The Most Important Principle for Autonomous Vehicles — An Open Framework

By Noam Copel — CEO and CoFounder, DAV

Noam Copel, CEO

Advances in self-driving vehicle technology promise an approaching era in which transportation is cheap, widely accessible, emissions-free, and free of traffic fatalities. But this utopia is far from guaranteed. Some early movers apparently believe that the best way forward for autonomous cars is to set and enforce top-down rules. The first salvo was fired last week by this command-and-control camp.

A coalition of mobility companies and environment organizations on Thursday signed on to a document dubbed the “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities.” The coalition has noble intentions — such as trying to prevent the introduction of self-driving cars adding to the congestion that’s creating gridlock in the world’s major cities.

“There’s a doomsday scenario,” said Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, a public-interest organization that helped create the principles. To Feigon, the doomsday is if “every single autonomous vehicle is a single-occupancy or [passenger-less] vehicle circling around waiting for their owners.” She’s not the only one worrying about a dystopia in which robot cars take over our cities. Tesla’s Elon Musk also expressed concerns about autonomous cars creating unbearable congestion — partly the inspiration for his idea to bore massive networks of underground roadways.

The group’s principles are mostly common-sense guidance — such as data sharing and having vehicles pay their fair share for road use. But the coalition, which notably includes Uber and Lyft, caused an uproar with its final principle:

“Autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas should be operated only in shared fleets.”

The Internet went apoplectic. “Prescribing a one-size-fits-all ownership model to fit everyone’s varied lifestyles and consumer preferences is the antithesis of the American way,” declared R Street, a free-market think tank. “This doesn’t exactly sound like the freedom-filled future sci-fi writers have been promising, now does it?” wrote Sam Rutherford, a senior reporter at Gizmodo, a tech blog. “What makes it feel even slimier is that many of these companies were founded on the principle of disrupting outdated regimes and giving people more choices at lower costs.” Like other observers, Rutherford suspects that these disruptive companies don’t want to find themselves as the victim of future disruption.

It does appear that Uber, Lyft and the other private mobility companies in the coalition are making a land grab. The irony is hardly subtle. Researchers point to the rise of ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, as a major contributor to traffic congestion and decreased use of public transit. According to the San Francisco Police Department, nearly two-thirds of congestion-related traffic violations in the city are from Uber and Lyft vehicles.

The coalition doesn’t have any real power to implement a ban on privately owned self-driving cars — so perhaps it’s a tempest in a teapot. (Besides, the definition of what level of autonomy would be curtailed were not specified. Perhaps a Tesla Model S with AutoPilot?) But the mere hint that a self-appointed body would unilaterally lay down the rules of the new road was enough to expose how little thought has been given to developing systems for governing the use of autonomous vehicles. That needs to change, pronto.

In the self-driving era, we need to fundamentally shift how we look at urban transportation — not as disconnected individual pedestrians, cars, and roads, but as something similar to the Internet. Cars are no longer singular jalopies piloted by humans, but rather a network of connected mobility devices. And we know, in this day and age, that the smartest and most sustainable systems operate on the principles of openness and decentralization.

These are early times for vehicle automation — way too early for hard and fast rules. New technologies, hardware, software, services, and marketplaces will emerge between now and the time that self-driving cars go on sale for individuals. Just as new outfits arise, some of the leading firms — including those last week signing the principles — will cease to exist. And the best solutions for ensuring that the roadways operate efficiently to minimize congestion have probably not yet been imagined.

Instead of isolated companies, or a coalition of them, trying to set the rules today, we need a decentralized network in which every individual and company can participate, collaborate, and innovate.

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