Driverless Cars Won’t Make Transit Obsolete

Source: Seattle Transit Blog, Brent White

Just when you thought silly season was over for transit opponents (We should vote down ST3 because Sound Transit threw a large opening day party for U-Link!), Bryan Mistele, CEO of INRIX, a traffic-information and connected-car company based in Kirkland, has penned a ludicrous non-sequitur in the Seattle Times, arguing that the driverless car of the future will make transit obsolete, and, oh yeah, eliminate traffic congestion.

It was timely that the Times ran Mistele’s piece so soon after the first road fatality involving a car running on auto-pilot was announced. Live Science recently poked holes in the claims of the relative safety of auto-pilot technology:

“In fact, a study published in October 2015 found that self-driving cars are more likely to be in an accident. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, found that per million miles traveled, self-driving cars had a higher crash rate than traditional cars. At the time of the study, no self-driving cars had been found at fault for the crashes they were involved in.”

The technology will improve. Cars will learn to optimize their following distance (but that means that they will be 4 seconds apart, which drivers today are too impatient to do, so that means less road space available). Car computers will learn to talk to each other (hopefully better than Microsoft and Apple), and software bugs will be worked out so that computers don’t “crash” while they are in the driver seat. Everyone will want one, and be able to afford them. If you believe all that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

But even if all those improvements are possible, the broader claims about congestion reduction and transit replacement are real whoppers, a one-two punch of Deus ex Machina that fails to show its math. CleanTechnica offers a more sanguine, and partially data-driven, analysis.

“Congestion is a serious issue in developed countries, but autonomous cars are likely to be as much a part of the problem as part of the solution.”

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