Americans drive more than ever. Will driverless cars change that?

Americans spend more than 17,600 minutes behind the wheel each year, according to a new AAA study. 

Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, drives an autonomous vehicle in Pittsburgh, Pa., June 2016.

Have you ever wondered how much time you lose each year commuting during rush hour, or driving to a weekend getaway in holiday traffic, or even to the supermarket?

More than 17,600 minutes, or seven, 40-hour workweeks, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. That’s how much time the average American spends behind the wheel each year, according to a new study the traffic safety organization released Thursday. 

But the American Driving Survey, the second of its kind, comes as driving culture, already undergoing significant change, is poised to take another significant leap. Not only are fewer younger, urban-dwelling Americans driving or owning cars, according to AAA, but new and traditional automakers are also in a race to develop driverless vehicles. At least 19 automakers aim to develop autonomous car technology by 2020, and some transportation analysts predict that in 25 years Americans will start giving up their cars for self-driving vehicles.

If true, how will having our hands free and our eyes off the road affect our lives? 

More productivity, says Peter Stone, a computer science professor that studies traffic congestion, and is the founder and director of the Learning Agents Research Group at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“There will be different benefits in different situations,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday. City drivers will experience much shorter commutes, as vehicles will be able to drive closer together, and traffic lights could go extinct, says Dr. Stone. Rural drivers, meanwhile, will not see their commute times cut down, but will, for instance, be able to write emails, read the newspaper, or play on their smartphones. 

For now, though, the majority of Americans spend nearly 50 minutes driving daily, according to AAA. The organization surveyed the driving habits of 5,774 drivers. “In the most current and comprehensive look at how much Americans drive on a daily and yearly basis,” they described their driving habits over 2014 to 2015.

AAA researchers did find a third of 20 to 29-year-old eligible to drive don’t on any given day, while many households that live in the city don’t own a car, Brian Tefft, the lead researcher of the study, tells the Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday.

Collectively, however, more Americans are driving more miles than ever. AAA found the number of drivers increased by 1.5 percent since 2013, while the number of miles Americans drove increased by 2.4 percent. In the past, researchers have found more time behind the wheel, and more traffic jams, has led to lots of lost time and money.

In 2014, American drivers wasted 6.9 billion hours in traffic, according to a study released August 2015 by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and INRIX. The average rush-hour commuter spent 42 hours a year in traffic. Americans burned through $160 billion in wasted time and fuel that year, an average of $960 per driver, according to the study.

But a future of driverless cars could start to change that, according to a 2016 report led by Stanford University, the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence

With self-driving car technology, people will have more time to work or entertain themselves during their commutes. And the increased comfort and decreased cognitive load with self-driving cars and shared transportation may affect where people choose to live. The reduced need for parking may affect the way cities and public spaces are designed. Self-driving cars may also serve to increase the freedom and mobility of different subgroups of the population, including youth, elderly and disabled. 

And more work time, leisure, or even sleep in the car could lead to happier Americans, according to several studies, as Newsweek reported in January.

“People with commutes longer than 40 minutes are unhappier, more stressed and generally experience more worry than those who only have a 10-minute commute,” writes Newsweek’s Erin Biba, citing several studies.

But a "completely autonomous car society" might be hard to swallow, write Sanjeev and Sandeep Sardana, founders of Silicon Valley wealth management venture capital firms. 

"This is especially true in America, which has embraced the ethos of the open road and driving for the love of it," they write in a contribution to Forbes in 2014. "We as people have been raised to be in control of our destiny and behind the wheel."

But, in a future with driverless cars, commuters will have to weigh what’s more important: the freedom of putting the pedal to the medal, or more free time.

For Amanda Circeo of Sharon, Mass., shortening her work day to spend more time at home is her priority. Ms. Circeo spends an average of two hours commuting to and from Boston each day, she tells the Monitor. She works remotely one day a week to be at home more.

When asked what she would do with her hands off the wheel, she says work.

“I just want the time back.”

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