AVs and People: You Gotta Keep ’Em Separated

Why AVs are Like Supercharged Teenagers

Anthony Townsend
Apr 27, 2017 · 4 min read

The future comes in threes. At least for me, its not the intersections of two trends or juxtapositions of two ideas, but the superposition of three signals that usually crystalizes a forecast in my mind.

The first part is just intuition. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time standing on corners in various parts of the urban world watching, say a dozen taxis, cars, shuttle buses, and delivery trucks trying to squeeze into the same curb space in front of a hotel, and thinking to myself “Automation is never going to be able to sort this mess out.” While I’m no fan of modernist visions of traffic separation from pedestrians, I have definitely seen enough places (like Sha Tin new town in Hong Kong) where it works great.

The second part was the rollout of Starship Technologies’ little delivery bots in a handful of cities in the last few months. It only takes one look at some local news coverage in DC showing a guy jumping out of the way of one, and a clueless PR pic showing a happy delivery bot hogging a narrow, crowded sidewalk in Hollywood while tourists (whom, as all New Yorkers intuitive know, do not know how to walk properly) and stroller-rolling moms give way.

The third part was a recent New York Times investigation of workplace accidents (read: gruesome mutilations and deaths) involving robots, mostly in factories but also in warehouses and other settings. These are heavily-regulated (wait, does OSHA still exist?), carefully-engineered robots working in controlled environments with trained people (though one of the articles’s key points is that workers often didn’t have adequate training on robot safety). And they still kill people… all the time.

So in a nutshell, automated vehicles can’t handle the urban jungle, they definitely should not be allowed to take over our sidewalks, and interacting with them in all the diverse ways people in cities will (with far more variety than a worker on a factory floor) — and there is only one conclusion.

Time to call in The Offspring.

Like the latest fashion
Like a spreading disease
The kids are strappin’ on their way to the classroom
Getting weapons with the greatest of ease
The gangs stake their own campus locale
And if they catch you slippin’ then it’s all over pal
If one guys colors and the others don’t mix
They’re gonna bash it up

Hey, man you talkin’ back to me?
Take him out
You gotta keep ’em separated
Hey, man you disrespecting me?
Take him out
You gotta keep ’em separated
Hey they don’t pay no mind
If you’re under eighteen you won’t be doing any time
Hey, come out and play

If this gives you visions of Amazon bots mixing it up rough-style with Google bots on the streets and sidewalks of you town, West Side Story-style, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. AVs are basically going to be like supercharged teenagers.

So What Can Be Done?

There are probably four ways we could keep AVs and people apart in the future city.

1. Quarantined

Physical separation is an obvious approach. And this might be feasible in regions where there are lanes and funds to make room for them. This is the default setting and we already see U.S. states like Virginia jumping on the idea.

2. Scheduled

Many cities restrict certain types of traffic by time of day, or day of week. Why not make all the robot deliveries in the middle of the night?

3. Assisted

This is an idea that is being explored in long-haul truck automation, where a lead vehicle would essentially function as a pilot ship. We can even imagine that the pilot would be itself a better and more expensive AI than anything that could be packed into a more cost-effective vehicle, or even a remotely piloted vehicle (like a military drone).

4. Choreographed

This is my favorite, long-term approach. Robots should basically be allowed to be anywhere that people are not, and nowhere that people are. It’s becoming increasingly trivial to know where both vehicles and crowds are in cities, and to even predict this well ahead of time. I imagine cities filled with people walking and cycling, as herds of AVs scuttle along the edges of business districts, down alleys, etc. in the background. Occasionally they might be permitted to sneak along a busier block ever so timidly to drop a passenger or a delivery. Or we’d have other robots that play traffic cop and close street segment as needed to let the logjam of AVs through. But the bulk of the traffic would go around us.

This probably suggests rethinking street networks, and taking a long look again at superblocks. (Another modernist idea that maybe was ahead of its time!)

Why This is Important

These are just ideas.

But of all the debates that are emerging in urbanist circles… should AVs be shared or private? Will they encourage sprawl or density? and so on… I think this one trumps them all. The politics will be interesting. A lot of transportation planners will hate it, as it smacks the Complete Streets idea in the face. Insurers could be the ones that demand it.

But we need to solve this quickly or these things are going to roll right over us.

bits and atoms

Exploring the intersection of cities and information technology

Anthony Townsend

Written by

Forecaster and urban planner — www.bitsandatoms.net

bits and atoms

Exploring the intersection of cities and information technology