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Can L.A. Kill Traffic With Self-Driving Cars?

Image: A row of Google self-driving cars outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., on May 14.

A row of Google self-driving cars outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., on May 14. Eric Risberg / AP, file

Los Angeles could one day battle snarling traffic with a fleet of self-driving cars — at least if Mayor Eric Garcetti gets his way.

Speaking Monday at an event sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, he outlined his vision for a ride-sharing service, much like Uber or Lyft, that would depend on automated cars that can drive themselves. This was not science fiction talk. Garcetti said that the city was working with the University of California, Los Angeles, to create an area near campus to test the technology out.

It's not clear how far they have progressed. When contacted by NBC News, a spokesperson for the L.A. mayor's office said it was only in "preliminary discussions with UCLA," and that no further details, like whether the city or private companies would run the envisioned service, were available. But Garcetti's comments still represent a big jump.

“There are a lot of government officials who are talking about autonomous vehicles, because when they do, they tend to get a lot of attention,” Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan think tank, told NBC News.

Google's self-driving car ditches steering wheel 1:15

“Garcetti is the first person I have seen say, ‘Here is a place where we going to incubate this technology,’ and I think that is a positive first step.”

The promise of self-driving vehicles

The L.A. mayor might be first big-name politician to talk about a fleet of autonomous robot taxis, but plenty of academics have imagined what that future would look like.

First, to understand why self-driving cars could be so great, it's important to understand how inefficient drivers are right now. Around 76 percent of people who drive to work do it alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When drivers aren't commuting by themselves, they are looking for parking.

In San Francisco, transportation officials said that 30 percent of traffic in the city was caused by people looking for parking, while a study from Imperial College in London found that 40 percent of all gasoline used in congested urban areas was burned by people circling for a parking spot.

When cars aren't crawling along the street, they are not moving. That is also a problem.

"Vehicles spend most of their time being parked, not being used," said Regina Ruby Lee Clewlow, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford who specializes in transportation.

Imagine instead of sitting in a driveway or parking lot, cars moved around constantly, picking people up and dropping them off. At MIT, professor Emilio Frazzoli studied this exact scenario and found that a fleet of 300,000 autonomous vehicles could serve the transportation needs of Singapore's nearly 6 million people.

With smartphone-summoned self-driving cars, less gas would be wasted in traffic and looking for parking. Smart algorithms could also make sure cars are driving where they are needed most and encourage passengers to ride together to similar destinations, Clewlow said.

Plus, human drivers aren't always the safest. Alcohol alone caused one-third of traffic-related deaths in 2010, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Self-driving cars don't get drunk, tired or distracted.

Study: L.A., San Francisco most congested cities 0:26

They also don't require expensive infrastructure to be built. As Garcetti said, "A bus lane today may be a bus and an autonomous vehicle lane tomorrow."

Potential roadblocks

If a fleet of self-driving cars is such a no-brainer, then why aren't other mayors lining up to do the same thing as Garcetti? Well, because it might be a bit premature.

“The idea of making L.A. a place to incubate these new technologies is great,” Schank said. But during Garcetti's time as mayor "the chances that people are going to be shuttled around by a self-driving ride-sharing service are pretty low."

Google's self-driving cars have logged more than 700,000 miles. Still, those are prototypes that can only reach speeds of 25 m.p.h. Car companies like Audi and Mercedes-Benz — which received permits on Sept. 17 to test self-driving cars on California roads — are just dipping their toes in the water.

The first commercially available self-driving cars are still probably at least a decade away, both experts said. Engineers need to make sure fleets of cars can drive on the highway, in the snow and through underground parking garages. There are legal questions surrounding self-driving cars that experts haven't even dreamed up yet. Then there is the matter of the bill.

"We know what the technology looks like, but we don’t know what it’s going to cost," Schank said

A study by his organization put the price tag of the first commercially available self-driving car at around $100,000 — about the same price you would pay for a Porsche 911 Carrera. But he noted that is just an estimate and there was no way to tell how much the situation could change in a decade or so.

The best thing cities can do, he said, is create a regulatory environment where companies feel free to experiment and help with upfront costs. Once a ride-sharing service is on the streets, Schank said, governments can help ensure low-income areas don't get ignored and help subsidize fares.

Schank thinks Garcetti might be jumping the gun, but he does think the mayor's vision will be a reality one day. So does Clewlow.

"I think that it’s something that will happen," Clewlow said. "The real question is when."