More Good Questions about Self-Driving Cars

Will Self-Driving Cars re-write the rules for intersection design?
Will Self-Driving Cars re-write the rules for intersection design?

by James A. Bacon

Nat Bottingheimer, a former executive with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), has been asking the same kinds of questions that I have about the impact of self-driving cars (SDCs) on transportation policy and human settlement patterns. Writing in Greater Greater Washington, he urges transportation planners to begin thinking about the potential impact of SDCs on everything from the demand for highways and mass transit to ride sharing and parking. Says he: “Planners and place-making advocates will need to step up their game.”

In my previous cogitations, I had focused mainly on two potential impacts: (1) reducing the perceived cost of long-distance commuting by allowing drivers to spend time on non-driving tasks like reading email and surfing the web, and (2) enhancing the advantages of shared car-ownership and shared car-ridership services that allow more people to live car-free lifestyles. The implications, to the limited extent that I had thought them through, pointed to a taffy-pulling effect on the urban form that would favor high-density communities in the urban core and low-density communities on the metropolitan periphery.

Bottingheimer raises other issues. They include (with my editorial elaborations):

  • Highway capacity. If SDCs can travel faster at closer distances, the potential exists to increase highway capacity without the need to add new lanes. Asks Bottingheimer: “How can planners today [ensure] that scarce infrastructure dollar are spent on things that might be less needed in the near future?”
  • Smart intersections. Could coupling SDCs with “smart” traffic lights make it possible to increase the through-put of intersections without the need for widening?
  • Complete streets. Can SDCs, with their advanced collision-avoidance technologies, make it easier to design intersections that accommodate a mixing of cars, pedestrians and bicycles?
  • Mass transit. Will SDCs erode the demand for transit, especially in low-density settings? Conversely, will driverless buses enhance the economics of transit? (For that matter, will driverless minibuses make jitney services a winning proposition?)
  • Paratransit. Will SDCs increase mobility for the elderly and handicapped, populations that cannot drive themselves? If so, how will that impact the demand for paratransit services?
  • Parking. What impact will SDCs have on park-and-rides if drivers let their cars drop them off at a destination and then drive themselves home? Could SDCs improve parking utilization when combined with emerging smart-parking technologies that identify empty spaces and vary the parking rate with supply and demand?

American states and municipalities spend billions of dollars a year building transportation infrastructure — streets, roads, highways, mass transit, sidewalks, bike lanes, parking. Those investments typically have life cycles of 30 years or more. Yet, as a study by IHS Automotive predicts, cars capable of assuming all driving functions will be hitting the highways by 2025, only 11 years from now.

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13 responses to “More Good Questions about Self-Driving Cars”

  1. so.. would self-driving cars render Jitney’s and Uber obsolete?

    inquiring minds would like to know!


  2. bonus question – would the Taxi “cartels” and Municipal transit operators vigorously opposed self-driving cars that would / could put them out of business?

  3. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    As an old financial executive at AIG I wonder what will be the effect on that industry. Will rates fall? Will companies refuse to write coverage for autos that do not have the technology or will the market be such that companies will no longer be in the business.? This will certainly be an interesting experiment for actuaries during the transition.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Jim Bacon doesn’t believe that historical population trends can be extrapolated for use in determining new road construction needs because the old patterns may not hold. However, he wants to take robot cars into account as a reducer of road needs.

    There may be bigger issues afoot.

    First, driverless cars are robot cars. Like robotized forklifts there is no reason to think that they won’t be able to operate by themselves – without a human in the vehicle. If drone airplanes can take off, fly around, kill a terrorist or two and then land why can’t driverless cars operate without a human inside? Let’s call these things what they really are – robot cars.

    My guess is that robot cars would upend transit in ways nobody can imagine. For starters, I’d expect the impact of robot cars to be very different at different income levels.

    People of modest means will be able to afford neither the robot car nor personal rides from robot cars. However, if robots can drive cars than they can drive buses too. Since the bus companies will be able to avoid the cost of paying a human driver perhaps they will be able to accommodate more routes (turning marginal routes profitable) or lower fares.

    Middle income people may be able to forgo multiple car ownership. Robot cars could be distributed in automated garages around a city, suburb or exurb. People with regular commutes could schedule a robot car pickup and take the car to and from work. If they are willing to adjust their schedule to allow for multi-passenger pickups then the robot car company will discount their fare. Multi – car families may become single or no car families.

