Could Self Driving Cars Solve Seattle’s Traffic Problem?

Have you driven up Denny Way at rush hour in Seattle recently? Sadly, you could make more progress using a sewing needle to dig the Alaskan Way viaduct replacement tunnel. Sitting in traffic has become a hated daily ritual for most residents of the Puget Sound. Even carpoolers or bus riders are not exempt; all vehicles using our public roads are in the same bind. Many local employers have responded with more flexible hours, attempting to let their workforce beat the traffic. The tangible result of this practice just means that rush “hour” far exceeds 60 minutes and seems to be starting much earlier in the typical work day.

Light Rail ridership has increased 66% since the U-link light rail extension opened but it doesn’t feel like commute times are getting any easier. As population density in the area continues to explode, this problem doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. However, a solution could be right around the corner that could transform the ability of our current road system to handle the additional folks that are flocking to our city. That solution might be self-driving cars.

How might self-driving cars help reduce our traffic congestion?  It could help in the following 6 ways (although there are probably more):

  • Speed limits could be safely increased because the “reaction time” of self-driving cars is potentially much greater than human drivers.


  • The distance between cars could be significantly reduced to allow a higher density of vehicles to move through a particular stretch of road.


  • Vehicle to Vehicle communication would allow for reduced delays at intersections and possibly eliminate the need for traffic signals.
  • Similarly, Vehicle to Vehicle communication would allow for cars to work together towards a goal of system optimization, which could cause the whole traffic system to operate more smoothly. In layman’s terms, this means that your car would know your destination and the destinations of all the other cars on the road to help optimize your route in conjunction with every other car traveling at that time.


  • Vehicle to infrastructure communication means that cars could maximize the physical space on the road regardless of the number of lanes. Having to slow down to merge or fighting across traffic to get to a turn lane could be a thing of the past!


  • Self-parking cars could also reduce walking time to the office; an aspect of commuting that may fail to consider. If you’re a peon like me that has to park in a garage that’s 5 blocks away from my office you will relate to this one. In theory, an autonomous vehicle could drop you off right at the front door of your office and then park itself, which in my case would save me 20 minutes of commute time every day.

Another area where self-driving cars may have an effect is mass transit. More people may be incented use mass transit options if they can get a ride to a light rail or bus stop without having to find a parking space for their car. In short, it could make the process of riding mass transit much easier, which would reduce the overall number of cars on the road.

While a lot of these benefits won’t be realized until most or all of cars on the road have this technology, it’s still fun to consider what the future might look like without the gridlock. Let me know in the comments below how wrong I am and how self-driving cars are really a pipe dream being sold to us by Silicon Valley technocrats.

Written while sitting in traffic at the cross section of Mercer and Aurora

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