Yesterday, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) released its report on the impact of autonomous vehicles on the United States workforce.
Though there are short-term costs such as jobs that were previously done by humans being replaced by automation, the report argues that the benefits far outweigh the costs for the American worker.
There is certainly a lot of evidence for this, as self-driving vehicles can avoid both traffic jams and accidents more capably than a human driver. This makes trips both safer and quicker for passengers. The report also notes that workers can recoup the time spent commuting by doing other things instead of driving, which can lead to a larger range of reasonable commute distances, opening up new opportunities for employment farther away.
But this very fact could lead to more congestion. When driving becomes easier or faster, this encourages more people to drive, thus leading to more cars on the road and more congestion through a process called induced demand. The same phenomenon is present when car infrastructure is enlarged to lower congestion. While vehicles move more freely for a little while, this increased speed encourages more people to get in cars until traffic returns to previous levels.
The report acknowledges that it does not account for induced demand and that future research is needed on the subject. Much of the new demand for AVs will be from currently under-served people such as those with disabilities or the inability to afford their own car. It is crucial that these people have access to rapid transportation, but if congestion worsens due to new technology, the gains from AVs could be erased.
Induced demand must be in the forefront of policy-makers’ minds as full deployment of AVs approaches. While the effects on congestion can be mitigated through ride sharing, coordination between vehicles allowing them to travel closer together, and congestion pricing, the simple mathematics of space in dense metropolitan areas means that AVs cannot supplant traditional mass transit solutions.
Cities should embrace AVs for all of their potential benefits, but we should still strive to reduce vehicle miles traveled through transportation demand management and improvements to bus, bike, and transit infrastructure. The car – even a self-driving one – should be a supplemental transportation mode so that space is preserved for people and high-capacity vehicles to use the roadways without interminable congestion.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.