    Upper income people may disburse further and further into the countryside. Many busy executives have several hours of reading and/or e-mails to get through each day. The robot car ride to and from work would allow them to work while they move. People could live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and have robot car service take them to and from work in Washington, DC each day. The 90 minute commute (each way) would allow for 3 hours of work time during the commute. An 11 hour work day might start at 6:30 in Oxford, MD, progress to 8 hours in an office in DC and end with a drop off back home at 5:30 pm back in Oxford – allowing plenty of time for a cold one at Schooners (since the robot, not the human, would be driving – no fear of a DWI). In fact, the robot car could stop at Dunkin Doughnuts near Oxford each morning and pick up a hot coffee and breakfast sandwich for the passenger’s ride into DC. A robot Winnebago might even take the well heeled commuter home with a gym in the back allowing for a good workout on the return commute. Busy Moms and Dads will no longer spend hours trucking little Suzie to and from soccer practice – robot cars will do that.

    There will be no more bus drivers, cab drivers, limo drivers, school bus drivers, driver education teachers, long haul truckers, tour bus drivers, postmen in vehicles and far fewer Fed Ex / DHL / UPS delivery truck drivers.

    How many middle class jobs would that eliminate? 10M? 20M? 30M?

    There are many good questions about driverless cars. And somewhere far down the prioritized list of questions is whether those cars will reduce the need for roads.

    1. I find your conjecture very plausible — on all accounts. Your commuting-from-the-Eastern-Shore scenario could very well come true.

    2. there’s another interesting issue with regard to transit.. which is the idea that HOV for say 15 is better than 15 SOV in terms of capacity and congestion.

      but why would driverless cars continue that paradigm and instead just change to providing one car per customer and actually put MORE traffic on the roads? driverless buses brings on visions of far side cartoon with a bus full of hapless victims at the mercy of a bus computer gone amok.

      I would think the safety issues with driverless buses would make them much less feasible than driverless cars… at least in the early going.

      Also.. we’re talking about driverless cars driving closer together. Unless they are “platooning” – in a tightly-connected row with the first car begin the controller – at 55mph they are going 88 ft per second and they’d have to keep that kind of distance as a separate vehicles – and if you think about it on a highly congested road especially when there are kefuffles with folks lined up behind left lane squatters… at 70+ mph.. you don’t have that level of separation anyhow.

      I think we’re still a long, long way from soup-to-nuts true driverless vehicles myself

      1. billsblots Avatar

        we have plenty of drivers who are nuts already.

    3. re: dispersing

      1. – The IRS thinks it costs 56.5 cents a mile to operate a vehicle.. Robot cars are not time/space machines.. there’s still real monetary and time costs…

      2. – tolls – more roads will be using tolls including congestion tolls… and they will add to costs also.

      In other words – a robot car is not going to be any less costly to operate than a driver car and perhaps more if the insurance is higher.

  5. accurate Avatar

    One issue that I don’t think has been addressed. Who is at fault, who will be sued if you driverless car causes an accident? A component fails, something is not calibrated. The owner doesn’t bring it in for the ‘scheduled’ tuneup/maintenance. Or again, if the maintenance IS done but a component fails. Who is held responsible? How is that ascertained? When the accident results with a life long injury or a fatality? Who is at fault?

    1. Good question Accurate! but you should already know the answer being a Conservative fellow.

      Soon to appear on your auto insurance policy will be a new govt-mandated item called ” driverless car rider”.

      Like the uninsured motorist “fee”, it won’t be voluntary… we’ll all pay for it.

      now don’t you feel ashamed for not knowing that already?


  6. Several years ago, after I rode in one, I wrote about autonomous vehicles. They have great potential, I admit, BUT I wonder why no airports have them? Certainly, the tracked trains/buses between terminals could go to 1) great savings of money; 2) much more versatility because they could be re-programed to go other (off-track) places; 3) many fewer issues in implementing because the terrain across the airport, including the third dimensional terrain (height) could easily be inserted into the brain.

    If airports, therefore, seem reluctant to invest in the major cost savings of no tracks (which comes with the benefit of more shared-use space) in a system where there already are zero “driver egos,” I wonder if the great potential will actually come to pass???

    1. here’s a situation where they’re going to start using them right now and, as usual, smooth the way for the transition to civilian use:

      U.S. Army and Lockheed Martin Complete Advanced Autonomous Convoy Demonstration

  7. As part of my work as research director at the non-profit think tank Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES) in Seattle, I’m selecting the most informative web pages on self-driving cars and posting them every day or so at Free access, no sign up required.

    There is a new posting there on risk factors from the actuary’s professional journal in UK, at

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