Choose Your Own Utopia: What Will We Make of Driverless Cars?

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group

A century ago, a new transportation technology burst onto the scene that threatened to disrupt everything: the car.

Thinkers of the day, along with boosters of the new technology, dreamed grand dreams of the utopia it would bring. General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair (shown in the amazing 1940 promotional film, To New Horizons) envisioned a nation criss-crossed by broad highways engineered for “safety – safety with increased speed”; American cities that were “replanned around the highly developed, modern traffic system”; and a network of urban express highways with rights of way “so routed so as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible.”

Sound familiar? The vision of the future dreamed up by General Motors largely came to pass… but utopia did not follow. Missing from Futurama, as from most utopian visions, was a full understanding of the trade-offs involved — the gutting of city after city for the construction of urban freeways; the expenditure of trillions of dollars over the last half-century on the highway system; the loss of roughly a million lives to motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. since 1990 alone (so much for “safety with speed”); environmental degradation and public health damage from vehicle exhaust and fossil fuel production — the list goes on and on.

The utopia of Futurama was one the United States willingly strove to implement through public policy. The data presented in this story in CityLab by Richard Florida and Aria Bendix show that, while cities and countries around the world embraced the car to some degree and continue to do so, no one pushed as many chips to the center of the table in a big bet on automobility as the United States. The technology available to those countries was the same; the role it was given within society differed.

This history is important to remember as we consider the next disruptive technology to transform transportation: autonomous vehicles. David Roberts at Vox has a fantastic piece up on the “transformative potential of self-driving cars” and his is a utopia worth aspiring to – one in which autonomous, electric cars reduce the amount of space in our cities devoted to cars and parking, play nicely with bicycles and pedestrians, and allow such travel as does occur to take place with a minimum of environmental impact.

But it is critical to understand that neither Roberts’ utopian vision, nor the various dystopian visions about the future of driverless cars, are foreordained. The form autonomous vehicles and the cities that surround them will take in the future is likely to be driven as much by public policy as by technology.

Autonomous vehicles can be many things. They can be safe for their users, safe for other road users (including pedestrians and cyclists), comfortable, fast, efficient, affordable, and environmentally sensitive. It is unlikely that they can be all of those things to everyone all of the time. A Google car that stops safely for every pedestrian in harm’s way is unlikely to get through a city very fast – and if it is not very fast, who will choose to use it? Nor is a vehicle that starts and stops a great deal likely to be a place where everyone will feel comfortable watching Netflix or catching up on texts, as the emerging literature on autonomous vehicles and motion sickness suggests.

There is also no consensus as to which of these values – safety, speed, comfort, environmental impact — is likely to predominate when the time comes for trade-offs to be made. On one hand, you have Roberts’ vision of low-speed autonomous vehicles traveling in harmony with pedestrians and cyclists on shape-shifting streets that perfectly balance everyone’s needs while preserving safety. At the other extreme, you have visions like this one in which autonomous vehicles whip through city centers at high rates of speed with nary a cyclist or pedestrian in sight.

Who will strike the balance among these values and imperatives? Often, the question is raised as one of ethics — if an autonomous vehicle is forced to choose between an action that will harm its occupant or one that will harm, say, a child wandering into the street, what will it choose to do? But really, it is a question of law, and questions of law are ultimately settled — for better or worse — through the political system.

At a forum Monday on autonomous vehicles at the Shared Use Mobility Summit in Chicago, Lauren Isaac of Parsons Brinckerhoff noted that the difference between an autonomous vehicle utopia and an autonomous vehicle nightmare is one of smart public policy. But the same is true of our current, non-autonomous vehicle system. We already, for example, have many proven “technologies” for keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe in our cities – low, aggressively enforced speed limits, traffic calming techniques, protected bike and walking paths, etc. We just simply choose not to use them all that much.

We have lived with the automobile so long that we forget that the rules surrounding its use in society were determined by people motivated by a particular set of values and self-interests. We live with the legacy of their decisions every day, as Roberts’ concerns about the danger of autonomous vehicles falling victim to path dependence illustrate.

I am an optimist in that I believe that a vision for autonomous vehicles like the one Roberts describes is possible – a future in which autonomous vehicles can be used to serve the goals of health, safety, environmental protection, efficiency with regard to the use of public funds and natural resources, and sustainable economic prosperity. But, that future is not inevitable. To get there, we first must articulate a compelling vision (Roberts’ is a good start), be clear about our values, and then lay out a pathway for how those values can be supported through smart and judicious use of public policy.

