Self-driving cars could be the answer to our crushing commutes, say some experts

SEATTLE -- Sick of traffic? It's gotten bad. Really bad. Studies have shown the Seattle area has some of the worst traffic in the country.

Self-driving cars could be the answer to our crushing commutes. At least, that’s the claim from some transportation experts. They say if we let vehicles do the driving, traffic will decrease.

“It’s totally  time to change the thinking when it comes to transportation," says John Niles, research director at the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions.

The city of Seatac hired the transportation researcher to design a program using self-driving vehicles. His plan now under consideration by the city includes running six self-driving shuttles, similar to some already in use in Las Vegas, Nevada and Madison, Wisconsin.

The autonomous shuttles in Seatac would pick people up at their homes in certain Seatac neighborhoods, then drop them at the Tukwila International Boulevard Transit Station, where they would have access to the Link light rail or buses, to get where they need to go.

He says the self-driving shuttles are the key, taking people to and from the transit center right to their front door, making them more likely to use mass transit.

“They allow the expansion of ride services," Niles explains. "They create new services that allow people to leave their cars at home and maybe not even buy a second car.”

He’s not the only one who believes self-driving cars could take traditional cars off the road.

The economic argument

“This is going to be much cheaper than owning your own car,” says Daniel Malarkey, senior fellow at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank focused on environmental solutions.

He subscribes to a theory that gaining popularity among some traffic experts that self-driving cars will make ride-sharing services so cheap, it will make financial sense NOT to own a car.

Here's a breakdown of the theory:


    Malarkey says, “It’s economics. It’s just pure economics. I want this because I can put two, three, four, five-thousand bucks in my back pocket each year by getting rid of my car.”

    Not everyone’s convinced.

    Mark Hallenbeck is the director of the Washington State Transportation Center.

    When it comes to self-driving cars, he says, "They will create a series of significant problems that we will also have to address.”

    The biggest problem, according to Hallenbeck, is if the cars can really do the driving, people will send off their vehicles to run their errands. Why not have your car pick up the groceries, dry cleaning, dinner, and the kids?

    “In my lifetime they (self-driving cars) will make it (congestion) worse," says Hallenbeck.

    Clearly there’s disagreement about autonomous vehicles and their potential impact on our traffic.

    Getting insights from Inrix

    We took the topic to Inrix, a global leader in studying traffic data, headquartered in Kirkland. Knowing self-driving cars could revolutionize the way we travel, the company has been devoting time and resources to studying the potential impacts.

    Concerning if autonomous vehicles will help or hurt our congestion, Avery Ash, the autonomous vehicles lead at Inrix, says, "The jury is very much still out.”

    According to Inrix, that's because self-driving cars are so new and untested, unproven, and thus far unavailable to provide enough insights on their potential impacts on traffic.

    Inrix did a study looking at how people actually travel around cities, then came up with a list of the cities that could benefit the most from a deployment of shared highly autonomous vehicles

    Seattle was ranked number 18 in the country. New Orleans topped the list.

    Still, Ash says, self-driving cars could be part of the solution to reducing congestion.

    “Certainly could be," he says. "And that’s why it’s important that we continue to explore the technology and continue to find ways to bring it to market that are safe and, most importantly, meet consumer needs.”

    A new crossroads in transportation

    According to Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of the ride-sharing company Zipcar, self-driving cars will take us to one of two places when it comes to our commutes: Heaven or Hell.

    She created this video to warn others, saying "If we act now, we can control the outcome."

    “There are pluses and minuses," Chase says about self-driving technology. "I want to make sure that we end up on the plus-only side. The bad side is that we will use these cars to do every single blessed thing we haven’t imagined before.”

    But wait, traffic is already terrible! How do we avoid the hell scenario?

    “The way we avoid hell is we have to make it more expensive to drive during rush hour,” Chase says. “The only way you can correct congestion is to charge for it.”

    She says the regulators must make it more expensive to own and operate a self-driving car, so people turn to ride-sharing, getting vehicles off the road.

    For other stories about self-driving cars and their impacts on safety, traffic, and our transportation, click here:

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