Will Driverless Cars Increase Vehicle Miles Traveled?

Should we be worried?  Frankly, yes! I do believe there are loads of likely positive impacts for society associated with driverless technology; however, the risk of significant VMT (vehicle miles traveled) increase is HUGE.  Here’s why I think so:

  • People may forego transit and any form of carpooling/ridesharing due to the added convenience of AVs (e.g., commutes to work, kid transporting to and from school and after-school activities, etc.).
  • People may send their AVs out for errands (with no passengers) and forego trip linking or add additional errands (e.g., stop at the additional grocery store where the paper goods are cheaper).
  • People or companies may park their vehicles in remote parking lots outside of our urban centers.
  • People may let their AVs drive in circles in close proximity to an event with high attendance so it’s ready to pick them up as soon as it’s finished (e.g., conference, fair).
  • Urban sprawl increases as people are willing to live farther from where they work.

On the other hand, there is still hope!  Here’s why:

  • TNCs (i.e., Uber, Lyft) are making sharing rides with strangers that much more commonplace.
  • Technology, in general, is making ride sharing a more convenient, accessible option.
  • Government may set pricing and policies that either incentive ridesharing and vehicle sharing or disincentivize car ownership, single occupancy vehicle travel, significant VMT, or parking.
  • Government may invest in a reliable, seamless, well-priced public transportation system.

What do you think?

About Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile. Easymile provides electric, driverless shuttles that are designed to cover short distances in multi-use environments. Prior to working at EasyMile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long term. In addition, Lauren maintains the blog, “Driving Towards Driverless”, and has presented on this topic at more than 75 industry conferences. She recently did a TEDx Talk, and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications.
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9 Responses to Will Driverless Cars Increase Vehicle Miles Traveled?

  1. Good one!! Do people respond when you ask questions?

    On Friday, April 29, 2016, Driving Towards Driverless Cars wrote:

    > Lauren Isaac posted: “Should we be worried? Frankly, yes! I do believe > there are loads of likely positive impacts for society associated with > driverless technology; however, the risk of significant VMT (vehicle miles > traveled) increase is HUGE. Here’s why I think so: Peopl” >


  2. plannerjim says:

    A difficult future concern for the advent of driverless cars. I reference you to the study report completed by UMTRI, The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, entitled: “Influence of Current non-drivers on the Amount ot Travel and Trip Patterns with Self-Driving Vehicles”, Dated December, 2015. That report concludes that the demand will increase by about 11%, based on (1) the number of adults between 18 and 39 who don’t now have driver licenses; and (2) some who now have no interest in driving. It’s also interesting that Conrad Templeton, a consultant to Google, feels that (elderly) suburban boomers, with no access to public transportation, will use driverless cars to keep from giving up their homes.



  3. Blair Schlecter says:

    Are there any statistics about whether ridesharing has increased overall because of Uber or Lyft?


    • Lauren Isaac says:

      Not that I’m aware of. Also, to be clear…. Uber and Lyft have paid drivers, so they are not actually increasing ridesharing…. they’re providing additional taxi services while leveraging improved technology. That being said, Uber and Lyft are, seemingly, making people more comfortable with the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, so it’s possible they’re having an influence on the number of people comfortable with ride sharing. UberPool and LyftLine, are other services that could also be increasing ride sharing. At this point, there is no data that I’m aware of to prove that though.


  4. paddlepool says:

    Firstly, I think ‘vehicles’ could be far better fit for purpose. For example a one person transporter might actually require something very small, perhaps even less than one square metre in fact. That would help.

    Secondly, I reckon during peak flows (or as capacity starts to diminish), an over-riding city controller could start restricting certain journeys based on stated purpose. As with any system of course, this could be subject to abuse, such as people mis-stating a journey purpose to serve themselves better.

    This is indeed a worthwhile question, alongside so many others in the public mind. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if simulations could be developed to test many of these hypothetical questions (technological and social), as well as explore possible solutions? The simulations might be extravagantly expensive to run (and could involve human participants) and is not without faults, but could be used to bounce ideas around and see what comes up.


    • Lauren Isaac says:

      Fantastic points…. and I believe many government planners are starting to think through incorporating these kinds of scenarios into their travel demand models.


  5. Nick Szwed says:

    I think what will happen is that vehicle ownership will decline as will the number of vehicles in the system – because vehicles are shared 24/7. So initially congestion will decline. Also vehicles will be able to travel very closely together because they will link electronically, so the capacity of our roads will increase. This will further reduce congestion. There will be room for lots of new trips. So I think that for a long time traffic will flow more freely, perhaps until population growth catches up again. But by then we may be travelling in the third dimension ie in the air.


  6. Shem says:

    I actually think the exact opposite is going to happen with automated vehicles.

    I think the key to understanding the impacts of driverless vehicles will be how the field develops with respect to ownership vs. access. Under an ownership scenario, most people would own their own driverless cars and having them run errands while they are are work or home. I don’t find this scenario very likely since freeing people from the need to drive their own cars will (over the course of 2-3 decades) lead to very few people owning. A good analogy is DVDs. People used to purchase and keep huge collections of DVDs. Now with the access economy, people own far fewer DVDs and instead take advantage of services like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.

    This “access” economy trend is why I think the second scenario is far more likely. This would have most people utilizing fleets of driverless taxis (Uber, Lyft, Apple, Google, GM, Ford, Car2Go and more are all going here), what used to be “high fixed, low marginal” costs of motoring will now be converted to almost totally “marginal” motoring costs. In other words, when you don’t own the cars and every trip you take is converted to marginal costs on the order of $0.25-$0.40 per minute, I believe people economize their travel – taking the most convenient and/or least expensive mode for any individual trip.

    Sure there will be people who take the driverless taxis everywhere they go, just as there are people in NYC that take taxis everywhere. But these people will not be the majority, and in fact, if you look at the whole system…it would be physically impossible for them to be. Driverless taxis are going to be more expensive than other alternatives such as walking, biking and public transit…especially during peak travel hours when the limited number of driverless taxis will not be sufficient to service significant percentages of commuters.

    If you look at the impacts of car-sharing and even Uber/Lyft the data shows that those services lead to increased share of trips shifted to bicycling and public transit and people tend to use those services for “high flexibility” type trips such as grocery shopping or getting home late at night from drinking, rather than for daily trips. I believe autonomous vehicles will have the same impact, but on a much larger scale.


  7. Nick Szwed says:

    Shem, you make some good points and I guess no-one really knows exactly how it will pan out. But just a few points:
    1.Cars are continually getting cheaper and smaller. I think this trend will continue.
    2. The main cost of taxis and Uber/Lyft is the wages and to some extent insurance. There will be no wages and insurance costs will drop enormously.
    3. Buses will also be autonomous too. The difference between hire vehicles and buses will blur. Any vehicle going past someone who has asked for transport will stop and pick up them up if they have room. No matter if it’s a vehicle with 2 seats or 40 seats. If you want a private vehicle you will pay a little more.


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