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Will Autonomous Cars Destroy City Budgets?

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The first generation of autonomous cars to hit the roads in Europe, China, and the U.S. over the next few years won't be fully self-driving, but they'll be able to handle much of the dull, mind-numbing motoring that commuters do on a daily basis. Eventually, they'll live up to the "autonomous" name, leaving folks to read, eat, and do other things that many drivers do now, but without imperiling their safety or that of their fellow drivers.

The prospect of all that has many -- especially younger people -- very, very excited. But you know who may not be excited? City administrators and law enforcement agencies.

FEWER CITATIONS, SMALLER COFFERS

A recent article at Network World points out that Google's autonomous cars have traveled more than 700,000 miles on public roads, and to date, they haven't received a single ticket. That goes to prove that, while the cars still aren't perfect (they can't dodge squirrels, for example, and they can't function without a cell signal), they're far more sophisticated than they were just a couple of years ago. 

That means great things for motorists and pedestrians -- things like fewer accidents and fatalities -- but it could put a real crimp on city coffers. In the U.S., speeding tickets generate upwards of $6.2 billion each year. Combined with other kinds of moving violations, including DUIs, these citations form a significant source of revenue for cities and their law enforcement agencies. (This, of course, is why we have speed traps.)

And so, as we edge closer to the arrival of autonomous cars, we need to consider several important questions, like:

1. Will autonomous cars create a world of zero auto accidents and driver errors? Probably not. Humankind has spent thousands of years training to slip around obstacles and roadblocks we don't like, even when those obstacles and roadblocks work to our benefit. This may explain why analysts estimate that vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems -- a cousin of autonomous car systems -- will reduce traffic accidents by 81 percent. The remaining 19 percent will presumably result from humans fiercely dedicated to screwing up. Because when we're late to a meeting or to catch a flight, you can bet that many drivers will disengage the autonomous system and take control themselves. Based on the data we have now, that's when the trouble is likely to start.

2. Who will pay when autonomous car owners receive citations or when those cars are involved in accidents? No one knows. It could be the driver, it could be the automaker, it could be the company that coded the autonomous car's software, it could the company that made the embedded radar systems, or any combination of the above. (FWIW, Google wants to take care of tickets handed out to future owners of its autonomous cars.) But again, it bears repeating that one of the reasons we don't know is because it's never happened. We may not be able to say definitely who's at fault, but at the very least, we know that the number of citations and accidents will likely decline, as will the revenue that those tickets generate. 

3. How will cities survive without ticket revenue? This, too, remains a mystery. We might think that cities will be able to cut costs by hiring fewer police officers because they don't need huge numbers patrolling the roads. But of course, police aren't the only city employees, and auto accidents aren't the only problems that city employees solve. There will continue to be zoning commissions, health inspectors, ambulance drivers, and countless others. Cities will need to work much leaner, meaner, and smarter. 


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