What’s the best thing we can do to relieve L.A.’s traffic? I’m starting to think that the answer to that question is to do nothing. Yes, nothing at all. Kick back. Chill out. Wait.
The reason: driverless cars are coming. Oh, sure, they’re a few years off at least, but when they do arrive, and if they become standard, they have the potential to change everything. They could very well eliminate L.A.’s traffic jams. Or at least seriously reduce them.
Computer and GPS-guided cars could drive faster and closer and with the mechanical precision of a Disneyland ride. Imagine: No more timid drivers braking for every slight curve. No more jerks veering into your lane. No more being distracted by the road while you’re texting.
That last line was meant as a joke, but it’s true. Assuming the law would allow it, you could text away while your robotic car zipped you to your destination.
But let’s get back to traffic:
“We could change the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three,” said Prof. Sebastian Thrun, who helped develop the small fleet of driverless cars that Google started putting on the streets years ago. He described freeways full of cars zipping along in mechanized precision, saying “we could drive a little bit closer together on a little bit narrower lanes and do away with all traffic jams on highways.” (Look him up on YouTube, if you’re interested.)
And of course there’d be plenty of other advantages when driverless cars truly become widespread. You’d save trips and gasoline, for example, by programming your car to take your child to soccer practice and having the car wait there to make the return trip. You could not only text but chat on the phone or read the newspaper during the 52 minutes (much more for Angelenos) that the average American now spends driving every day. Most significantly, the 32,000 traffic-related deaths a year would be dramatically reduced, since more than 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error. (Thrun dedicated his career to finding a safer way to drive after his best friend was killed in an auto accident at age 18.) Perhaps car insurance rates would drop.
If you’ve been keeping up with this topic, you know driverless cars aren’t far-off, sci-fi fantasy. Google’s robotic cars have been driving around for years, even navigating the crookedest road, San Francisco’s Lombard Street. Many car makers have been tinkering with the technology. An Audi TT made the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb – with no one at the wheel. A hands-free parallel parking capability is now available on some Fords.
There are questions and concerns, of course. Will driverless cars work as well as they do now when most of the other cars on the road are also driven by robots? What happens when GPS systems go on the blink, if only for a few seconds? And how long will it take people to really trust a computer to drive them?
Time and technology eventually will answer these questions. The bigger question: How long will it take before robots really take the wheel, so to speak, and become dominant? Some experts have said it won’t happen until about 2040, but Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder, predicted more like five years. And he made that prediction more than a year ago. Realistically, it may be 10 years or so.
But here’s the point: driverless cars are coming. And in the meantime, maybe the worst thing we can do is go through the expense and commuter agony of street widenings. The 405 freeway project in the heart of L.A.’s traffic-clogged Westside has been going on for how many Presidential administrations now? Maybe the best thing to do is to do nothing and wait. In a few years, we may have plenty of street surface to drive on.
L.A.’s soul-deadening traffic problem continues to be a big concern of top people and it has been for an era. Isn’t it pleasant to think that maybe we should stop worrying, do nothing about it and give technology time to work its magic?
Besides, doing nothing is something most of us excel at.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.