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Busting The “Heavier Traffic” Myth

June 9, 2017 Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor

When you’re tracking the evolution of autonomous vehicles via Google News alerts, every day starts with something interesting and often exciting. But some of the time, an article is only interesting because of how misleading it is.

There’s a reason for that. As we’ve been reporting for some time now, sometimes a writer or a publication decides to take a sliver of information out of context and turn it into click-bait.

The result, of course, is a scary and/or discouraging headline blowing up your RSS feed. This week’s culprit: “Self-Driving Cars Could Be Terrible for Traffic – Here’s Why.”

This is a rare case. Not only is the argument spurious, the tone actually gets worse after the headline.

Usually, a click-bait headline gives way to an article that begins to pull its punches or makes caveats. But the lead three paragraphs of this particular article take this fascinating progression: “(p1)Self-driving cars might make your future commute a lot more pleasant, but they won’t eliminate traffic” … (p2) Execs like Sergey Brin of Google say they will… (p3) “But experts say the vehicles’ impact on traffic will be minimal or negative.”

So, it’s not really that they’re saying self-driving cars “could be” terrible for traffic. They’re saying they will be.

Of course, as expected, the expert quoted in the following graf says nothing that calls for that sort of language. The expert says “autonomous vehicles won’t fix congestion woes unless a pricing system is put into place” for zero-occupancy vehicles to discourage companies from using AVs as a free alternative to shipping carriers like UPS and the postal service.

Buried deeper in the piece, almost as an afterthought, are examples of states that have already begun putting such pricing systems into place.

It may seem like a small thing. This is just one article, after all, in a sea of articles, if you search “autonomous vehicles and congestion” that all say in one way or another how much AVs will help reduce congestion. ( Here’s one of my recent favorites, from MIT’s Technology Lab, about how just a few AVs on a road among standard-driver cars dramatically reduces congestion.)

But this is how myths are made. The power of the Internet is strong, and the power of the human mind to think it knows something because it read it on the Internet may be even stronger. For the average news consumer who hasn’t been making an effort to stay abreast of every new study and survey that point to the undeniable promise of autonomous vehicles, all it takes is chancing upon this one article, and suddenly they know a new “fact” about AVs.

And they tell their friends. And their friends tell their friends. And so on, and so on.

But as we argued months ago, this is a deeply irresponsible act every time a respectable news outlet plays on the public fears of the unknown to make a spurious argument just to get some traffic for their banner advertisers. To paraphrase Elon Musk in the above-linked piece, every time a journalist writes an anti-AV piece, they’re potentially putting human lives at risk.

Because we shouldn’t lose the big picture here. Yes, states will have to adjust regulations to account for businesses that want to use AVs as free courier services. The switch to autonomous vehicles isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to be a situation where we just have a new kind of vehicle but we keep all the laws exactly the same. But the idea that states, which often find it extremely hard to tighten the belt enough to find money for road repairs, would simply go along with companies using AVs for free deliveries is absurd. Of course the company would need to pay for using public infrastructure for wide-scale delivery services. It’s hard to think of a state that wouldn’t jump at the chance of opening a revenue stream for transportation in this way.

Here’s the big point this argument gets us to, though – one totally missed by its author. So let’s imagine this future where businesses are having to pay a per-mile tax for unmanned delivery services. First of all, they’re economizing their own use of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) to get the job done for as little as they can have to use the roads, which means the nightmare scenario put forth by this article never comes true (as the expert cited in the article says) and yes, traffic congestion does decrease. The state, meanwhile, is getting some extra money to make road infrastructure repairs and even invest in new pieces of infrastructure. The environment is benefitting from the drop in congestion, and maybe will even more from smart infrastructure the state invests in. And people are still getting their packages on time.

This is the thing with these misleading articles. If you stop to logically step through the scenario they’re positing, and you account for basic common sense they forgot to include, their hollow scare piece turns into another rosy-looking scenario for AVs.

This isn’t just optimism on my part. Here’s a little experiment you can do to see my point in action. Go ahead, search around the internet for the benefits of AVs on any given topic, from safety to land use. Notice the hundreds of immediately available news articles and the plethora of white papers and academic journal articles.

Then Google the exact opposite of what you just saw hundreds of articles about. Example query: “autonomous vehicles will be less safe”. Something we know beyond a shadow of a doubt isn’t true. And yet, there you see all the click-baity counterexamples.

If I’ve written in a colloquial style here, it’s only been because I want to keep your attention. The point is deadly serious. Journalists need to stop worrying so much about getting clicks and start being responsible to their sources as well as their readership by avoiding this sort of crass misappropriation of context.

News outlets, just consider it: it’s completely possible to support your business model without scaring people into clicking headlines. AVs are exciting enough in their own right. We know you’ll catch on soon.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.