Self-Driving Cars Have One Surprising Benefit

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Before cars can fly (and they will, someday), they're going to think for themselves. That's the bet many technologists, futurists, and manufacturers are placing on automated vehicles. Every so often, self-driving cars appear in the headlines, often with some "not ready for primetime" coverage. Once they hit the roads, though, just a handful may create big changes for the rest of us.

Physicists at Israel's Bar-Ilan University have just published a paper looking at the effects of autonomous vehicles on larger traffic patterns. The researchers assume that we'll go through a long period of majority human-driven cars and trucks, with some AVs mixed in. Surprisingly, when just 5 percent of cars on a road are self-driving, they found that traffic flow on the entire roadway became markedly more efficient.

Specifically, this model finds that if five out of every 100 cars is self-driving, traffic flow speed will increase by 40 percent and fuel consumption will go down a stunning 28 percent. This happens when self-driving vehicles "self-organize into groups that split the traffic flow into controllable clusters," according to a press release. This effect is also speedy; the researchers found that "it takes less than two minutes to achieve self-organized high-speed, greener, and safer traffic flow when starting from congested traffic."

Our cars are already getting smarter, and big changes are coming to transportation pretty much every way we turn. If this study proves correct, self-driving cars could become a must-have purchase not just for their convenience, but for the service they're doing for everyone else.