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Should Highway Carpool Lanes Be Dedicated To Driverless Cars Instead?

It could be a smart idea for speeding up early adoptions in a safe way.

Should Highway Carpool Lanes Be Dedicated To Driverless Cars Instead?

Today many highways around the country have dedicated carpool fast lanes. Tomorrow, these lanes might be dedicated to driverless cars.

That's at least if venture capitalists at the Seattle-based Madrone Venture Group get their way. A group of four executives there have proposed a 15-year plan to convert the I-5 from Seattle to Vancouver into a corridor for autonomous cars, beginning right now, and ending with an eventual ban on human-steered cars.

The proposal begins with allowing autonomous cars to use the carpooling HOV lane. Then, as the driverless cars become more common, the HOV lanes would be turned entirely over to autonomous cars. Finally, in the far future, they believe non-autonomous vehicles would be excluded from the entire highway except for non-peak hours.

The plan is a smart one, if you're a future driverless car owner. A cynical reader might assume that the authors of the plan, including a former Microsoft executive and an Amazon board member, might see the most benefit from a lane dedicated to driverless cars.

The less cynical reader might consider this a great idea. For one thing, autonomous vehicles deal a lot better with monotonous highways than they do with the spontaneous excitement of a city street. Our cars virtually drive themselves down the highway already. Allowing driverless vehicles in the carpool lane will also encourage uptake of the technology by early adopters, which is essential to help the technology eventually become mainstream.

But wouldn’t we be better off improving public transit, like high-speed rail? After all, moving lots of people long distances is what rail is great at. Nope, says the report. "Compared to the cost of improved and high speed rail, estimated by others at upwards of $30 billion, the cost of this plan would be orders of magnitude less and consumers would begin to benefit decades earlier." No cost is given for the report’s recommendation to "add additional lanes to the four lane portions from Mount Vernon to Vancouver (82 miles) to support dedicated autonomous vehicle lanes." Nor is the carbon cost of cars versus trains mentioned here, nor the fact that public transit is often designed for the very people who can't afford their own cars (let alone driverless ones).

The authors aren’t against public transit entirely, though, especially when it helps them to avoid downtown traffic jams that can’t be avoided by giving them their own exclusive lanes. In order to avoid the last eight miles of Highway 99 into downtown Vancouver, they suggest having your autonomous car drop you off at the airport so you can ride the SkyTrain into town. Your car will then park itself. "The SkyTrain departs every six minutes most of the day and takes 18 minutes to downtown," says the report, proving that mass transit isn’t so bad after all.

Eventually, autonomous cars may make up a significant percentage of the cars on our roads, and then we’ll have to work out what to do with them. Will we force them to live by the laws for human-driven cars? Or do we re-write the rules for autonomous cars at the expense of more dangerous, more polluting non-autonomous cars? The reality will likely be somewhere in between, and something like an exclusive autonomous-car lane will likely be a part of that.

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[All Images: via Madrone Venture Group]

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