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In A Driverless Car World, The Reduced Traffic Will Save Us Billions

But only if we also introduce more tolls to discourage unnecessary driving.

In A Driverless Car World, The Reduced Traffic Will Save Us Billions
[Photo: Thaddaeus Lim via Unsplash]

Aside from being very annoying, traffic congestion is a major brake on the economy. When people are stuck in jams, they’re not working, they’re not delivering goods, they’re not consuming goods, and they’re very stressed out. From an economic (and personal) point of view, none of these things is good.

But looked at in another way, congestion represents a major opportunity. If we could somehow cut the number of cars on the road, or ensure those cars moved more efficiently, we could add billions to the GDP, and perhaps create jobs at the same time. How? According to a new working paper, by employing driverless cars in large numbers, and by introducing more tolls to pay for roads.

The paper, published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, estimates that if California had cut congestion by 50% in 2010–a big if–it would have created 350,000 jobs, added $35 billion to the economy, and improved wages by $14 billion. The way the state could’ve done this, the researchers said, was by switching largely to driverless cars. Extrapolated to the U.S. as a whole, researchers Clifford Winston and Quentin Karpilow write that reducing congestion in this way could add at least $214 billion in GDP, boost labor incomes by $90 billion, and create 2.4 million jobs, likely in autonomous vehicle maintenance and customer service. (For those who doubt that AVs will create jobs and will instead just leave drivers unemployed, the researchers offer the comparison of ATMs, which were expected to put bank tellers out of work. In fact, bank teller jobs have grown and more bank branches opened since the 1990s.)

In the report, the authors write:

The widespread adoption of driverless vehicles, which Google and automakers have been actively developing, testing, and perfecting, could reduce highway congestion by greatly improving the flow of traffic and by reducing vehicle accidents without increasing the monetary cost of commuting. Commuters may also choose to leave earlier or later for work because they now have more free time; they can eat breakfast or get work done in the driverless cars. In addition, driverless cars can be rented or hired as well as owned, meaning they will be accessible to many commuters.

In California, many counties have sales taxes, called “self-help taxes,” to pay for new roads. The trouble is, these taxes do little to cut congestion. A better way would be to pay for infrastructure by using “congestion pricing”–that is, by charging people to use roads when they’re busy, Winston and Karpilow write. That tactic discourages unnecessary driving, and encourages people to carpool or take different routes to save money. Implementing congestion pricing at a wider scale could also help us sidestep one potential slippery slope of our driverless future–failing to curb our over-dependence on vehicles, just because we’re not the ones driving them.

Of course, this is all a bit theoretical at the moment. Driverless cars aren’t expected to go on sale before the early-2020s and, even then, they’re likely to take a decade or more to reach critical mass. Congestion pricing–tolls–are generally unpopular and politically challenging, despite being fairer on non-drivers and better for road management. Reducing congestion is necessary, but history shows that will be harder to achieve than it seems. Given that cars aren’t going anywhere, though–just changing automation–we need to start figuring out this issue now.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.