Self-drive will see more cars on road

Self-driving cars are expected to usher in a new era of mobility, safety, and convenience. But people will use them too much.

Experts foresee robot cars chauffeuring children to school, dance classes, and football 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 will send their cars to buy groceries they’ve ordered online. Researchers believe the number of miles driven will skyrocket. It’s less certain whether there will be a corresponding surge in traffic congestion.

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 that navigate under most conditions may take 10 to 20 years.

KPMG predicts that autonomous ‘mobility-on-demand’ services — think Uber 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 travelled a record 3.1 trillion miles in the US last year. Increased trips in autonomous cars, by those two age groups, would boost miles travelled by an additional two trillion 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 eight trillion miles. “This could be massive,” Silberg said.

Driverless cars will be safer and cheaper. Traffic accidents, 90% of which are caused by human error, are expected to sharply reduce, and this will drive down the cost of insurance and repairs.

But the biggest cost of car travel is driver time, said Don MacKenzie, a University of Washington transportation researcher. That cost comes down dramatically when people can use their travel time on other tasks.

A study by MacKenzie and other researchers, published in the journal, Transportation Research: Part A, estimates that self-driving vehicles may cut the cost of travel by 80%. That will increase by 60% the miles travelled.

“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, which envisions utopia or a nightmare.

In the best case, congestion is reduced because driverless cars and trucks are safer and faster. Road 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. There must be a shift from private vehicle ownership to commercial fleets of driverless cars

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