Self-driving cars might make your future commute a lot more pleasant, but they won't eliminate traffic.
Execs like Google cofounder Sergey Brin have touted traffic reduction as one of the many benefits of having self-driving cars on the road. The idea is that autonomous cars will eliminate accidents caused by human error, a major contributor to traffic.
But experts say the vehicles' impact on traffic will either be minimal or negative.
Lew Fulton, a co-director at UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies (ITP), told Business Insider that autonomous vehicles won't fix congestion woes unless a pricing system is put in place that discourages zero-occupancy vehicles.
"We are especially concerned about zero-occupant vehicles that can happen with automated vehicles," Fulton said.
"That scenario is especially plausible with private ownership of those vehicles and no limits to what we can do with them."
For example, many companies are interested in programming autonomous cars to run errands or pick up packages, but these efforts could increase traffic by multiplying the number of zero-occupant cars, or "zombie cars," on the road, Fulton said.
Massachusetts lawmakers have already proposed a tax on driverless vehicles to prevent zombie cars. The bill calls for a per-mile fee of at least $0.025.
Congestion could also worsen as companies like Lucid Motors explore designing self-driving vehicles around comfort, like installing reclining seats.
Consumers may opt to live farther outside of cities if they can commute in vehicles that allow them to sleep and relax. But that sprawl increases the number of people traveling in and out of cities during rush hour, Fulton said.
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