How Self-Driving Cars Could Actually Make Traffic Worse

January 20, 2017, 3:47 PM UTC
Nissan Introduces Propilot, The Automaker's Driver-Assist Technology
A monitor on the instrument panel of a Nissan Motor Co. Serena minivan displays the system information of the automaker's ProPilot autonomous-drive technology during a test drive at the Oppama Grandrive proving ground in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Nissan introduced driver-assist features that enable its newest minivan to handle some highway driving on its own, just as a similar system from electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc. comes under scrutiny following a number of crashes. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Kiyoshi Ota – Bloomberg via Getty Images


Just because you won’t be driving doesn’t mean you won’t still be sitting in traffic. In fact, the morning commute could get worse.

Advocates of self-driving cars have often sighted traffic as one of the problems that riding the world of human drivers would improve. Driverless cars, for instance, won’t rubberneck. Interconnected cars could move faster and smoother than human drivers.

The problem with that thinking: Once getting in a car means no longer driving, a lot more people may want to be on road. Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of car company Renualt, speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum, which was moderated by Fortune’s editor Alan Murray, said that it will soon be possible to do everything in a driverless car that you would do at home or in the office. More people will want to work on the road.

That’s not all. Paul Jacobs, the CEO of Qualcomm also on the panel, says he thinks that there will be more and more services that may be delivered on the go. He suggested traveling nail salons or doctors appointments.

On top of that, autonomous cars will give the elderly and others the ability to get around. That’s great, but it’s also more traffic.

Violeta Bulc, who is on the Transport European Commission, said some cities are also thinking about going for a hybrid approach, in part out of balancing safety concerns with the difficulty of getting people to give up their cars. If human driving cars are segmented to one section of a city or metro area, and self-driving cars are segmented to other areas, say city centers, that could cause more traffic jams.

Of course, traffic is far from the only road block to self-driving cars, and not the biggest one. Renault’s Ghosn said that there were still a lot of safety issues that car companies are waiting for regulators to work out. Ghosn suggested that regulators, not CEOs or their engineers, were the ones to decided what a self-driving car is to do when some type of accident is unavoidable.

And if the answer is self-driving cars with human assistance, there needs to be a system that will wake up a sleeping or distracted driver to take over. Ghosn offered that we may need to build some kind of version of air traffic control for the roads to take over when needed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Paul Jacobs was the CEO of Cisco. He is the CEO of Qualcomm.