The arrival of the car in the early 20th century led to the creation of countless laws to regulate, encourage and (in some cases) virtually require its use. The policy debate around autonomous vehicles provides an opportunity to revisit many of those decisions. If the AV revolution achieves nothing more than that, it may still be of great value. But there is potential to achieve more – much more. Articulating our vision of what utopia might look like is a first step toward making it a reality.

88 thoughts on Choose Your Own Utopia: What Will We Make of Driverless Cars?

  1. PRT! The problem with setting up a PRT system is the infrastructure you have to build to get one. But driverless cars solve that problem, as the infrastructure (roads) is already built! The trick is then putting in more bus-only/carpool lanes, and convincing your local government that this is the way to a modern transportation system.

  2. You’re as pessimistic as I used to be. My hope is that the increased safety factor increases cycling.

  3. Every transportation technology that has been widely deployed in American cities has had the effect of feeding the sprawl machine by expanding the feasible commuting range. With autonomous cars, I expect the pressure would be to increase speeds to allow faster and farther commuting, mainly on highways. We may well see pressure to start building urban highways again or to convert surface streets to highways to deliver a faster, smoother ride.

  4. It seems to me that the driverless car would not follow the same pattern of ownership as private cars today. If a vehicle can be operated autonomously at any hour of the day or night why own a car at all? There would be no need for acres of parking in front of every building, and assuming the cost is comparable, or less (or even a small amount more) than currently, there is the possibility that this will actually assist urbanism and mass transit by solving the “last mile” problem.

  5. I’d argue that it isn’t technology that drove sprawl, its lavish subsidies. If people had to pay the full cost of mass Motoring, VMT would Be 1/3 of current levels.

  6. My utopia would have far fewer cars on the road than we have today. I’m not a big proponent of driverless cars, but I know it’s coming. Really I think it would be better than a driver that is on their phone, but that doesn’t mean I welcome them. If you look at our roads, many times there’s no room for improvement cause cars just plain take up space. Just about all the cars are single occupant vehicles and is not really that efficient at taking up our public space.

    Public transportation with electric power for the last mile would be great for many people.

  7. Even if you own a car, why would you park it? Since you don’t need to actually drive it, it can be an “Uber” making money for you instead of you paying to park it.

    But at that point, why would a car company sell you a car? Right now they sell assets that starts costing money the second it goes off the lot, so the money is made by selling it. A driverless car makes money by keeping it. A car manufacturer in this situation should simply buy Uber.

  8. I think that as long as the society still has a demand for a lot of people traveling all at the same time, there will be demand for wider roads, more parking, and/or higher capacity transit, regardless of whether people driving cars that they own, or ride cars that they don’t own. Without ridesharing, I don’t see how fewer self driving vehicles are going to take care of taking large number of people in a period of 1 or 2 hours. The best way to transport a large number of people is through transit/ridesharing, or significantly slimming down the vehicle with bicycles or motor scooters.

  9. On balance I’m actually not pessimistic about self-driving itself, but my point is that on the macro level a motor vehicle for the great majority of trips is still a very large space-occupier writ large. Imagine the temptation communities might have to turn places such as the rows of parking pictured below into continuous car loading zones or even another through lane (depending on context):×280.jpg

    That still doesn’t change the fundamentally car-centric makeup of the public right of way in terms of usable space for people on foot/bike/etc.

    Done right, driverless cars could allow us to have more public spaces such as the following, but this will still require conscious political will:

  10. I would go further and say it’s not just subsidies, it’s public policy in general, which favored sprawl-inducing technologies beginning, incidentally, with mass transit lines that allowed workers to escape congested tenements, and which ramped up dramatically to build freeways and auto-burbia. At root our public policies toward land use and transportation are still based on the idea of stamping out the “tenement evil” even though modern technology, appropriately directed, could support much higher densities in much greater comfort and health than was possible in those days.

  11. Sprawl in and of itself isn’t always a bad thing. There’s “good” sprawl, which is single family homes on smallish (~1/10th acre) lots within a mile or two of commuter rail, store, etc. If you don’t bother providing car parking or wide roads, most local travel within these “streetcar suburbs” will be done on foot or bike. Longer distance travel will be done by rail. The cities won’t deal with the fallout of a bunch of suburbanites getting to their jobs in the city by car.

