Sep 4, 2019 - Science

Self-driving cars could ease future evacuations

Illustration of a car behind sandbags with wood panels for windows.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

About 1.5 million Floridians have moved inland to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. Such evacuations can be perilous — but in the future, networks of automated vehicles could help shuttle people out of harm's way more efficiently.

The big picture: Two colliding trends will likely make evacuations in this storm-prone population center trickier in the meantime, however. People are moving to south Florida in huge numbers, which will put far more people at risk. And battery-powered AVs and the infrastructure to support them are still a long way off.

Context: Evacuation orders are supposed to keep people safe, but sometimes create their own disasters, as occurred ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005, when 2.5 million Houston residents tried to flee, only to be trapped by gridlock for up to 20 hours, according to the Houston Chronicle.

  • More than 100 people died in the exodus, some of heatstroke, including 24 nursing home evacuees whose bus caught fire.
  • In Florida, 7 million people tried to escape Hurricane Irma as it marched the length of the state in 2017, leading to traffic jams and related problems.

AVs might help make evacuations more efficient, former Florida emergency management chief Bryan Koon, now a vice president at disaster consulting firm IEM, wrote in a 2018 blog post.

  • Platoons of connected AVs could shuttle groups of people at a time to a safe destination, reducing the number of cars on the road.
  • By communicating with other cars, they could travel faster, and closer together, to maximize traffic flow and reduce traffic-jamming fender benders.
  • Smart cars could also identify less congested routes and even direct people to available shelters or hotels.
  • "If you take the need for drivers out of the equation, you can move 30% more people in the same space, in theory," agrees Louisiana State University professor Brian Wolshon, who has worked with local governments on evacuation planning.

But, but, but: The shift from personal car ownership to shared mobility, and from gasoline engines to electric cars, will be a slow transition that could actually make mass evacuations more difficult, not less so, over the next couple of decades, Koon tells Axios.

  • As EVs proliferate, for example, the number of gas stations will fall and the number of charging stations will rise. But during the changeover "there could be a chance that we don't have enough of either" to handle a large-scale evacuation, he says.
  • As people give up their cars in favor of ride-hailing, it's also possible there won't be enough vehicles to accommodate everyone who needs to flee in an emergency, he says.
  • "We might no longer be able to say, 'Just get in your car and drive away.'"

What to watch: Florida's population is projected to increase by 6 million people, to 26 million, by 2030, with much of the growth in vulnerable coastal regions.

  • Restrictions on growth in the Florida Keys are tied to the county's ability to quickly evacuate people in a hurricane. Other regions could soon face similar limitations, warns Koon.
  • Government leaders need to factor in changing transportation trends, as well as the growing population, when crafting their emergency management plans.

Go deeper: The latest on Dorian

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