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In A Driverless Car Future, More People Will “Drive” Because They Don’t Need A License

Teens and the elderly will be less dependent on others, but they might clog the roads with more traffic.

In A Driverless Car Future, More People Will “Drive” Because They Don’t Need A License
[Top Photo: Mecky/Getty Images]

Driverless cars could lead to even more cars on the roads than we have today. This is almost entirely down to the fact that people without licenses will be able to use cars without bumming a ride off anyone else, according to a new report from the University of Michigan Transportation Institute.

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There are a surprising number of people who don’t travel by car because they don’t have a drivers license. The reasons for not having a license are varied, say the report’s authors Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, but in many cases, today’s non-drivers will become future “drivers,” because future cars will do their driving for them.

Bart Everett via Shutterstock

The study looked at the number of new “drivers” likely to use autonomous vehicles, along with the distances they will travel. It found that we can expect 11% more traffic in extra journeys, but that the lengths and kinds of trips won’t change much at all. People will use cars for the same old things: driving half a mile to the local strip mall, burning gas just so they can “relax,” and so on. This distribution is important, as we shall see in a moment.

Today, significantly fewer young people have a license. In 1983, 84% of 18-19 year olds held a license. Thirty years later, in 2013, that number had dropped to 66%. The drop is smaller amongst 30-39 year olds (95.8% to 87%), but still significant. The authors conducted a survey in 2014 to find out why, and found the following reasons:

  • Too busy or not enough time to get a driver’s license
  • Owning and maintaining a vehicle is too expensive
  • Able to get transportation from others
  • Prefer to bike or walk
  • Prefer to use public transportation
  • Disability/medical/vision problem
  • Never learned or still learning to drive
  • Able to communicate and/or conduct business online instead
  • Concerned about how driving impacts the environment
  • Do not like to drive/afraid to drive
  • Legal issue

Some of these, like preferring to go by bike or concern about the environmental impact of driving, are unlikely to be affected by the opportunity to use a driverless car. But others are neutralized if the need for a license is removed entirely–too busy, medical condition, and so on. Quite a few, in fact. The study estimates how many extra people would take to the road and finds that, across the full age range of 18-39 year olds, 50% of those reasons evaporate.

Using statistics, the authors calculated the likely increase in miles driven thanks to autonomous cars. The overall increase is 11%, but more startling is how much more the kids will use cars in the future. The number of miles driven by 18-19 year olds jumps 28% in a driverless future.

Sutichak Yachiangkham via Shutterstock

Environmentally, this seems disastrous. Our roads may be safer when we stop humans from piloting automobiles through our city streets, mere inches away from soft, fleshy pedestrians, but our air will become more polluted.

But that, thankfully, isn’t the whole story. Earlier I mentioned the distribution of trip distances. Young people, say Sivak and Schoettle, make short journeys almost exclusively. 65% of trips made by 15-17 year olds are under five miles. This frees them from the “range anxiety” that stops many people from switching to electric cars. The catch, though, is that 58% of trips made by all ages of drivers are also under five miles, and only 5% of trips are above 30 miles. Yet despite this, many people still won’t go electric because of this range anxiety.

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Those hoping for a more rosy future based on autonomous electric vehicles needn’t panic quite yet. The authors concentrated on a specific scenario–what would happen if many non-drivers gained access to personal vehicles, but they left out several other factors, including the possibility that driverless vehicles will lead to more shared vehicle use or that young people don’t in fact jump in cars as soon as they become available without a license. It also doesn’t track the possibility that cars can operate solo, without passengers, which would disrupt current usage patterns quite a bit–by being able to pick up and drop off an owner, for example.

It would be a missed opportunity if the switch to autonomous vehicles didn’t lead to a large change in the infrastructure and usage patterns of personal transport. And it seems like there might not be a universal result. Much like fork between automatic cars in the U.S., and manual-shift cars almost everywhere else in the world, the future of driving will almost certainly vary across the world.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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