One Odd Rule Needed to Avoid Self-Driving Car Gridlock

July 17, 2016

2:17 pm

Like most of the future, the impact of self-driving cars on society is tough to fully predict. I mean, who would have guessed a 90s video game would be the franchise to usher in augmented reality to the masses? Not me. But for the self-diving future, plenty of people have taken stabs at guessing what’s in store.

Cars will need to avoid being partly self-driving and be all or nothing instead: Half measures won’t work here. Also, infrastructure will be impacted: We may need fewer or smaller highways since we’ll be able to pack self-driving cars in more without leaving a buffer zone between every bumper. I cited a list of six rules over here, if you’re interested.

But there’s one little-known rule we’ll probably need: An across-the-board ban on self-driving cars without people in them.

Why We Can’t Send Out Cars Without People

At first, this sounds like a dystopian decree: Half the point of a self-driving car is so that you won’t need to be in it. Just think of all the grocery trips you can avoid, once your car will drive itself there and you can download an app to communication with the store’s employees? But if you think a little harder, the flaw becomes obvious: Imagine a world in which everyone’s empty cars are zipping around for a gallon of milk.

Metafilter user Homeboy Trouble, commenting on a thread about self-driving car regulations, offered up the rule alongside a very convincing explanation:

“One of the best policy levers in North America for managing auto use is parking supply and costs, and if cars are allowed to drive themselves empty, then the roads will instantly be clogged with empty cars driving back out of downtown to park at home for free. In somewhere like Manhattan, it would be cheaper to drive to work and then tell your car to just circle the block for eight hours than to pay for parking. Except if even a fraction of people do this, then it’s obviously gridlock.”

With One Exception: Fleet Operations

Plenty of massive operations could benefit from self-driving cars without people in them, and they won’t create the same problems:

“Where autonomous vehicles could provide real benefits is in fleet operations like Uber—they won’t replace all uses of cars (I think most parents like having diapers and Cheerios and Frozen DVDs and the like stashed in their cars, for example), but this is a chance to provide a step towards better multimodal mobility—a car there if it’s needed but not if you can do without. So fleet operation (including transit, obvs.) without passengers makes sense, but if we let individuals drive their own cars empty, we’re creating so much more traffic (and carbon emissions) than we already do, and what we already do is unsustainable and unlivable.”

I can’t see any flaw in the logic here… if self-driving cars take over, the government will almost definitely decree that they need a passenger to be legal.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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