Transportation Moving Forward

The two questions I’m most commonly asked when people learn that I’m a traffic engineer are: “Can you do something about [such and such] intersection?” and “What affect do you think self-driving cars will have on transportation?” The answer to the first question is usually: “Tell the Department of Transportation to hire CALYX. We can fix it.” The answer to the second question is long winded. I am a traffic engineer, after all.

What will be the impact of self-driving cars (also called autonomous vehicles or AVs)? Dr. Michael Hunter of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Go Jackets!) has presented on this topic at the national level. He says people should first ask the question, “What is it going to be like when many, but not all, of the vehicles on the road are autonomous?” Who will assume the right-of-way—the people or the computers? In stop-and-go traffic, the current automated vehicle, adhering to the uniform rules of the road, won’t stop with its turn signal on, waiting for a nice person to let it change lanes. Moreover, Dr. Hunter says that the people-driven cars might take advantage of the driverless vehicles.

One way that the vehicle fleet could become automated is by way of the insurance companies. Suppose that insurance companies find that AVs are unlikely to be in a serious crash. The cost of insurance for those AVs should drop, right? People would likely buy more of them, leaving fewer people-driven car owners to share the load of insurance premiums. The cost of insurance premiums for people-driven cars could skyrocket and the majority of the driving population could make the shift to AVs. The time period for a mixed national fleet could be relatively short in this scenario.

But…will we even own our cars in the future?

Many believe that society will shift from owning a car to owning a subscription to a class of vehicle that can be ordered on-demand. You will simply use an app that hails a self-driving, electric car, perhaps with other passengers in tow. The app has already told the vehicle where to go and has optimized not only the passenger mix, but the vehicle type/size for the intended trips. It is a ride-share controlled by crowd source and driven by… well, no one. When you’re done with the car you ordered, it gets checked out to someone else or moors at a holding area until called upon.

Who needs a car that is going to just sit in a garage or parking lot 22 hours a day? Who wants to pay taxes on it or insure it if it’s going to be used so seldom? If the answer is, “not me,” the shift in transportation will be significant.

There will be unintended consequences, though. One small example—ruts in the road. Auburn University operates a test track for pavement evaluation in Lee County, AL. Their purpose is to examine different applications of pavement under various test conditions. They hire college students to drive their two-mile test track over and over again to measure repetitive loading on the road. They once experimented with self-driving trucks, but found that they never deviated from their path and wore ruts in the pavement.

In the grand scheme of things, ruts are pretty trivial. Technology will overcome that. The social impacts could be much more obvious. Sprawl in major cities will increase as people choose to live further and further from the job centers. The number of parking decks needed in metropolitan areas will decrease as these cars-for-hire move on to the next client instead of being parked. Even today, developers in metropolitan areas are building level-floor parking decks with higher ceilings and ramps along the outside of the structure so they can be converted to office or residential units in the future.

The impact of self-driving vehicles on transportation and our culture will be significant. How long it will take remains to be seen. As for the transportation industry and traffic engineers like me, when technology changes, so do we. We will adapt to meet the needs of the public…and any form transportation takes.