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Self-Driving Cars Are Not the Future

We’ve been sold a lie. Autonomous tech isn’t ready, and our cities can’t handle more metal boxes

Paris Marx
Aug 9, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: Jack Finnigan/Unsplash

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For the past several years, Silicon Valley’s tech titans have been telling us that autonomous vehicles will become the future of urban mobility. No longer will we have to drive personal vehicles or even walk the “last mile” from transit stops to our final destinations — pods piloted by computers will whisk us wherever we want to go at minimal cost.

Our most ambitious technologists even claim that mass transit is outdated — it’s dirty, scary, and doesn’t get you to your final destination. Autonomous vehicles will make “individualized” transportation accessible to all — space limitations of dense urban cores be damned!

Can you seriously see us trying to cram all the pedestrians of New York City, or almost any major city around the world, into autonomous pods without creating the worst gridlock we’ve ever seen? It’s a hilarious proposal, but some technologists still believe it. (Remember, Elon Musk wants to build a ton of tunnels below Los Angeles for this exact reason.)

The truth is, autonomous vehicles will probably not dominate the streets of the future. Tech boosters’ blind fantasies are finally being revealed for the pipe dreams they really are. Self-driving cars aren’t imminent, the technology isn’t there yet. And while the reality of being sold a lie leaves some discouraged, a much more exciting vision of the future of mobility is emerging. Instead of streets hostile to anyone not in a metal box weighing a ton or two, we may see people reclaiming roadways for themselves.

Waking up to autonomous limitations

The fatal crash of a self-driving Uber that killed a pedestrian as she crossed a Tempe, Arizona, street in March impacted the industry enormously. Ambitious visions were replaced by cautious statements about the prospects of autonomous technology. For once, it seemed industry leaders were coming to terms with the realities of a technology that they’d lost touch with after several years of building hype.

Counter to previous industry claims, there’s no reliable data backing the notion that autonomous vehicles are safer than human drivers, and we’re still far from having the necessary data to derive such statistics. It’s possible that by ignoring the technology’s limitations, companies have placed autonomous vehicles in situations they weren’t equipped to handle, making them far more dangerous.

Some of the industry’s biggest boosters are beginning to admit that the imagined future of autonomous tech relies on a level of artificial intelligence that could take decades to develop — and that will require pedestrians to significantly change their behavior.

At a time when an increasing number of people accept that the suburban, auto-dependent lifestyle we were sold in the post-war period isn’t as liberating as we were led to believe, doubling down on that very path of development would be foolish.

Andrew Ng, a former director of Google Brain and Baidu executive, told The Verge that instead of designing A.I. to deal with edge cases, “we should partner with the government to ask people to be lawful and considerate. Safety isn’t just about the quality of the A.I. technology.” Or, as writer Russell Brandom put it, the boosters of autonomous driving want to “make roads safe for the cars instead of the other way around.” This is not the goal we should be striving toward.

If we buy into fantasies about autonomous tech, we may discover that instead of the emancipatory “individualized” transportation we were promised, we entrench the worst aspects of automobility: longer commutes, more traffic jams, negative health outcomes from a lack of physical activity, and a further decline in the quality of mass transit. At a time when an increasing number of people accept that the suburban, auto-dependent lifestyle we were sold in the post-war period isn’t as liberating as we were led to believe, doubling down on that very path of development would be foolish.

We stand at a decisive point in determining the future of how we move around in urban space. And honestly, not only can we do better, but we deserve better.

A boom time for new mobility options

The enthusiasm of those who were once major backers of autonomous vehicles may have faded, but it hasn’t disappeared. In some cases, it’s been redirected toward a suite of mobility services finding their way to streets and sidewalks the world over. But not without controversy.

Docked bike-sharing services have been around for a while. They offer central stations where riders can rent or return a bike by interacting with a digital interface. New services, by contrast, have gained attention in the past year for scattering dockless bikes and scooters around the city. These dockless devices can then be activated through the respective company’s app.

