Driverless Delaware – new report explores likely impact of autonomous cars

Dover pinned on a map of USA

In the US, the race towards a driverless future is well underway. And one state thinking about the implications is Delaware, where researchers have been examining what impact driverless cars might have on its roads.

The research followed a request from the state Department of Transportation (DelDOT), asking the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration (IPA) to examine what might happen when vehicles are in a position to travel on the state’s roads without a human at the wheel.

The IPA team recently completed a 35-page report – Autonomous Vehicles in Delaware: Analyzing the Impact and Readiness for the First State – examining the impact of autonomous vehicles on areas such as roadway safety, traffic congestion, the economy, state and local government revenue and residential development patterns.

“We’re a car culture in the United States, and autonomous vehicles [AVs] represent a very big change,” said Philip Barnes, associate policy scientist in the IPA who conducted the research with doctoral student Eli Turkel, an IPA graduate fellow.

“The old ways of doing things are going to change, and policies are going to have to change, too.”

Exploring the likely effects of the “impending autonomous vehicle revolution” on Delaware’s roads, the report found that highway safety was top of the list of potential benefits offered by driverless cars, particularly given the annual average of about 100 traffic fatalities in the state.

The authors also predict that driverless cars will lead to a decrease in congestion, as traffic flows easily around obstacles and merges more smoothly than with human drivers at the wheel.

“We can expect a lot of benefits from the use of AVs, but there are a lot of challenges and potential negative impacts, too,” said Barnes.

For example, found the report, passengers in autonomous vehicles are likely to have faster and more productive commutes, allowing them to read, work or catch up on sleep during their journeys to work.

However, urban planners suspect that more pleasant commutes may see workers become willing to move further from their job sites, leading to a potential increase in suburban sprawl.

The report also highlights the impact autonomous vehicles will have on those with disabilities or limited mobility, allowing them to travel independently.

But this newfound independence will have policy implications for Delaware’s officials, suggests the report, such as the question of whether driver’s licenses will still be required; the potential need for age limits for autonomous vehicle travel; and the possibility of a two-tier system which could see people on lower incomes lose out from the autonomous vehicle revolution.

The authors also address the potential decline in government revenue from fines paid for traffic violations – with no drivers to break the law, this source of income could virtually disappear, according to the report.

In Delaware, the report notes that DelDOT has already put in place technological and infrastructural improvements that position it well in preparing for the testing, operation and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

“If action is taken now, Delaware could position itself to be a leader in the autonomous vehicle area,” concludes the report.