Self-driving vehicles could clog Canada’s streets, experts warn

We all know finding a parking spot in major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver can be a huge hassle, but what if you could ask your vehicle to circle around the block or head home and come back for you?

In the world of autonomous vehicles (AVs), also known as self-driving cars, this concept is a real possibility. And while it may seem convenient, saving you time and money, transportation and urban experts are warning it could cause a congestion crisis.

“We could see as much as a 30 per cent increase in total vehicle traffic,” Todd Litman, the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia, told Global News.

Right now, the average commute in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, is already 34 minutes and with this projection, it could mean people are stuck on the street for closer to 45 minutes.

For those who live in Vancouver or Montreal, where the average commute time is 30 minutes, you could face an extra 10 minutes stuck in traffic.

Self-driving cars like it slow, steady

Michal Antkiewicz, a research associate with the University of Waterloo, has spent the last three years working on the country’s future of self-driving vehicles.

“We are at least five years away (when it comes to AVs on our roads),” he said.

But in the United States, the self-driving vehicles are already causing traffic jams.

“Drivers are becoming frustrated in areas where automated vehicles are being tested,” said Antkiewicz, explaining AVs prefer slow and steady streets.

“[AVs] will never break any traffic rules. If there is a speed of 50 km/h, [AVs] will go 50 km/h. [AVs] will wait for an efficient gap to merge into traffic where a human would bend the rules to make progress, autonomous vehicles will be more cautious.”

In attempt to stay safe, Antkiewaicz said AVs have the ability to communicate with one another, gauging speed, distance and traffic. According to a recent report out of the U.S., these cars could, in theory, even collaborate to cause a traffic jam.

Robot-fueled gridlock

Adam Millard-Ball, an assistant professor in the environmental studies department at UC Santa Cruz, said AVs have an incentive to generate congestion.

“Cruising at low speeds is not only cheaper per hour than paid parking, but cheaper per hour than traveling at high speeds,” he told Global News.

“If they are just waiting, then they want to get stuck in traffic on purpose and create their own traffic congestion.”

Ball predicted that even just 2,000 self-driving vehicles on San Francisco’s streets would slow traffic, on smaller side roads, to around three km/h.

How do we keep things moving?

According to most experts, the answer is very simple: road pricing.

“We need to make people pay for the full use of the road. We need congestion pricing,” Richard Florida told Global News, referencing the regime in London, England.

And while the urban studies expert said this pricing model is the most obvious move, he warned keeping traffic free-flowing is not just a single-solution scenario.

“At the same time, we need better transit and we also need to use our feet and bicycles more by living closer to where we work,” Florida said.

Like many experts, he said he worries the introduction of AVs on Canadian roads will only exacerbate what he calls a “congestion crisis.” Florida said the claim of less drivers doesn’t necessarily mean less cars.

“If anything, autonomous vehicles are just going to make things worse. They’ll be adding more congestion to our roads,” he said.

“They’ll just be circling around looking for a place to park.”

From a technological perspective, Antkiewaicz agreed this could be a problem. But he said it will be up to companies to decide if communication between cars will be about safety or savings.

However, Litman said this is where policy makers need to step up.

“Cities need to start looking into regulations,” he said, warning municipalities need to begin to focus on this futuristic dilemma because it is closer than we think.

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