-traditional work hours need a way to get to work. Operating transit vehicles at night with just a few passengers is a waste of time and taxpayer money. It will be far better to have self-driving autonomous vehicles or pooled services that can move the same amount of passengers in a smaller vehicle without the cost and expense of a 45-passenger bus with a driver moving throughout the city in a very uneconomical way.

Will governments need to find a new source of revenue because gas tax income will go away? Yes. Will governments need to find a new way to replace red-light running and speeding tickets because that revenue will go away? Yes.

Will Governments need to charge by vehicle miles traveled? Very likely. Will urban congestion increase? I’m not convinced that that is going to occur. The platooning of vehicles may very well reduce the congestion that is forecasted in the dystopian view.

Will roadway capacity increase or decrease? In my opinion, roadway capacity will increase dramatically because 12 foot wide lanes may very easily become eight foot or nine foot lanes and widening roadways may never be needed again. There will likely be up to 30% fewer vehicles overall (some predict more than 30% reduction) but vehicle miles travelled will likely increase. Will Government continue to require high occupancy vehicle lanes even with self-driving cars? Likely yes.

In summary, the dystopian view prepared by Torti Gallas and Partners is an excellent document and provides a thought-provoking set of circumstances that clearly will need to be discussed and issues that will need to be resolved as automated self-driving vehicles become the norm versus the exception. The issues that were brought up by Torti Gallas and Partners are excellent and will provide a forum and a basis for on-going discussion and resolution by both the public and private sector.

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