Since there’s no central station, people sometimes abandon their dockless bikes and scooters on the sidewalk, prompting a backlash from pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. This is part of the problem with new mobility services — the private companies running them often don’t consult with the local government before rolling out a new service. To counter this, many U.S. cities have quickly stepped up their regulations.

Many of these issues could be easily addressed with regulations on where the dockless scooters and bikes should be stored, the number allowed on the streets at a given time, and company responsibility when issues aren’t addressed. When Lime rolled out in Paris, for example, it first consulted with the local government. As a result, it hired a team to pick up and charge the scooters and move them if they were in places they shouldn’t be — a very different approach from the company’s entry into California’s major cities.

Setting aside some of the initial hiccups, there’s a bigger question: Could these new services encourage more people to move away from cars and embrace more active forms of mobility? We have little data to form a conclusive answer yet, but there are some positive signs.

The status quo is not a sustainable street configuration.

A new study from Populus, a research group co-founded by leading shared-mobility analyst Regina Clewlow, suggests that electric scooters are seeing rapid adoption in U.S. cities where they’re available. The residents of those cities tend to respond well to them, and the scooters seem to promote more equity than docked bikes. Women are more likely to use them, for example, and low-income residents are more supportive. Additional research shows that dockless bikes in Washington, D.C., were well-received and are more likely to be used in the city’s black neighborhoods.

However, the number of rides per dockless bike tends to be much lower than for docked systems, and it’s still unclear whether dockless services can actually be profitable — a necessity given that they’re operated by private companies.

Overall, issues surrounding dockless bikes and scooters speak to a larger problem in many cities: A disproportionate percentage of street space is allocated to vehicles. If these new services can entice more people to use them, they could help make the case for a more significant transformation of our streets.

Reclaiming our streets

Think about the current layout of a street. Typically there’s a wide paved space for cars — usually two to four lanes — then a narrow elevated strip on either side for pedestrians. Some streets may have bike lanes painted on the pavement near the sidewalks, while a much rarer layout will actually have a barrier to give bikes their own protected space.

As more people walk and switch to new mobility services (Citi Bike, dockless options, and the like), cities are under increased pressure to give them more street space. We see this pavement power struggle in the backlash to dockless bikes and scooters. Pedestrians don’t like having their already limited space limited even further.

Meanwhile, people sitting alone in massive SUVs get a ton of space to themselves, block buses from reaching their stops on time, and get angry if a bike gets anywhere near their vehicle. The status quo is not a sustainable street configuration.

Tech startups have the power to exert a disproportionate amount of pressure on local governments — just look at how well Airbnb and Uber have avoided stricter regulations. Lyft and Bird have already proposed helping to fund protected bike lanes. While having private companies pay for public infrastructure is not the path forward, their influence — combined with other voices demanding change — could force local governments to finally take action in favor of active transportation.

Urban planners are familiar with the concept of induced demand, which essentially states that when more of something becomes available, people are more likely to use it. In the context of transportation, that means that if a government builds more roads, we’re likely to get more drivers — which is why building new roads to relieve congestion rarely works. But if governments build wider sidewalks and bike lanes, we’ll get more people walking and cycling.

Beyond making transportation more efficient, both environmentally and spatially, a greater share of active transportation would have enormous health benefits and save governments a ton of money. From that perspective, investing in bike lanes could reap significant economic returns in the long run.

This isn’t to say there aren’t real issues with new dockless services and other forms of micro-mobility taking over our streets. It may be that these private services are not in the public interest, and some alternative run by the local transit agency will be a better option. Further, as bikes and scooters go electric, governments will need to determine the speed and type of electrification appropriate for their specific urban contexts.

These services are actively introducing people to using bikes and scooters to navigate the urban environment. In this way, they give us a preview of how mobility is changing. Such services will ultimately force us to renegotiate use of street space. We’ll need to accommodate those eschewing vehicles for other means of getting around the city.

The future is coming, and it doesn’t care about the self-driving hype.

Paris Marx

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