Why urbanists (and others) should love the coming of the robot car (Part 1)

In the future, robots will create retro-futuristic drawings for us

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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11 Responses to Why urbanists (and others) should love the coming of the robot car (Part 1)

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 25, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    Thanks Brendon. This post is exactly why Streets.mn is formed.

    re #1: I guess I'm more pessimistic about the ability of the government and private capital to re-create a whole new system.

    See this article on how "the aging of the US auto fleet". I don't see this trend reversing any time soon, barring another long-term speculative finance bubble or something. (http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/story/2012-01-17/cars-trucks-age-polk/52613102/1 )

    #2: A couple hundred thousand miles of operating in mostly freeway traffic (as I understand it) is a tiny tiny fraction of the total US VMT (3 TRILLION!). It's not a question of if something goes wrong, but when. (ref: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2011/08/vmt-20110

    And I am really in favor of car sharing systems. I've been using Hourcar for years now, and think it's great. Car sharing is the kind of thing that only gets better as it expands.

    #3: I want to stand by my point here, though. I guess my main argument is that our culture is too obsessed with high technology fixes to problems that may have low technology solutions. Too often our cultural attitude seems to be: Why build a simple, cheap (healthy) solution like walkable / bikeable cities when you can invest in a multi-billion dollar system of really complex technology?

    OTOH, if robot cars have speed limiters or something, automatically drive a maximum of 25mph in cities or something, I might start to love them!

    • David Levinson
      David Levinson April 25, 2012 at 5:34 am #

      I would expect Robot Cars will be required to travel at the posted speed limit and otherwise obey the law (unless they are in manual override, in which case they cease to be robot-driven). Whether the limit is 25MPH depends on the community, but in this regard it will have to be an improvement.

  2. Philip F April 25, 2012 at 6:18 am #

    I also share Bill Lindeke's sentiment – what problem are we solving here?

    When car makers introduced electric windows – did it solve the problem of not being able to roll the window down manually by crank? Or, did it merely introduce more complexity into a system which already worked? Now an expensive electric motor is used to provide the same task as a hand crank. However, which one breaks more often? And, which is cheaper and easier to fix? I think the answer is clear. While electric windows might be more "refined" or "luxurious," they are not a solution to an existing problem!

    If we are "solving" the car crash problem, why don't we just build PRT – there will certainly be fewer crashes, and therefore less liability! Just kidding, I actually think PRT is a joke. We could redesign our streets to make drivers go slower, we could invest money in public transit, or bike paths, or even widening sidewalks where needed.

    If we are "solving" the inefficient fuel usage problem, why don't we just build lighter, more fuel efficient cars? Or, why don't we put up signs in parking lots telling people not to idle their engines when they are standing still for a long time?

    I for one, share the notion that our future will be less affluent and wealthy than our current time, as all growth cannot go on forever. We will face high energy prices or even energy shortages at some point, so perhaps we should shape our transportation system to these constraints. James Howard Kunstler is coming out with a new book this summer entitled "Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation" – that's what I'll be paying attention to.

    • Brendon Slotterback
      Brendon April 25, 2012 at 7:05 am #

      Robot cars will begin as a "luxury" for some initially, but I don't think we should equate their potential with the potential of electric windows. Cars that can drive very close together have real potential to significantly reduce fuel use and get more out of our existing roadways (read, spending less money on roads). They also hold the promise of significantly reducing the total number of cars, probably to a greater extent than any other strategies you might name. PRT may be a joke, but self-driving cars are real, and do have serious potential to reduce crashes. Yes, we could limit the speed limit on all non-freeway roads to 15 mph, and when you figure out how to accomplish that politically, let me know.

      The federal government can mandate better fuel efficiency, and should do so. That doesn't mean we also shouldn't explore the many potential benefits of robot cars. Pursuing any of these goals – more livable cities, fewer crashes, spending less on transportation, planning for more resilient societies in general, are not mutually exclusive with having autonomous vehicles.

  3. Ian Bicking April 25, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Regarding liability, I expect and believe our insurance system can handle this pretty well. We would retain, maybe even expand, the ability to get compensation when we are harmed by an accident, regardless of who caused the accident. Mechanical failures also cause accidents of course. Insurance companies would determine the risk of a vehicle and charge accordingly. If robot cars have less total accidents, but have a small number of robot-caused accidents, then actuators can make those calculations, and rationally charge less in insurance for the robot cars despite the fact there are some new accidents that might not have occurred before.

    But on the other side, the recent issue with Toyota accelerators doesn't bode well. My reading of what happened is that basically nothing happened, Toyota didn't build defective products, there was no increase in accidents, but a confluence of lawyers and media caught onto some anecdotes and turned it into an controversy, finding enough people who confused the accelerator with the brake that they could make it seem like the cars were at fault instead of the drivers. You can imagine the same thing happening with robot cars. To some degree that might be acceptable, just a cost of doing business so long as the settlements remain reasonable. But we can expect some people will pursue large settlements by using media as leverage, and unlike insurance actuators the media does not do rational risk assessment. (And of course, if rational risk assessment resulted in a too-high-cost for robot cars, then we shouldn't have them on the road.)

    • Ian Bicking April 25, 2012 at 7:40 am #

      Another safety-relate thought: we may wish to change our safety requirements over time, to change our environment or reflect better understandings of safety. We do this with cars regularly (airbags, etc). Right now there is an effort to do this for driving, specifically distracted driving: rational analysis has found that it is a serious safety issue. I guess there's a bit of a question here: can we fix drivers more easily through education campaigns, than we can fix cars through regulation? And compared to robot cars? The software in cars can be fixed indefinitely, and new regulations can be encoded directly in that software. Not everything, of course – new sensors or communication technology might be deployed. But even old robot cars could become increasingly safe over time.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke April 25, 2012 at 9:04 am #

        i think this is a case where education campaigns are pretty futile, like they are with speeding. (sure there are tickets, but people still speed all the time.)

  4. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins April 25, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Maybe we can mash Bill's vision & Brendon's vision together and design robot bicycles?


  1. Why urbanists and others should love the coming of the robot car (Part 2) | streets.mn - May 24, 2012

    […] this second and final post in a series, I’m responding to Bill’s reservation about robot cars.  In my first post, I […]

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