Streets Filled With Driverless Cars: A Perpetual Fantasy?
Remember how the Jetsons promised us flying cars? Well, futuristic visions of car travel have a way of falling short of the wild expectations.
Jarret Walker at Human Transit wonders if some of the grand visions coming from driverless car prognosticators might be similarly science-fiction-esque. He takes particular issue with author Richard Gilbert, who speculates in a series for the Globe and Mail [PDF] that “driverless taxis” will eventually render transit obsolete.
Walker says no one has really explained how we will get from here to there:
This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode. Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.
Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved. In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change. As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.
I will begin to take driverless cars seriously when I see credible narratives about all the intermediate states of their evolution, and how each will be an improvement that is both technically and culturally embraced. How will driverless and conventional cars mix in roads where the needs of conventional cars still dominate the politics of road design? How will they come to triumph in this situation? How does the driverless taxi business model work before the taxis are abundant? Some of the questions seem menial but really are profound: When a driverless car is at fault in the accident, to what human being does that fault attach? The programmer? What degree of perfection is needed for software that will be trusted to protect not just the driver, but everyone on the street who is involuntarily in the presence of such a machine?
Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn’t buses become driverless at the same time? In such a future, wouldn’t any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high? Wouldn’t there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit? As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I’m not sure, at each moment, whether we’re talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of “Personal” rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space.
Elsewhere on the Network today: Better Institutions compares different state laws to determine might actually be effective in curbing drunk driving. The Naked City explains why Charlotte may have a difficult time funding construction of its streetcar system. And Urban Places and Spaces looks at the decades-long evolution of the suburbs.