Reuters

In an autonomous world, many long-delayed improvements will be rendered obsolete.

Most of us experience the inefficiencies of America's transportation system every day. Congestion costs us time, poor roads cost us car repair fees, unrealized safety improvements cause hardship, injury and even death. Brookings economist Clifford Winston recently put a number on these inefficiencies — at least $100 billion — and assigned much of the blame to bad government.

What makes the situation so frustrating to Winston and others is that the government (at all levels) has options that could address some of these problems. Proper road pricing could decrease traffic, not to mention generate transportation revenue. Better pavement design could reduce maintenance costs and vehicle damage. Stronger traffic control systems could improve safety on the road.

Limited funding explains some of this inaction. But in a new paper, Winston and Purdue scholar Fred Mannering suggest there's more to it than that. They argue that transportation officials suffer from a bias toward the status quo that doesn't afflict the private sector. Case in point: most of the advances made toward driverless cars have come from the likes of Google and car manufacturers.

For that reason, write Winston and Mannering, if the government waits long enough it won't need to act at all on many of these problems — especially traffic and safety — because driverless cars will go a long way toward resolving them:

Thus driverless car technologies are quite likely to effectively leapfrog most of the existing technologies that the public sector could but has failed to implement to improve highway travel.

When this innovation leapfrogging occurs, the benefits will redound on everyone. Driverless cars will instantly reduce congestion and expand road capacity by enabling more cars to travel closer together in a single lane. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication could bring us closer to a world without car crashes. Roads will also endure less wear and tear as GPS systems direct trucks and heavy vehicles toward more suitable routes.

The Eno Center for Transportation recently estimated the annual economic benefits of autonomous vehicles at roughly $211 billion a year. And that's if only half the existing fleet goes driverless. If 90 percent is converted, the benefits more than double [PDF]:

Adapted from "Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles" by the Eno Center for Transportation

If and when that day arrives, many existing transportation inefficiencies will have been addressed without any government action at all.

To be fair, the government is taking steps to make your next drive better. Federal officials recently endorsed connected vehicle technology that should improve highway safety (though the system won't operate at peak efficiency until state and local leaders also invest in intelligent infrastructure). And it's certainly not to say the private sector always gets transportation right. Private road investments, for instance, can go terribly awry.

Winston and Mannering urge the government not to interfere with driverless technology — except, perhaps, to resolve some critical social questions about liability. But it won't be enough for public officials to sit idly by. The emergence of a driverless fleet will only draw more attention to the poor condition of America's roads and its broken transportation funding system. Try as they might, that's one problem public officials can't avoid for too much longer.

About the Author

Eric Jaffe
Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe is the former New York bureau chief for CityLab. He is the author of A Curious Madness and The King's Best Highway.

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