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Are Driverless Cars the Future of Transport or the Last Gasp of the Automobile?

We already have the tools to revolutionize transportation

For the past few years, we’ve been told that driverless vehicles will transform our cities. No longer will we need all that parking or even our own vehicles — we’ll be able to hail driverless taxis at an affordable price. It’s a fantastic vision for the future that frees us of the shackles of the automobile… or does it?

There are a few problems with the beautiful picture we’ve been painted. Self-driving cars are not a departure from our automotive past, but the continuation of an individualized form of transportation that has many negative consequences. And, counter to the assurances of Silicon Valley, driverless vehicles are still much further away than we’ve been led to believe.

Why do we have to wait for their technology to catch up to our aspirations? We don’t need self-driving cars to have cities that turn parking into public space and revolutionize the way we travel. That’s possible with present day technology, and by embracing it we can make a more fundamental — and emancipatory — change to our cities than self-driving cars can ever deliver.

The High Cost of Automotive Dominance

During the postwar period, the automobile became not only one of the dominant symbols of American culture, but also the dominant form of transportation. As the government subsidized the construction of the Interstate highway system and the mass expansion of suburban neighborhoods, the automobile was essential to getting around in that new geography. But the shift to automobility also came with major tradeoffs.

Nearly 86 percent of Americans drive to work — 76 percent are alone — and the time spent on those commutes has gotten progressively longer. With all the stories of widened roads and highways, you would think congestion that would have dropped, thus speeding up commutes; but no, research shows that widening roads actually makes no difference to congestion. The more roads there are, the more drivers arise to use them.

Average commuting times have risen from 21.7 minutes in 1980 to 26 minutes in 2014. That may seem small — only a few more minutes! — but those minutes add up. The average commuter spends nine days a year driving to and from work, while the 2.62 percent of mega-commuters — people whose commutes take 90 minutes or more each way — spend more than a month of every year making that trip. Those numbers are bad enough, but when you add it all up, the 139 million commuters in the United States are wasting 1.8 trillion minutes every year — or 3.4 million collective years. Imagine what else they could be doing with all that time lost in traffic.

Nearly 36,000 Americans die every year in vehicle accidents — more than the number killed by guns

Automobility isn’t just wasting our time, it’s costing lives. In the United States, 35,647 people died in vehicle accidents in 2014 — more than were killed by firearms — and the vehicle fatality rate is nearly 40 percent higher than in Canada and Australia. But that’s not the only way lives are lost. An MIT study estimated that a further 53,000 people die prematurely from tailpipe emissions.

Short of death, commuting is also associated with a wide range of negative health outcomes. There’s a clear link between suburban sprawl and obesity, since people tend to exercise less the further the distances between where they live, work, and shop. Within the United States, New Yorkers are, on average, six to seven pounds lighter than suburbanites. Longer commutes have also been linked with high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high colestoral, larger waist circumference, more metabolic risks, increased exhaustion, less sleep, and more days missed from work. Being stuck in traffic makes people more angry and stressed, the latter of which has been shown to increase risks for cardiovascular disease.

New Yorkers are 6 to 7 pounds lighter than suburban Americans because they walk more

But the negative mental health consequences go even further when our car-dependent transportation model that has spread people and amenities so far apart breeds social isolation and loneliness, particularly for elderly people and those in marginalized groups. When someone lives in a suburban area, does not have a vehicle — either because they can’t afford or can no longer safely drive one — and lacks access to adequate transportation, their world becomes very small, very fast, and such a level of isolation can lead to stress, depression, cognitive decline, and even physical pain.

Owning a vehicle can be prohibitive for some people, particularly if they’re not earning much money. AAA estimated the average annual cost of owning an automobile to be nearly $8,500, based on 15,000 miles (24,140 kms) of driving. That’s a lot of money when the real median personal income in 2016 was $31,099; and it’s before even considering how states are increasingly targeting poor drivers with fines to make up for budget shortfalls.

If we’re to believe the major technology companies, self-driving cars would fix these problems; yet there’s very good reason to be skeptical of those claims.

Driverless Vehicles Won’t Deliver on Their Promises

Silicon Valley imagines a world where a fleet of electric, driverless pods would be capable of handling every driving scenario, road condition, or weather event without human input. If their vision were to come to fruition, some of the issues with automobility would be addressed — but not all of them.

The number of deaths from vehicle collisions would decline, as would premature deaths from tailpipe emissions — though the electricity used to power the vehicles would have to come from clean sources so as not to simply move the emissions somewhere else. And that’s likely still a long way off if political leaders won’t challenge fossil fuel interests.

Commutes would likely decrease, as long as driverless vehicles are not used for a new wave of suburbanization; and if the fleet model — where people pay by ride or by subscription instead of buying a vehicle — is adopted, the high financial cost of owning a vehicle could be eliminated, though that also doesn’t mean that everyone in the suburbs would necessarily have access.

However, continuing to rely on door-to-door transportation would be unlikely to make a difference to obesity and other health problems associated with being sedentary. And if sprawl continues, the loneliness crisis would also likely persist because people would still be located in places that are far from more crowded and vibrant urban spaces that would allow for easy interaction with others. Such people are also likely to have few financial means, which means they may not be able to afford the driverless service.

