Listen to this story
It’s amazing how quickly perceptions can change. It may seem hard to remember now, but in 2017, the hype machine was going full steam ahead on self-driving cars and their presumed future dominance of transportation. Cars would still dominate—many presumed—but drivers would be liberated as software took over their role, making everyone a passenger.
The fatal Uber crash hadn’t happened yet. People still believed that Tesla’s Autopilot system was safe and that full self-driving was on the horizon. The reporting on autonomous vehicles suggested they were safer than human drivers, despite a complete lack of evidence. The tech visionaries had spoken and, as is often the case, the media fell in line.
But, as 2018 began, criticism began to emerge amid delayed timelines, a growing number of collisions, and the slowing progress in reducing the number of times human test drivers had to take over for computers. As the year played out, critics were proven right — but a much more inspiring vision for the future of transportation has emerged in the wake of the self-driving vehicle.
Waymo, a division of Alphabet, has long been a leader in autonomous vehicle technology. Based on the limited data released on the company, its vehicles have driven the most miles in self-driving mode and have the lowest rate of disengagement (moments when humans have to take over).
But Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, has admitted that a self-driving car that can drive in any condition, on any road, without ever needing a human to take control—usually called a “level five” autonomous vehicle—will basically never exist. At the Wall Street Journal’s D.Live conference, Krafcik said that “autonomy will always have constraints.” It will take decades for self-driving cars to become common on roads. Even then, they will not be able to drive at certain times of the year or in all weather conditions. In short, sensors on autonomous vehicles don’t work well in snow or rain—and that may never change.
Such a statement from someone leading a self-driving vehicle company seems surprising. But given what’s happened throughout 2018, it shouldn’t be. A number of negative stories about self-driving cars permeated the year’s coverage, including the deaths of those using Tesla’s Autopilot technology. The effect of an Uber self-driving car killing a woman in Tempe, Arizona, cannot be understated. That singular event broke through the largely uncritical mainstream coverage of autonomous vehicles; it showed us how far the technology really had to go before it could be safe.
No longer does anyone credibly claim that self-driving cars are the future of transportation.
The initial event was bad enough: A self-driving car failed to slow down to avoid hitting a person and a safety driver was too distracted to notice. But as the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incident, we learned that the autonomous driving system was unable to determine that the object in front of it was a person at all. When it finally did correctly determine that it had to stop—just 1.3 seconds before impact—it couldn’t because emergency braking had been disabled, and there was no way to alert the safety driver.
Leaked information showed that Uber safety drivers had to intervene in their self-driving vehicles every 13 miles (21 km) compared to every 5,600 miles (9,000 km) on average for Waymo’s vehicles, and the team was putting their test vehicles in unsafe situations to try to hit impossible deadlines. It was a complete mess, and eventually blew up future plans among ride-sharing apps that depended, in part, on autonomous vehicles to reduce labor costs.
Uber had to completely halt its autonomous vehicle testing, and it was already far behind its competitors. It pulled out of Arizona completely, laid off most of its safety drivers, and only reapplied to resume testing in Pittsburgh near the end of 2018—almost eight months after the fatal crash.
But between March and November, everything changed. No longer does anyone credibly claim that self-driving cars are the future of transportation, and Uber has even shifted its focus to scooters, e-bikes, and turning its app into the “Amazon for transportation.”
At the beginning of 2018, it would have been unimaginable for the CEO of Waymo to publicly acknowledge that self-driving cars will never work in all conditions. Now, it’s a statement of fact that anyone familiar with the industry already knows. But while the hype about self-driving cars is over, there’s a new vision for urban transportation that’s much more inspiring—and everyone seems to want in on it.
Before, it seemed like the future of transportation would look like the present, albeit augmented with a bit more tech. That’s no longer the case. We’ve heard for a while that European cities are improving transit, adding bike lanes, and taking space away from cars. Now, these trends are becoming more common in the United States.
People want better public transit and more options to bike and walk around their cities.
And why shouldn’t they? Cities in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly dominated by cars, but that doesn’t mean they have to be—remember, there was a time before the automobile. People enjoy driving less than they have in the past, and a recent survey showed that 30 percent “do not believe that owning a car is worth the investment.” Instead of driving, people want better public transit and more options for biking and walking around their cities—and they’re getting them.
Over the past year and a half, dockless e-bikes and scooters—collectively called “micromobility” services—landed on the sidewalks of cities around the country. Initially, there was backlash. These bikes and scooters were on roads previously reserved for cars, and they were imposing on pedestrians’ limited space.
City governments weren’t as slow to react as when Uber and Lyft rolled out their ride-hailing services.
Local governments have created a range of regulations to cap the number of bikes and scooters. They’ve set speed limits and off-limit zones, and some have even started turning some on-street car parking spaces into micromobility parking spots. More importantly, governments have access to bike and scooter trip data. As more people use these micromobility services, the pressure to add more bike lanes and improve micromobility infrastructure grows.
In urban planning, there’s a concept called “induced demand.” The concept maintains that as the supply of a good increases, so does its demand. This typically applies to roads and explains why even when highways are widened, congestion rarely improves—the additional lanes simply attract more drivers. We’re seeing the same phenomenon with micromobility. As cities add dockless bikes and scooters, they create demand that didn’t previously exist. New cyclists and scooter users create pressure for better parking and bike lanes, which results in a positive feedback loop by attracting more users, who create more pressure for infrastructure, and on and on. In the past, this feedback loop has benefited drivers, but momentum may finally be shifting to more active forms of mobility.
Cars have dominated U.S. cities for decades. It can be difficult for people who grew up in them to imagine anything else. Today, however, people are demanding a different kind of city. Citizens want easier, less environmentally toxic ways of moving around.
For baby boomers, the car was a symbol of freedom. It allowed them to hit the open road and go wherever they wanted. Younger generations, however, see cars as an expensive inconvenience. Wages are lower, vehicle costs are higher, and they’d rather get where they’re going than wait in traffic and try to find parking. The self-driving car seems to have been a reflection of the future imagined by car-loving boomers, but micromobility seems to be the future people want—and the one that might just have the best chance of succeeding.
Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.