Robotics & Automation News

Market trends and business perspectives

Autonomous vehicles will increase traffic congestion before ‘dramatically reducing it’, says report

Introducing autonomous vehicles will initially increase traffic congestion before dramatically reducing it, according to a new report.

Arthur D. Little has published a real-world simulation analysis that demonstrates that switching to totally autonomous vehicles significantly reduces urban congestion by a factor of 10, but that mixing human and robot drivers together will increase traffic jams by over 16 per cent.

The micro-simulation was based on a major intersection in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, notorious for its evening traffic jams. 

This five-lane highway includes two lanes turning left and one to the right, has a 80 km/h speed limit, and is controlled by a traffic light.

The simulation measured the impact of three scenarios on traffic within the two central lanes – 100 per cent human drivers, a 50/50 split of human and robot drivers, and 100 per cent autonomous vehicles with adapted traffic rules.

More than 40 vehicles would pass through each green phase of the intersection’s traffic light with 100 per cent human drivers.

This actually drops 16 per cent to 36 vehicles with an equal mix of human and autonomous drivers, increasing congestion. This is mainly due to autonomous vehicles fully obeying the law and not taking risks when moving between lanes, unlike real-world human drivers.

In contrast, 506 vehicles pass through the light when switching to 100 per cent autonomous vehicles and adopting optimized traffic rules, including reduced 2.5m distances between cars, allowing platooning, and a higher 90 km/h speed limit.

This is feasible given that autonomous vehicles can react faster than human drivers to changing situations, avoiding sudden, hard braking and reducing accidents.

Dr Klaus Schmitz, partner at Arthur D. Little, says: “Higher demand for mobility and greater urbanization are making congestion a growing issue within the world’s cities.

“Our micro-simulation found that while fully autonomous vehicles would solve this problem, the initial scenario we are likely to see, with a mix of robot and human drivers actually leads to greater traffic jams. Things would get worse before they get better.

“Clearly switching to 100 per cent autonomous vehicles and changing traffic rules would require radical, disruptive action, posing serious questions for cities and society.

“Our work therefore aims to provide a starting point for further research and wider discussion, ahead of the future introduction of autonomous vehicles.”