Driverless vehicles could resolve vehicle deaths and commute times, but wouldn’t address health issues

Moving away from the issues outlined earlier, there are other important topics left out of the driverless vision of the future that are worth examining.

How likely is autonomous vehicle technology to reach the point necessary to implement this vision in the near future? The truth is, it’s not at all likely. Nearly all of the major companies working on autonomous vehicles have pushed their timelines years down the road, and some have scaled back promises to only semi-autonomous features. Level-4 vehicles, which can drive themselves in limited areas such as on highways and in some suburban areas, may become a bit more common over the next few years; but the level-5 capabilities that are necessary for steering wheels to be removed require the system to be able to navigate busy urban centres and all forms of inclement weather. Quite frankly, it will take a lot more work for such vehicles to safely transport human passengers.

But there’s a potentially even bigger problem that this vision misses. Most major cities are already drowning in traffic and the first part of this experiment with individualized on-demand transportation seem to only be making it worse. Technologists have claimed that driverless cars will reduce congestion because their ability to communicate with one another will make them more efficient; yet those same people have also promised that space for cars will be reduced, while prices for rides will drop since automation will eliminate drivers, allowing more people to use driverless vehicles.

Those promises simply don’t work: traffic congestion will improve while the number of riders increases and road space decreases? Not only will it not happen, but this isn’t the first time that Silicon Valley has ignored the role of geometry in its futuristic visions.

Transportation consultant and planner Jarrett Walker called out technologists — Elon Musk, in particular — for treating transit exclusively as an engineering problem; ignoring the centrality of geometry to building “cost-effective and liberating transportation.” Walker boils this mindset down to what he calls “elite projection.”

Elite projection is the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole. […] It is perhaps the single most comprehensive barrier to prosperous, just, and liberating cities.

The idea that driverless cars are going to fundamentally transform urban transportation and the shape of our cities is elite projection at its finest. A fleet of driverless vehicles may serve the top 20 percent of residents, but it will never be serious a mass transit option for urban dwellers — yet that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There is a technology that can provide the liberation the self-driving cars cannot — and it’s already here.

The Massive Potential for Transit

We don’t need to hold out for driverless vehicles to transform parking into parks and public spaces and reduce traffic congestion. Instead, what we need is to expand and improve public transit and cycling infrastructure in cities and suburban areas. That’s how the real improvements to quality of life and access to opportunities will be achieved.

Public transit riders are less stressed and far less likely to die in vehicle accidents. Buses and trains create far less pollution than motor vehicles and allow for plenty of interaction with other people. These modes are great for the elderly because it connects them to other parts of the city without them needing to drive themselves or find someone else to drive them. It allows them to go on living their lives with dignity and not be trapped in their homes.

Unsurprisingly, people who use public transit also tend to be much healthier than those stuck in their vehicles. They walk a lot more, and as a result studies have shown they’re far less likely to be overweight, have high blood pressure, or have diabetes. People who bike and walk have similarly positive health outcomes; so much so that the high rates of cycling in the Netherlands result in an estimated savings of $23 billion each year and 6,500 fewer premature deaths. It’s worth remembering that Amsterdam hasn’t always been so accomodating to pedestrians and cyclists. Cities can always change.

With inequality at record levels in the United States, it’s also important to recognize the economic benefits of transit. A study of 148 midsize cities found that when transit use increased, the level of inequality went down because white woman and black workers, in particular, were able to earn higher wages. The number of people paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent also dropped. Limited access to transit reduces economic opportunity — and that needs to change.

Luckily, it already is. Americans do not want the driverless car future of Silicon Valley; they want public transit. A recent survey showed that 64 percent of people are concerned about sharing the road with a driverless vehicle, while 73 percent of Americans want tax dollars to be used to expand and improve public transit and nearly the same number want Congress to increase federal spending on public transportation infrastructure.

And when they can, voters are showing this to be true. In 2016, Americans supported ballot initiatives to spend nearly $200 billion on public transportation, and 90 percent of the transit ballot initiatives in 2017 were approved. Americans are demanding change — and not the one Silicon Valley has on offer. This time Europe can show the way forward.

Public transit ridership is much higher in European countries and more money is spent on transit infrastructure. But just as Americans are demanding change, so are Europeans. Oslo is removing on-street parking and closing streets to vehicles; Stockholm is following suit with its own plans to reduce space for vehicles; Paris has reclaimed large sections on the banks of the Seine for pedestrians and is massively expanding its metro system; London is pedestrianizing Oxford Street and building the Crossrail train line; and Barcelona is limiting traffic on 60 percent of its streets to create spaces for culture, leisure, and community.

These are real transformations happening today, not predicted to happen sometime in the future if the proper technology becomes available. We don’t need to wait for driverless cars to get the benefits Silicon Valley promised would accompany them; benefits which they likely won’t even be able to deliver. Driverless cars as they’re promoted by technologists are a fantasy, but public transit and cycling infrastructure have been proven to deliver the quality-of-life improvements that people are demanding time and time again.