Self-driving cars may 'create havoc' by cruising to skip parking fees

Autonomous vehicles may bring a variety of benefits to any given city, but a new study warns they also have the potential to "create havoc" if companies prioritize money over traffic management. The issue may lie in parking fees and a company's effort to avoid paying those rates by keeping empty autonomous cars cruising on the road instead of parked when not in use.

Demand for rides grows the closer one gets to a city's downtown region, where autonomous cars may one day cruise non-stop to avoid paying a parking fee, a new study out of UC Santa Cruz warns. A large number of perpetually-cruising autonomous cars could introduce major traffic problems in cities where delays may already be a big problem.

The warning comes from transportation planner Adam Millard-Ball, who detailed the problem in a new study titled The autonomous vehicle parking problem. "Cruising," in this case, refers to circling an area instead of parking while waiting for a new ride request to come down the pipeline. The per-hour cost of operating these vehicles may be substantially lower than the per-hour or per-day cost for parking, according to the study, which says:

AVs not only can avoid parking charges through cruising (that is, circling around while waiting for a passenger), but also have the incentive to seek out and exacerbate congestion—even gridlock—in order to minimize costs to their owners.

Ordinary cars must be parked when not in use, and the cost of parking helps reduce the number of vehicles in operation. If someone can't afford the parking, they find an alternative, which leaves that space for someone else who can pay, cutting down on how many cars are in the area at any given time.

Autonomous cars can simply operate non-stop on roads, unlike regular cars, which means that existing parking pricing schemes in many cities lose their ability to help moderate the number of vehicles on the road. By operating autonomous vehicles constantly, these companies may introduce a new environment issue, as well.

The study explains:

First, AVs remove the parking proximity constraint: at high levels of automation,1 AVs have no need to park close to their destination, or even to park at all. Second, AVs can behave strategically in order to minimize the costs to their passengers or fleet owners, primarily through seeking out and creating their own traffic congestion through choosing to circle on streets where they can drive the most slowly.

According to the study, cruising one of these vehicles would only cost the company around 50 cents per hour, which is only a fraction of most parking costs. The solution may lie in congestion pricing, which would charge the companies for operating their vehicles within a certain region. Technologies may offer alternatives, as well, such as a system that tracks these vehicles and charges fees based on things relevant to the location — lanes they operate in, times of day, and more.