Why Self-Driving Cars Are Either Really Good or Really Bad

August 11, 2016

9:04 am

The rise of self-driving vehicles opens up a Pandora’s box of questions. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about the ethical puzzles that will need to be programmed in, like whether a car should kill its own passenger in order to save three pedestrians. But plenty of infrastructure issues remain.

I’ve written on problems like if passengerless cars will need to be banned and the fact that middle America’s reliance on trucking as an occupation will destroy the economy once self-driving trucks roll around. Now former Zipcar CEO Robin Chase has written for Backchannel on the polarizing effects of the innovation: Self-driving cars will either improve our cities or ruin them.

We Need to Wake Up

Chase argues that no one is paying attention to the massive changes to city structures and design that will be needed in order to prevent automated vehicles (AVs) from miring themselves in all the regulations and road sizes that currently work fine for the driver-required kind of vehicle. As she puts it:

We’re at a fork on that roadmap. One direction leads to a productive new century where cities are more sustainable, livable, equitable, and just.

But if we take the wrong turn, we’re at a dead end. Cities are already complex and chaotic places in which to live and work. If we allow the introduction of automated vehicles to be guided by existing regulations we’ll end up with more congestion, millions of unemployed drivers, and a huge deficit in how we fund our transportation infrastructure.”

Adoption Will Happen Way Too Fast

A laundry list of major manufacturers are promising commercial self-driving cars by 2020, less than four years from now. Once they’re on the market, services like Uber and the trucking industry will purchase fleets of them as quickly as possible. City planners have less than half a decade to try to consciously shape the laws and roads before AVs start using them anyway. At it’s most basic, this question has two answers: Either we do nothing, or we do something.

Option One: We Do Nothing

Massive congestion from empty cars. Driving your empty car to pick up pizza will be cheaper than tipping a delivery person to do it for you. In a way, we have proof that this will happen: “Endless double-parking and block circling already happens in places where the cost of a human driver is either very cheap (think Delhi) or expense is irrelevant (think about luxury black cars in New York City).”

Tax revenue will also be lost: $206 billion a year comes from motor vehicle creation and use, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

Option Two: We Enact Smart Laws

A system of shared cars would solve congestion. Here’s the most interesting claim from Chase: We will only need 10 percent of the cars we currently use today, if we find the best sharing system. She explains:

“I feel pretty confident about this estimate. It’s from an excellent study by the International Transport Forum at the OECD that used actual origins, destinations, and timing for trips in the city of Lisbon. This is in line with numbers I’ve heard from a modeler at Google, a transport planner for the Bay Area, and taxi studies in Singapore and New York City. I can even see how this happens. A bold mayor will be the first mover, welcoming a discrete pilot within city limits. A hundred cars will shepherd tourists, students, late shift workers, and the curious. No one will die. It’ll be cheap and convenient.”

Cityscapes will change: Irrelevant parking garages and street parking can be removed. Taxes will change, shifting from car inspections and toll revenue to gasoline taxes. An reliance on electricity will benefit the climate.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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