The case of driverless cars

I can’t remember the comedian’s name, but he had a wonderful ambition, which unfortunately will now never be realized. He wanted to interview Neil Armstrong for an hour on live television without once mentioning the moon landings.

I wish him success. In fact, Armstrong might have used the opportunity to pontificate about baseball or gardening, rather than the Apollo missions. It must be crazy when every conversation you have with a stranger turns into a brief event in your life: rather like being at the Eagles and knowing that, in a two-hour concert, 90 percent of the crowd is just for ‘Hotel California ‘. .

Along these lines, I have a secret retirement project where I interview the world’s leading minds about trivial and tangential topics. I have already made a start. The spectator there’s 30 minutes of unreleased footage where I ask Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek about toilet design; somewhere on YouTube there’s ten minutes of me talking to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman about a speed camera on the M11 near Chigwell. So you can imagine how interested I was when I heard that someone had asked Geordie mastermind John Grey: ‘What would you do if you won the Lottery?’ His answer, interestingly enough, was exactly what my father had given to the same question a few years earlier: ‘I would do absolutely nothing but hire a full-time driver’.

Tesla Autopilot users reportedly drive 5,000 miles more per year than those without

I wonder how many people, especially over the age of 60, would agree with that answer. There’s certainly a compelling case to be made for driverless cars: that for a segment of the population, a driver would be the single best luxury they could buy. Even if ‘Level 5 Autonomous Driving’ is disabled at the moment, it is interesting to speculate how the behavior would change if the driving were automated. Would the streets of London be clogged with bridge-playing pensioners riding in no rush? Would people avoid parking charges by instructing their cars to drive in circles? Even existing in-car technologies – satnav, podcasts, adaptive cruise control – increased our propensity to drive longer distances. Tesla Autopilot users reportedly drive 5,000 miles more per year than those without. What would happen in a world of completely driverless cars?

Surprisingly, we partially know the answer to this question. That’s because a team at UC Berkeley and UC Davis ingeniously simulated a world of driverless cars by offering a representative sample of volunteer households in Sacramento with a full-time driver up to 60 hours a week, and then recorded the effect on their travel patterns. The resulting letter, Simulating life with personally owned autonomous vehicles through a naturalistic experiment with personal driversit is fascinating.

First of all, mass transit use fell by more than 90 percent in households with a driver. Overall, miles driven increased 60 percent overall and more than 120 percent among retirees. What was perhaps most surprising was that most of the car’s increased mileage consisted of what were considered zero-frequency trips, where the driver drove the car without any passengers present. People would send their car to collect a friend, then engage in some social activity, before asking the driver to take their friend home.

A brutal conclusion is that, given the choice, people really don’t like to use mass transit. It also suggests that AVs could lead to a huge increase in road traffic. On the other hand, the overall sociability and quality of life benefits, especially for the elderly and disabled, would be immense. Many families can also benefit from owning one car instead of two. Either way, we need more behavioral experiments like this.

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