    And then there’s “bad” sprawl, which is mostly what has been built in the last 50 years. These are huge houses on very large lots, zoning to prevent mixed use development, plus lack of any viable alternative to automobiles in most cases. Self-driving cars may be an improvement in these places over what exists today. By utilizing the same vehicle for many trips, traffic levels might decrease, as will the need for parking. As a result, mall owners might be incented to build housing on the now vacant parking spots.

    I suspect self-driving cars may well allow highway speeds as high as 150 mph but I don’t think that will feed sprawl. Building further out has its own issues. Governments can no longer afford to subsidize utilities or roads for new housing tracts in the middle of nowhere. Those who might want to live in such places largely can’t afford the true cost of living there without subsidies. In fact, the latter is the reason existing outer ring exurbs will likely be left to return to nature. We can no longer afford to subsidize the residents. Most of those who live there can’t afford to pay any more than they’re already paying. I think a return to somewhat denser living arrangements is a given whether or not self-driving cars exist. The huge advantages self-driving cars will offer will be an end to traffic jams, shortening of existing commutes, plus the freedom to do something else during the trip. There will also be the much improved safety.

    I’m not sure yet how exactly self-driving cars will fit into cities. Yes, there may be pressure to speed them through, but I doubt we’ll build more highways (at least above ground).

  12. The problem here is despite what modern technology can do, people in general don’t like ultra dense living arrangements. Many don’t like the opposite, either. There probably isn’t any ideal arrangement, but you might use a metric to indicate the percentage of the population willing to tolerate a given living arrangement. My educated guess is most people could deal with something as dense as urban single or two-family homes on 1/20th or 1/10th acre lots. As you go up in density, fewer people consider it a viable long-term living arrangement. Now there are concepts to provide the equivalent space of a private home on a small to medium sized lot with things like this:

    Not sure if this would even be technically feasible but it probably wouldn’t be economically feasible. Anyway, in the final analysis some large fraction of the population isn’t going to want to live in Manhattan-like conditions no matter how comfortable their apartment might be. That in turn drives technologies which enable people to live in lower density arrangements. The reason sprawl gets a bad name is mainly because auto-based transportation is used to get to the sprawl. If people can get from the city to their homes in the suburbs in some manner which doesn’t make life miserable for city residents then sprawl is largely a nonissue, other than the higher cost per capita of infrastructure. That can be solved by just making those who might want a McMansion on an acre pay the true cost of everything.

    All that said, ultra dense living arrangements would be a lot more viable to a lot more people if we could largely remove motor vehicles. That really would be my biggest objection to living in a place like Manhattan—the fact I would suffer constant delays on foot or bike trying to get anywhere because of the hordes of motor vehicles. Then you also have the noise/pollution of those vehicles. Take them away so I can travel as fast as my own power will allow, and the objections largely vanish.

  13. I think self-driving cars might finally allow the use of sensibly-sized motor vehicles. One of the biggest reasons people give for purchasing some ridiculously-sized vehicle like an SUV is “safety”. When collisions happen so infrequently they make the national news that incentive is gone. Also, given that self-driving cars will largely be fleet vehicles the drive for so-called aesthetics is gone. Instead of having boxes because some people like the way they look, you’ll have vehicles optimized for what they do. The end result of all this might be fleets of sub-1000 pound, ultra-aerodynamic, electrically-powered vehicles. In fact, given the oft-touted advantage of much higher speeds for self-driving cars, superior aerodynamics are pretty much mandatory. Something like an SUV trying to cruise at 125 mph will burn prohibitive amounts of energy.

  14. One theme often used in so-called “cities of the future”, including the one depicted in the article, was complete segregation of motor vehicles from everything else. If speed ends up being the primary goal of autonomous vehicles then we may need to revisit this concept. In fact, continued crowded in cities may ultimately dictate separate levels for pedestrians, cyclists, and motor vehicles regardless just to prevent gridlock.

  15. That will definitely help somewhat but even smaller motorized vehicles are far less space efficient than transit or bicycles. That in and of itself isn’t inherently bad unless motor vehicle trips remain the overwhelmingly dominant form of travel, which would necessitate continuous pickup/dropoff zones (replacing current parking lanes) and travel lanes that can still be a fair amount of space:

    In the end even (comparatively) small motorized vehicles are just not that space efficient:

  16. A more likely pragmatic, cost-effective strategy might entail better and more high-speed rapid transit networks with low-speed (but door-to-door) driverless car service for the classic Last Mile Problem for those trips that require it.

