Much has already been written on the robot car, but streets.mn’s own Bill Lindeke posits that they “will not save us“, citing three problems. While I agree that we probably can’t be saved (from what exactly I can’t say, there are many options), but in my opinion Bill and other urbanists should welcome the robot car with open arms, or at least, tentative waves.
As I do with each post I write about robot cars, I must begin with two items of preface: 1) I believe the benefits of robot cars will outweigh their drawbacks, but I have reservations about their implementation (not necessarily the concept), and 2) no post about robot cars should neglect to include a link to Brad Templeton’s Robot Car website, who is, as far as I can tell, the grandfather of writing about robot cars on the internet. Now that that’s out of the way, on to the meat.
In this post I want to respond to the three problems Bill sees with robot cars. Next time I’ll posit some benefits of robot cars I think he may be overlooking.
Problem #1 – The Automobile System Complexity/Equity
The massive number of cars involved – over 254 million registered – means that any new technology is going to take a long time to get implemented across the country. Think of all the old clunkers on the road. Think of all the cars that don’t receive proper maintenance. They aren’t going away. This doesn’t include the uninsured unregistered cars, which according to some estimates, are16% of the cars on the road and rising dramatically every year. There are cars in my working class neighborhood that are literally held together with duct tape, or where the windows are plastic sheets.
All these facts mean that any change to the US auto system that’s as fundamental as the robocar revolution will not happen quickly or neatly or evenly….Not only will this pose problems for the promise of robocars, dramatically reducing many of their efficiency and safety gains, it will create a deep divide within the social geography of our transportation system. It’ll be a lot like at airports, where you have different lanes for business travelers and the masses. It’ll be like the difference between limos and bus stops.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Bill here, but I don’t agree that this is a problem. Robot cars will be incorporated into the market slowly. They will initially operate in mixed traffic and you probably won’t even notice them. Yes, this will reduce their potential safety and performance benefits (no road trains will happen for a while), but each additional robot car will reduce the likelihood of accidents and increase the opportunity for fuel efficiency and road system performance. I also think Bill overstates the equity case. Yes, at first only the rich will have robot cars. But the rich were the first to have anti-lock brakes, air bags, navigation systems and other safety features on cars. As technology gets cheaper, more people will have robot cars and the roadways will become safer. Robot cars also benefit people besides their passengers, because they can more effectively avoid crashes. Like a pedestrian airbag, the adoption of robot cars by the rich will benefit people besides the rich.
Robot cars may or may not be given separate facilities. For many years, I think they probably won’t, they’ll just operate in mixed traffic. Once subscription robot car-sharing services become available, I imagine they will be given special treatment (access to carpool lanes, etc), but why not? We give these advantages to other transit and carpools.
So robot cars may not “save us” because they’ll take a long time to implement and require special infrastructure. To the latter I say “they won’t”. To the former I say, “maybe”. 70 percent of cars are probably replaced after ten years, which isn’t that long in infrastructure terms. If Bill wants a more cost-effective mode of transport for “the masses”, he should hail the coming of a subscription car service that frees people from the debt, insurance and maintenance costs associated with parking your own individual jalopy outside your house.
Problem #2 – Liability
As Bill correctly points out, in our litigious society, we need someone to blame when robot cars go bad.
But what happens when you take that driver away, and let them start to doze off or read the newspaper or surf the web? Who’s responsible then when something goes wrong? Sure, in a robocar society, accidents will be greatly reduced.
But they’ll still happen! (And, this is what none of the dozen or so robocar articles I’ve read don’t bother to mention.) Something will go wrong. With 200 million cars and millions of other changing variables, something will always go wrong. Nobody who’s ever seen the “blue screen of death” or the “spinning beach ball of stasis” can possibly disagree. (What happens when a robocar system gets too old, and doesn’t get maintained? What happens when a small part breaks, and nobody notices?)
Bill posits that a solution would be something akin to a air traffic control network for automobiles, and he imagines the enormous cost and complexity of this system. But Google and others have already demonstrated that no centralized air traffic control network is necessary. Driverless cars can operate in erratic human traffic without any central controller, and have already done it for hundreds of thousands of miles with no accidents. To use another airplane metaphor, robots have been landing our planes since the 1960’s. Yes, there will be accidents. Brakes can only stop a vehicle so fast, even if a computer is pushing the pedal. Sometimes computers will have software problems. But as with automated airplane landing systems, there will be redundant computer systems, and they will be tested and retested to make them safer.
If I had to answer the question today about who will be ultimately liable in the case of a catastrophic robot car crash, I’d say the manufacturer. As with any other consumer products, they will maintain some liability for the safety of their product. I’m confident we can figure out a solution that works logically and equitably.
Problem #3 – The Solution That Has No Problem
Finally, Bill says that the future is now (!) and we don’t even need any stinkin’ robot cars.
Maybe the robocar is a solution in search of a problem. If the problem is that our current road system is unsafe, unhealthy, bad for the planet, and incompatible with new technological norms, there are two roads before us. The first is to develop highly complicated new technologies that will “solve” the problem. While I’ve wary of the complexity of the situation, I’m not saying we can’t do this. Computers are amazing, the US is the wealthiest country in the world, with the best engineers and software designers you’ll find on planet Earth.
But for the cost of a single backup camera, you could buy someone a really nice new bicycle. For the cost of a single robo-interchange, you could implement a system of safe and comfortable bike lanes all through an entire city.
This is just one example of the road less traveled. If we go down this road, we start reducing our dependence on technology. Instead of robocars, let’s build cities that privilege people. Instead of thinking about ever more complex ways to depend on the automobile, let’s start thinking beyond it. To me, that’s a visionary future. It might not be as shiny, and it might not be up there with the Jetsons or Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama, but it’s far more equitable, practical, and affordable than the robocar alternative.
I don’t think Bill’s roads (shouldn’t that be sidewalks?) are mutually exclusive. We could certainly do a lot more to make our cities more livable, leverage all the benefits of simple, cheap solutions like the bicycle and decrease our dependence on the car. But we should still encourage and welcome the age of the autonomous vehicle. We aren’t going to be rid of cars or something like them for a very long time, and I don’t think that’s even the right goal. Robot cars are not a panacea for what ailes our cities and planet, but implemented properly, I think they can bring many benefits that Bill might like. And that’s what I will explore in the next post.
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