Major changes are coming to big city driving within five years, thanks to tech, predicts L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, on a drive in a semi-autonomous Volvo with USA TODAY.
Sean Fujiwara

LOS ANGELES – Though he’s in the driver’s seat when it comes to running the city, L.A.’s mayor took his hands off the wheel for a trip in a semi-autonomous car Tuesday to make a point about how new technology in the car could help make commuting easier.

USA TODAY rode along with Garcetti Tuesday morning in a Volvo XC90, an electric SUV with semi-autonomous features that mark a step toward the future. Garcetti hopped in the car to head to the Connected Car Expo at the Los Angeles Auto Show where he spoke about future tech on the roads. On the ride, Garcetti was able to take his hands off the wheel as the XC90 steered automatically and applied brakes while it cruised down the freeway.

“This takes some getting used to,” Garcetti said. “It’s like learning how to drive again, but it’s exciting.”

Garcetti predicts Los Angeles’ traffic, consistently rated among the nation’s worst, will be dramatically better in five years, thanks to self-driving cars and vehicles with autonomous features, along with ride hailing apps like Uber and Lyft that will make commutes less painful.

“Traffic won’t disappear but it will be a less frequent occurrence,” says Garcetti of the nation’s second largest city. “You’ll have your time back.”

While many Los Angeles residents dream of being able to zone out while creeping along, self-driving technology won’t happen suddenly. Drivers need to get into new technology in the car on a step-by-step basis, before moving to fully self-driving cars said Volvo Cars North America CEO Lex Kerssemakers.

In the short term, some 60% to 70% of all accidents are caused by human mistakes, he said. “If we can take out that element of mistake, this feature can have a huge impact.”

The XC90 starts at $49,800, while the “Pilot Assist” feature that Garcetti used is an add-on that costs around $1,200. Pilot Assist is adaptive cruise control that has an automatic steering feature at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. On the highway, the SUV accelerates and decelerates when there is a car in front.

Technologies like this will make driving more enjoyable, but it’s autonomous cars that will dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road at peak times, Garcetti says.

We’ll start to see them in the next five to 10 years, “and 20 years from now, they will be the norm,” he adds.

Many automakers are pushing hard to bring new technologies like Volvo’s to buyers, while companies like Google, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and others are working to get self-driving cars into our garages.

Garcetti’s goal is get more cars off the crowded freeways, which tend to bottle up during peak times. About 90% of the time, the roads actually aren’t congested, he says.

His problem: Most cars have an average of 1.1 riders. “If the cars had 1.6 passengers, we’d have no traffic.”

Unlike many cities, Los Angeles has approved having Lyft and Uber at the airport, which is expected to begin in 2016. Garcetti says it’s all about getting fewer people to drive themselves to LAX.

“Think of how many cars come to the airport to drop people off and how many cars come to pick people up,” he says. That’s inefficient. With more public transportation available, “we can reduce the number of vehicles coming to LAX by 50%.”

John Zimmer, president and co-founder of Lyft, said at the Connected Car Expo that the average cost of car ownership is $9,000 a year, and most passengers who use Lyft’s ride-share feature spend about $9 per ride. “That works out to 1,000 rides per year,” said Zimmer.

Meanwhile, if the predictions of a rosy future with fewer cars comes true–what about us? Will we still get to drive, or be driven?

“Nobody enjoys sitting in traffic, but we do love taking a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway,” he says. “That’s never going away.”

Follow USA TODAY tech columnist and #TalkingTech host Jefferson Graham on Twitter, where he’s @jeffersongraham.

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