Self-driving side effects, CC-BY 4; four times

It’s been a tiny badge of honor that older members of my family have been saying things like “You know, [Peakfuture] is making a lot of sense…”  It’s not that these ideas have originated with me; it is simply that I’m less inclined to make small talk all the time, and try to get real issues out in front of everyone.   So, when this most recent tidbit of interest came across the interwebs, I had to smile:

UCSC Predicts Self-Driving Car Gridlock

Now, it is good to see something like my hunches backed up by data, but does this not surprise anyone?  Make something cheap and easy, and yes, there will be more of it.  In this case, more traffic, and more gridlock.

My own take on the self-driving car bit is that if they do actually come to pass, they will probably make commuting longer distances a great deal more attractive to people.     You won’t care about acceleration, since if it takes a minute to get up to highway speeds, you’ll be doing something else, so it may be that these self-driving platforms will become cheaper than automobiles in some regards (although the sensor packages might balance that out).  People who work in NYC might live anywhere in a one or two hour driving radius (check out this map tool), making the suburbs more attractive, and perhaps increasing gridlock to even more amazing proportions.   For places (like the NY metro area) that have a lot of commuter rail, it might increase the use of those services, as people might not mind the short jaunt to the station (where your car, or a rented car) might return home.  For other places (like the Boston metro area) it might even be that you’d want a self-driving van (so you could exercise on a treadmill or rowing machine), and then drive down from New Hampshire, up from Rhode Island, or places like Fall River.   Given that self-driving cars are being tested in warm weather states (since snow, fog, and rain are difficult to handle), we might first see these effects in warm places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Phoenix.

In any scenario, this is going to put a lot of strain on the roads, and on other transport systems.  The opposite of efficiency is resiliency, and as efficient as these systems might seem to be, they will have a very large Achilles heel, and be far more prone to catastrophic failures, like every other modern system that exists.  Ever since the steam engine was made more efficient, practically every bit of technology that has been made better, has been used more.

Jevon’s Paradox.  It’s real.


  • What other nifty inventions will have obvious or not-so-obvious side effects?
  • If someone comes up with a great idea or machine which makes things better/cheaper/faster (typically, you only get two of those), how can these things be limited so that Jevon’s Paradox doesn’t kick in?
  • Imagine the failure mode of the GPS network being hacked, or the cars themselves have been hacked.  How does everyone get home then?  How efficient is travel when a snowstorm makes self-driving cars difficult to navigate (and if many people have forgotten how to drive)?

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