Friday, December 16, 2016


Won't all the extra self-driving cars cause unbelievable congestion?

No. Owners of fleets of driverless cars will resent their vehicles sat motionless in queues as much as individuals do. But they will have a massive economic imperative to promote different ways of rationing road use at busy times, and the money/influence to get governments to give them their way.

Traffic jams are the chaotic result of too many people wanting to arrive in the same place in a short time (eg 0800-0900 in a city centre) - slow moving traffic and queues do the job of spreading the arrival times over a longer period. As long as the demand comes from millions of vehicles each controlled separately, chaos will continue: scheduling trips to avoid traffic jams would require government intervention that would be politically unsellable.

But at the point where most of the vehicles on the road are run by a few massive network operators, a trip-scheduling system becomes irresistible. We will stop using queues as the rationing mechanism and move to the mechanism that works so well for capitalism - pricing.

The limited slots for a driverless vehicle to deliver you, undelayed, to a city centre for 0830 on a weekday will command premium prices - which will settle down to the level that the richest are willing to pay. The poor will end up being "priced out" of travel at busy times: those who cannot walk or cycle will only afford trips that get them into the city at times nobody else wants to travel. Those no-longer-needed car parks will sprout basic shelters where the poor can while away the time between their too-early arrival on a low-priced autotaxi and the time at which their employer (or hospital consultant) is ready for them to arrive.

So, no traffic jams - just a replication of the way we allocate seats in planes: convenience for the rich who travel when they want, while the poor are priced away from the more convenient slots, to the times when there is capacity that nobody else wants.

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