New report suggests driverless cars could increase congestion on UK roads

traffic jam on road

A new report by the Department for Transport has predicted that the arrival of driverless cars could lead to an increase in the  levels of congestion on UK roads.

Driverless cars are expected to usher in a new era of safe and flowing traffic, but the study suggests that for several years they could actually increase the number of traffic jams.

The Department for Transport said in the report that it expected ‘a decline in network performance’ at the point when one in four cars on the road are driverless. In fact, they don’t expect congestion to significantly improve until around 50% – 75% of cars on the road are autonomous.

The report, called Research on the Impacts of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) on Traffic Flow, claims that delays on major roads and motorways during peak times are expected to rise by 0.9% when 25% of the vehicles are driverless.

This is due to the fact that early versions of self-driving cars are expected to behave more cautiously than human drivers, which will result in what the DfT describe as ‘a potential decrease in the effective capacity and a decline in network performance’.

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The DfT don’t expect this to improve until more motorists make the switch to the new technology.

Responding to the report the director of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, Steve Gooding, said:

“There’s a prize to be had in terms of swifter, safer journeys, but the transition to that world will be challenging.

“There are around 32 million conventional cars on the UK’s roads – as driverless cars come in, traffic flow could initially get worse rather than better, potentially for many years. 

“Much will depend on how an autonomous car’s parameters are set and just how defensively these vehicles will be programmed to drive.”

The study was carried out by creating virtual models of the road network, and found that if every vehicle on the road was autonomous then there could in fact be a 40% reduction in rush hour delays on major roads and motorways.

Talking about the report, transport minister John Hayes said:

“This exciting and extensive study shows that driverless cars could vastly improve the flow of traffic in our towns and cities, offering huge benefits to motorists including reduced delays and more reliable journey times.”

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Transport and Environment clean vehicles director Greg Archer said autonomous cars represent a massive opportunity but also a huge threat:

“The way we establish a framework for them in our towns and cities will determine whether autonomous cars create a traffic heaven or hell. This new research shows there could also be some short-term benefits from connectivity but also negative transitional effects.

“Our clogged cities don’t need mobile offices, bedrooms or lounges for one, or empty cars polluting our streets looking for parking spaces or driving home. 

“Autonomous cars must be electric, shared and integrated with public transport to be part of a sustainable transport solution and carmakers need to show the same enthusiasm for each of these solutions. 

“It will also take a level of integration between the EU, national and city levels that we are a long way from achieving now.”

Half of UK drivers won’t want to own a car in 2025

In related news, recent research from KPMG has predicted that by 2025 half of motorist’s currently on UK road’s won’t want to own a car.

KPMG commissioned a survey of UK automotive executives, with 74% of them predicting that self-driving vehicles and the ‘Uber-effect’ of mobility as a service will overtake car ownership in less that a decade.

John Leech, UK head of automotive at the auditor said:

“The UK is particularly suited to the early adoption of self-driving cars consumed as a service. Our greenbelt policy has created a relatively dense urban population which, when coupled with our high fuel prices, means that so-called ‘robot taxis’ offer a greater cost saving to the UK public, compared to European or North American markets. 

“I believe robot taxis will revolutionise UK urban transportation in the second half of the next decade.”

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