Why driverless cars need road tolls

Credit Flickr Smoothgroover22Self-driving cars are coming, and a very good thing too – trying to steer them ourselves has killed tens of millions. But what unintended consequences might they have? It’s rash to predict, but how about: new jaywalking laws, the end of parking meters, and a desperate need for congestion charging.

 

Jaywalking

Britain has a relatively anarchic approach to pedestrians. Unlike Germany and the USA for example, the home of the Pelican crossing leaves us free to cross on a “red man” at our own risk. But what if there were no risk?

At the moment it is fear, not the law, that keeps a path clear for motorists, but if you know that ubiquitous driverless cars will reliably slow or stop when you step into the road, then every road becomes a continuous zebra crossing. In busy areas people would pretty much take over the road.

Great news for pedestrians, but will motorists accept it? History may be some guide, the very word “jaywalking” was originally popularised by the US motor industry in the 1920s, enlisting boy scouts to hand out “Quit Jay Walking” cards to pedestrians who failed to show sufficient deference to the newly-arrived motor traffic. It was a successful attempt to shift the responsibility from motorists to pedestrians, and help cars claim primacy on the roads.

It seems very likely that if driverless cars become the norm, pressure for new jaywalking rules will become irresistible, for at least some classes of roads. Expect a battle over where the new balance of priority lies.

On Street Parking

Few things arouse more passion than parking – the fundamental human right to cheaply rent prime public land for storage while you go do something else. It is surely the oddest and most inefficient use of urban space, but subsidised parking is absolutely essential to car travel. Or at least it is for now.

Imagine your car can drop you off at the door and then go off somewhere else on its own. Do you still care about convenient parking? Or would you be happy to let the car park more cheaply further away?

Suddenly it becomes possible to free up some of the most valuable public space for movement or other activities, rather than car storage. Let’s choose wisely how we use this space.

Congestion Charging

 

Opinion is split on whether driverless cars will mean we use them more or less. Optimists see a shift from ownership to Uber-style pay-per-use, and the possibility that going from sunk cost to marginal cost means the car is no-longer the automatic choice.

Personally I suspect many will still want to own their car, and for everyone the convenience will make car use more attractive. But there is another even more worrying possibility.

At the moment congestion is self-regulating (albeit at a very inefficient equilibrium). There is only so long people can sit in jams before they give up, use another mode, or cut out trips altogether. But once cars can drive without us, that human limit disappears.

Tesla’s Elon Musk reckons it will be possible to summon your car to drive itself from New York to meet you in LA. We will be able to clog up the roads even while we sleep at home. And when we are in the car, we could find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam even when we’re the only actual person on the road.

And when the car drops you off somewhere, why not just let it circle the block till you’ve finished… There will be no limit to the traffic we can create.

I can only see one way out of that nightmare – truly autonomous cars, ones that can drive without us even there, can only function with congestion charging. With no human limit to the hours our cars can drive, our roads will only flow if we finally put a proper price on road use.

 

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