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Could Driverless Cars Lead to Gridlock Rather Than Congestion Improvements?

Could Driverless Cars Lead to Gridlock Rather Than Congestion Improvements?

Driverless vehicle technology is widely thought to be close to becoming a reality. A robo-taxi pilot project for paying customers is expected to be launched by Alphabet unit Waymo later this year in Phoenix, Arizona. While estimates on mainstream rollout of the technology vary, and are also reliant on legislators giving the green light, most analysts believe that autonomous vehicles will be a new normal within a decade.

As well as handing travel time back to drivers who will be able to work or relax while commuting in driverless vehicles, one of the biggest advantages promoted by those developing the latest technology in the world of AI-powered cars is that they will minimise congestion. Being able to travel much closer to each other in convoy, optimise routes, cut out human error and not requiring street parking are all put forward as factors that will help traffic jams become a thing of the past in the driverless tech era.

However, the World Economic Forum this week cast doubt on whether autonomous vehicles will really result in decreased congestion. In fact, quite the opposite may be the case according to researchers analysing the consequences for the organisation best known for its annual meeting in Davos at which world leaders meet to discuss the global economic development agenda.

A complex traffic simulation model based on Boston added in variables based on the assumption that on-demand driverless taxi services will increase the number of vehicles on the road generally. This was based on the prediction that commuters will opt for cheap driverless services for short journeys to fill in public transport gaps. Now they would walk those short distances. Three years of research has come to the conclusion that this will mean city centre travel times increasing by around 6% in Boston and potentially significantly more in even busier cities.

The good news is that the same theoretical traffic modelling reached the conclusion that travel times will be reduced by over 10% in city suburbs. Cities will also eventually require only around half of the parking space currently needed. This will free up space that could widen roads, be used by businesses or for residential housing development.

The research was commissioned as part of the World Economic Forum’s attempts to help international governments prepare for the major changes that a new era of autonomous vehicles is expected to bring. By 2035-2040, driverless cars are expected to account for around 25% of the wider market.

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