The study was fairly straightforward, they have people cars with drivers, and studied how their vehicle use changed.
Many more trips and many more miles driven, meaning more congestion and more waste and pollution:
A few years ago, Mustapha Harb realized there was a problem in his field of research about how autonomous cars will change the way people travel. The solution to the problem he settled on was as simple as it was revealing.
One did not have to look far for studies and articles suggesting fleets of self-driving cars could, for example, reduce traffic. These techno-utopian articles claimed the same highways we use today could, with slight modifications, accommodate many more autonomous vehicles than they do human-driven cars. AVs could, using more precise control systems, follow one another at much closer distances. Similarly, lanes could be narrowed, accommodating perhaps six lanes where there are only five today.
These promises were, and remain, the foundation upon which AV utopianism has been built: a greener, safer, faster, and more pleasant transportation future just around the corner.
But, Harb found, these promises couldn’t be checked. After all, self-driving cars didn’t exist yet.
Harb, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was intimately familiar with the research already done on the subject in his field. Most of it consisted of surveying which, while far from perfect, was the best approach available.
“You would send people a survey,” Harb described, “like, hey, there’s a self-driving car in the future, how do you think your travel will change in the future?”
These studies, flawed as they were, found something very different from the rosy future AV companies wanted investors and the public to imagine. They found reason to believe AVs would drastically increase the number of vehicle miles traveled, commonly shortened to “VMT” in academic literature.
And the more vehicles miles traveled, all else being equal, the more traffic and emissions we can expect, canceling out many of the AV’s touted benefits.
While the survey results were potentially alarming, it was difficult for researchers like Harb to put too much stock into them. Some surveys predicted only a few percentage points increase in VMT in a self-driving car future. Others, upwards of 90 percent.
But his advisor, Professor Joan Walker, had an idea. What if they hired chauffeurs to drive random people around?
The chauffeur, Walker outlined, will do the driving for you. And, just like the most optimistic AV future of fully autonomous robot cars zooming around, you don’t even have to be in the car.
“All these things the self-driving car can do for you in the future,” Harb summarized, “a chauffeur can do for you today.”
The concept, once it reached published form, elicited praise and jealousy from other researchers. “It’s delightfully clever and brazenly simple,” gushed Don MacKenzie, head of their Sustainable Transportation Lab at the University of Washington. “I wish I had thought of it.”
For example, the chauffeur could bring the kids to soccer practice and back or drive a friend home and then return to the house. They could even pick up groceries and make a Target run to simulate a driverless car future where items could get bought online and loaded into your AV by a store employee before returning home.
Harb readily admits the study is not perfect, nor is it likely to prove the most accurate predictor of what our autonomous vehicle future looks like. But it is, by many estimates, the best first approximation we have.
And that approximation is, in key ways, a vision of things to come.
Harb thought they would see people sending their cars out more than if they were driving themselves, something like a 20 or 30 percent increase in VMT with the chauffeurs. Nothing to sneeze at, of course, but towards the middle of the wide range of the results the surveys had suggested.
He was wrong. The subjects increased how many miles their cars covered by a collective 83 percent when they had the chauffeur versus the week prior.
To put these findings in perspective, when researchers looked into the impact Uber and Lyft have had on urban congestion, they reported an increase in VMT in the single digits. San Francisco, which has seen some of the largest percentage increase of cars driving around in its downtown thanks to Uber and Lyft, had an increased VMT of 12.8 percent.
Knowing how much gridlock and traffic those rideshare cars have added to the city, imagine six and a half times as much car driving as that is almost impossible.
But none of the researchers Jalopnik spoke to believe those flaws detract from the overarching, real-world conclusion: AVs will change people’s behavior in profound ways. MacKenzie called it “probably the best data we have based on actual, measured behavior.”
There are places for self-driving cars, but the reality envisioned by folks like Elon Musk is a looks to be rather dystopian.