Self-driving cars could cause congestion to nearly double, warns government report

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Department for Transport predicts massive rise in delays if autonomous vehicles become commonplace

Road congestion could almost double from current levels if self-driving cars become commonplace, according to a new government report.

The Department for Transport’s projections for traffic levels in England and Wales suggest that delays could soar by up to 85% between 2025 and 2060. That is based on the assumption that autonomous vehicles make up half of the car fleet by 2047.

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The report says that this would lead to more traffic and congestion by “increasing the mobility of the elderly and those who do not currently hold a driving licence”. It also claims that “the ability to work or relax while travelling in a self-driving car” means occupants will be “more amenable to sitting in traffic”.

Recent data from traffic monitoring specialists Inrix found that UK drivers lost an average of 80 hours last year due to congestion.

RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding told the PA news agency that the impact of autonomous vehicles on traffic volumes could depend on how they are used.

He said: “There are currently 5.9 million licence holders aged 70 or over in Britain, so we know the demand for mobility is there among those of a senior age. In the foreseeable future, automated vehicles offer the tantalising prospect of independence for the many millions more people who fall into the older age group but for whatever reason – cost, medical impairment – don’t currently drive.

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“If everyone insists on having their own driverless car then traffic volume and parking pressures will rise. However, if we are prepared to access these vehicles on-demand and forego personal ownership then we could have a win-win situation: quieter roads, fewer cars shared by the many, and cheaper transport.”

Writer and broadcaster Christian Wolmar, the author of Driverless Cars: On a Road To Nowhere, said the idea of a technological solution to congestion was “nonsensical” and dismissed the DfT’s projection that half of all cars will be autonomous by 2047 as “fanciful”.

The DfT claims that cars with self-driving capabilities will be in use on UK roads this yearThe DfT claims that cars with self-driving capabilities will be in use on UK roads this year
The DfT claims that cars with self-driving capabilities will be in use on UK roads this year | Shutterstock

He said that the Government should “not be trying to accommodate” the levels of traffic which it is feared self-driving cars will generate, commenting: “We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that doesn’t happen. The idea that you have a technological fix to congestion is nonsensical.”

He added: “I think there is zero chance of there being driverless cars that operate in mixed areas with other traffic in any large amount or in any difficult situation.

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“There has been very little real progress in terms of creating cars that could go anywhere in any conditions. It doesn’t look feasible.”

The DfT believes that self-driving vehicles will be in use in the UK by 2025 for logistical and public transport purposes. It also claims that cars with “self-driving” capabilities will be allowed on UK roads in 2023 - two years later than it initially said. Its definition of self-driving in such cases is an advanced lane keeping assist system which still requires the driver to be ready to take back control.

The government’s research was also criticised by self-driving firm Wayve which questioned the accuracy of the modelling used.

Kaity Fischer, its vice president of commercial, said: “The Government’s modelling was based on the private ownership of self-driving cars, but here at Wayve we are optimising our technology on electric vehicles for fleet customers in sectors like last-mile delivery and shared mobility services.

“Self-driving vehicles, when used in electric fleets, will ultimately lead to faster journey times and reduce the number of vehicles on the road, cutting congestion and emissions.”

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