Fully autonomous vehicles may make us safer, but could add to traffic

Split of benefits and costs could spark much-needed national transportation discussion

Just what a future transportation system with autonomous vehicles looks like isn’t completely clear-cut.

However, Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas-based leading academic on the subject, has predictions for their economic impacts. In a South by Southwest presentation last week, she put forth a rapid-fire, yet nuanced, synopsis of the numerous studies she’s completed with UT students on an approaching autonomous future.

“I don’t think these cars are going to help us with congestion. I think they’re going to make it worse,” Kockelman said, adding this this will be an area that will require crucial legislation. “But I think they will save us on safety.”

Safety is certainly a top selling point upon which auto and tech experts will rely as they push autonomous vehicles as a future transportation solution.

The nearly 33,000 U.S. traffic deaths and 6 million crashes in 2014, according to Kockelman, created a cost of more than $500 billion. Driver error caused more than 90 percent of those crashes, and she said AVs would dramatically reduce that number, since at least 40 percent of those deaths resulted from alcohol, drugs, fatigue, and/or distraction.

With 100 percent adoption of AVs, the country would gain $488 billion annually in “pain and suffering” avoided from car crashes. That equates to $1,530 each year per person in the United States.

The congestion side may be a much trickier message for auto and tech experts to pitch to the public. Kockelman calculated that, in 2014, traffic created 7 billion hours of delay and caused $160 billion in economic loss.

On top of that, the bonus of “productivity en route” would be a $645 billion gain to the economy each year.

Add together the two economic gains – pain and suffering plus productivity – and the country would save a whopping $1.4 trillion in costs. On the per capita side, that comes to $4,419 per person in the country.

However, Kockelman balances the positives with the many consequences that would likely domino throughout society, including:

  • Longer travel distances, including people more likely to take induced driverless trips to destinations they currently wouldn’t drive to due to stress or other factors
  • More driving trips by people who are presently unlicensed or have barriers to driving
  • Less air travel by passengers
  • Less rail travel by freight
  • Possibly larger, less-efficient vehicles for longer trips, and
  • More sprawling land use

Kockelman and Loftus-Otway presenting at SXSW. Photo by author.

Kockelman continued, saying these side effects could, in turn, increase congestion and infrastructure damage in many places. This would create a need for “systems to be operated more efficiently, equitably, and sustainably, including incentives for ride-sharing and non-motorized travel, route guidance, credit-based congestion pricing, and micro-tolling.”

“We’re going to see a lot more travel, but hopefully we’ll travel together, so that will avoid congestion,” she said. Kockelman added that improved technology should make tolling more efficient and that better public transportation and true ridesharing (as opposed to Uber- and Lyft-like ride-hailing) will be keys along the autonomous path.

Perhaps most importantly, she and her co-presenter Lisa Loftus-Otway, also from UT-Austin, said AVs offer a momentary chance to have a national conversation about transportation in the U.S. – something that has never truly happened on this scale.

“We’ve never really had an honest discussion on what transportation costs us,” Loftus-Otway said. “Terminology matters and [for example, we] shouldn’t call it a gas tax. It’s really a usage fee. Growing up, I never really knew how we paid for transportation. I guess I used to think the road fairy paid for it.”

Hopefully the AVs that appear in the near-term will help people better understand how transportation works. And then again, it may take some deliberate, and creative, outreach to help people understand the issue.

“Hopefully you all have been inside [an autonomous vehicle],” Kockelman told the audience, before laughing, “I have … and it’s pretty boring.”

Photo: Busy freeway (Rafael Castillo, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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4 Comment(s)


Autonomous vehicles will definitely lead to better pricing of road transportation. Due to the built-in GPS tracking and centralized management, a proper system would deploy only the number of vehicles that the road system can handle congestion-free. So, instead we would have dynamic fares based on demand. (Much like Uber’s dynamic demand-based pricing.) This would create a road-based transportation system that would be more efficient than today’s, and lead to people shifting their transportation choice to multi-passenger shared-ride vehicles.

Gady Shlasky

Driverless vehicles are not an alternative to the personal cars that each of us use nowadays. Driverless vehicles will lead to new flexible public transportation services. People will stop buying personal cars, and will start using more and more the new public transportation services.
In 20 years from now most of the people in the world will not own personal cars, and will use public transportation. Traffic congestion will be a rare situation. Space that today is being used for parking will be released for other purposes. The environment will be cleaner and quitter.


As of last year, only 15% of people in the US had ever taken an Uber. Highly doubtful that many of those decided to get rid of their own cars because of it–or would in the future if the taxi were driverless instead of driven. It is a mostly urban convenience–when other options aren’t.

There is a mobility bubble fueled by Silicon Valley engineers who are out to disrupt professional driving by automating it. It has Detroit in a panic and racing to get to automation first. The entire race has fueled hyperbolic predictions by commentators about the end of driving, end of parking, end of ownership. All overwrought and wrong, just as people were wrong about “Ginger” (the Segway) changing the way we live and move about. Self-driving will have a bigger impact than the Ginger to be sure, but not as big or as fast as anyone is predicting. Slow rollout, slow adoption, a convenience on occasion for urban dwellers, nights out, etc. But urban planners aren’t changing plans to accommodate them; they are making livability decisions despite them. Denser modes near more popular places, easier transitions between modes, etc.

Everyone take a deep breath because driving will not be outlawed in the USA, maybe ever. Places like SF, as small, dense & isolated as it is by water on 3 sides, might some day (40-50 years from now) require people to park outside the city and use public transportation in (including driverless cabs). But pianos still need to be delivered. People do move from their homes. Kayaks need to be transported to rivers and lakes. People do go to Tahoe. All of these things will prevent the dreamy driverless future from happening in our lifetimes.

Mark steve

Oho! I just stumbled upon this blog and found it a really amazing post about autonomous vehicles safety and traffic. Thank you for sharing this blog and please keep posting.



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