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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 1, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Could driverless cars really kill congestion?

Driverless cars zoom down highways in the 2002 film "Minority Report."

Driverless cars zoom down highways in the 2002 film “Minority Report.”

It was a drive like any other drive. I got on Highway 99 and headed south, confident, after checking Google Maps, that I’d be downtown in 20 minutes.

Then, near the Aurora Bridge, 99 became a parking lot. A portion of the route had been closed for construction. I’d had no idea.

“This traffic is crushing my soul,” I tweeted half a block and half an hour later. “Help me. Please. Something. Anything to keep me from losing my mind.”

Sitting stuck in traffic is a special kind of hell. These past couple weeks, Puget Sound drivers burned bad. First the 99 nightmare May 18. Then a bridge collapse May 23. Then, a few days ago, a semi jackknifed on Interstate 5, all but shutting down the freeway and surrounding roads for miles just in time for the morning commute.

Congestion is a reality of urban life. But somewhere in those two hours on Aurora, I wondered — what if it doesn’t have to be? Robot cars from “Minority Report” and “iRobot” cruised through my mind, as they do every time my decade-old Civic churns in gridlock. Someday we’ll escape this, I thought. Technology will show the way. It will be wonderful.


It’s amazing, but those robot cars are not science fiction. Nevada became the first state to license prototype driverless cars last year, self-driving features like parking assist and adaptive cruise control already exist in some cars, and industry experts say fully driverless cars could be on the market within eight years.

How would driverless cars kill congestion? By taking humans out of the equation. Packed with advanced sensors, location-aware technology and links to real-time traffic data, the cars would see better, respond faster and know more. Speeds go way up, accidents go way down, and backups are history.

It makes such beautiful sense I want cities everywhere to drop everything, turn off those silly traffic lights and make it happen.

But I don’t know what I’m talking about.

A driverless car by Google takes a spin around a track. (Flickr photo by Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license)

A driverless car by Google takes a spin around a track. (Flickr photo by Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license)

“Within our lifetimes that is utter bunk — the idea that technology within an individually owned car will have a (big) impact on congestion,” said Ben Schiendelman, a Microsoft engineer who heads up the grass roots Seattle Subway initiative.

To him the most powerful tools to combat congestion have little to do with even transformative technology. They’re about zoning, pricing, improving more efficient alternatives to the four-wheeled commute and being smarter about urban planning.

Driverless cars will not appear overnight. But a big shift is what it would take to make the kind of systemic improvement to congestion that people would actually feel, Schiendelman said. Incremental adoption of safer, more efficient cars wouldn’t hurt. It just wouldn’t be a savior.

Safety is awesome, though, and it does do wonders for traffic. Would that FedEx semi crash have made the whole city start the day off wrong if smart sensors had been in charge instead of the driver?

That’s an effect of driverless cars that Mark Bandy, urban corridors traffic engineer at the Washington State Department of Transportation, is most excited about. Forty percent of congestion is caused by incidents like collisions. Reduce collisions, even a little, and you reduce congestion.

It would be nice to see traffic flow more smoothly with more intelligent vehicles, Bandy acknowledged, but those incremental steps would come with hassles. Do you designate a lane for driverless cars? How do you manage inspections to make sure robot cars aren’t malfunctioning or — worse — vulnerable to hacks? You could mandate that everyone get driverless cars, but come on. This is America.

Besides, Bandy isn’t sure whether robot cars wouldn’t have some unintended, congestion-causing consequences. Why pay to have something shipped when you can send your car to pick it up?

And let’s say you’re “driving” downtown. Your driverless car drops you off, and then what — you pay for parking? Not a chance. You tell it to drive its robot self back home where parking is free. “Instead of two trips I make to go to work, my car makes four,” Bandy said.

“Vehicle to vehicle” or V2V is what the industry calls the smart-linked network that would make driverless-car magic happen on a large scale. But anything you make technological you also make vulnerable.

Lyft, a car sharing service that launched in Seattle this spring, puts pink mustaches on participating cars. (Photo from Lyft's Facebook page)

Lyft, a car sharing service that launched in Seattle this spring, puts pink mustaches on participating cars. (Photo from Lyft’s Facebook page)

In 2011, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and our own University of Washington showed how you could hack the vehicle computer on a car to, say, make the brakes stop working. Imagine if you could then use an infected car to hack into other cars. Not good.

So what about car sharing? This tech-enabled transportation trend is taking off in a number of cities, and Seattle is home to several options. Lyft and Sidecar deploy vetted volunteer drivers to pick you up and drop you off. Uber does it with for-hire drivers, and Car2Go lets you look up the location of a Car2Go car nearest you, take it where you’re going and leave it for the next driver.

Car sharing is basically carpooling — always great for congestion — made scalable and convenient by the geolocation and visibility these smartphone-based services provide. And it makes sense in our moment. The percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds with driver’s licenses dropped to 67 percent in 2011 — the lowest rate since 1963.

Gadgets and services aside, the most practical tech tool we have against congestion is information — more of it, available faster and over more channels than ever before. There’s a reason WSDOT’s traffic app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times on iOS and Android.

If I had used that, or even a crowd-sourced traffic app like Waze, before heading down Aurora, I probably would have had a nicer Saturday afternoon.

Behind the wheel and all.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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