A while ago, I snarkily argued that the problem driveless cars are trying to solve is “misanthropic rich people who don’t view themselves as the kind of people who have chauffeurs–or are too cheap to pay for them.” All kidding aside, someone actually ran this experiment (boldface mine):
Whether AVs will deliver utopia or dystopia depends in large part on their effect on current driving patterns. To get at the answer, Joan Walker, a transportation engineer at UC Berkeley, designed a clever experiment. Using an AV is like having your own chauffeur, she reasoned. So she gave 13 car owners in the San Francisco Bay area the use of a chauffeur-driven car for up to 60 hours over 1 week, then tracked their travel habits.
“The idea was to put people in a situation like what the future may be,” says Walker, who worked with researchers from three other universities. “That is, you can send the car on errands, and you don’t have to worry about driving or parking.”
The subjects, who had to pay for gas and maintenance but not for the driver, were drawn from three demographic cohorts—millennials, families, and retirees. The study compared their use of the chauffeured car with how they drove their own cars in the week before and after the experiment.
The results suggest that a world with AVs will have more traffic. Overall, the 13 subjects logged 76% more miles, took longer trips, and traveled more at night than they normally would. The retirees more than tripled their evening driving and nearly doubled the number of longer trips. Three-fourths of the supposedly car-shunning millennials clocked more miles. In addition, one-fifth of all trips had no passengers. Subjects with children were especially likely to send the chauffeur to pick up friends and family as they sat in their offices.
Walker readily admits to the study’s limitations, including a small sample size. (She has funding to repeat the study next summer on a larger scale.) Even so, she thinks the experiment and subsequent interviews with every participant shed new light on how people might use AVs. For example, in contrast to conventional wisdom that older people would be slower to embrace the new technology, Walker says, “The retirees were really excited about AVs. They see their declining mobility and they are like, ‘I want this to be available now.’”
As always, these sorts of studies need replication (which is planned). But the appeal of having a cheap chauffer appears considerable, though there’s an obvious tragedy of the commons problem. How exciting it would be after traffic is turned into sludge (remember, you are the traffic) can’t be tested, unless there’s a way to increase traffic by 76 percent (though perhaps there’s a natural experiment that could be done?).