  17. Gezellig, I share your concerns that strong and conscious political will is required, because without concurrent shared-use of autonomous cars, at least in peak periods, reduction in congestion and hence demand for roads will drop only insofar as autonomous cars can be made smaller and vehicle to vehicle communications can reduce inter-vehicle gaps. I am not hopeful that increasing speeds is viable because an AV travelling at speed through a residential neighbourhood is still a hazard, even with improved reaction times. BTW you probably know that the car/bus/bike image is not quite fair:

  18. I don’t see self-driving cars making things any better for non-auto travel. If anything, I think they’d be an incentive to tilt our transportation model even further towards auto-centricity. Maximization of vehicle throughput is still going to be the gold standard, and that’s going to mean “road diets” are off the table from the get-go.

    The pressure will be for speed limits to be increased, not decreased, with the logic that self-driving cars can stop on a dime and “don’t make mistakes”…so I can see suburban street limits upped from 25 or 35 mph to 40 or 50 mph and urban streets maybe up to 35 or 40 mph. Tough luck if you get hit by a car, I guess.

    Whether or not cycling increases because of autonomous vehicles, I’m not sure. Perceived safety is as important as actual safety, and I’m pretty sure most people who don’t already cycle aren’t going to feel any safer biking next to a high-velocity string of two-ton robocars than they would a “regular” car today.

    And of course, autonomous cars will be used as yet another excuse to not invest in public transportation.

  19. “Safety” is part of it, in that American engineering has always favored robust over gracile strategies, but a big part of it is just a preference for bigness, either as a way of showing up other people or for the additional space to store and haul things. If self-driving cars continue to be privately-owned vehicles, I see the preference for big vehicles continuing. I think the real limiting factor, as you pointed out, will be fuel efficiency and cost.

  20. If cars continue to be privately owned, they’ll have to be parked somewhere….of course, it shouldn’t take robocar owners too long to figure out they can just send the car circling the block for an hour or so while they complete their shopping or whatever.

  21. Autonomous vehicles will probably cement the low-density sprawl paradigm will have now. Some things may actually become worse for cyclists and pedestrians, as U.S. traffic engineers have never really cared about this group and the coming of robocars won’t do anything to magic that away. There are some fantasies that we’ll see a huge reduction in numbers of the national vehicle fleet but I don’t see that happening. Private-car ownership is very much a part of U.S. culture and it will take decades to break that down, if it happens at all.

    Congestion may actually get worse for several reasons…opportunity costs for driving will go way down, driving will no longer be limited to drivers, or even human-occupied vehicles (a man may put a slice of birthday cake in his robocar and send it across town to his Aunt Martha, so she won’t feel left out of yesterday’s birthday party…you get the drift), and people will, rather than direct the vehicles to park themselves (and pay for parking), will just send them in aimless loops until they are needed again. It will be another example of Jevon’s Paradox…more efficient vehicles will actually reduce total system efficiency.

    You’re right that there will be calls to increase speed limit, but I don’t think it will just be on highways. As robocars will be deemed “safe” by definition, you can look forward to fleets of them zipping through residential streets at 50 mph.

  22. One of the greatest achievements in the past 80 years is our improved ability at storytelling. Everything from script-writing, to cinematography, directing, music; all have improved dramatically. Watching these dated videos, it’s difficult to imagine how people ever took them seriously. They’re so awful!

  23. One thing self-driving cars could do is take lots of people to and from the suburban train or bus station, without having to park there. Of course people could bike to the train station and bike in much less space too.

  24. Additionally a lot of people might buy a Ford F-150 because well, TRUCK. How manly however is sitting in a self driven TRUCK? But maybe someone needs a truck because a couple times a month they haul a bunch of stuff – but they also drive their truck to the coffee shop. In the world of shared self driving vehicles, people will hail the car they need for the specific role. Remove trucks and add little pod cars.

    What, you say, you don’t want to be seen in a pod car? A truck costs you MORE. The shared self driving car model is the perfect way to completely encapsulate the external costs of car ownership, and remove the fixed costs and make people think completely about the marginal costs of each trip.

    Right now, people talk about “Caltrain being more expensive than driving”. That is because the fixed cost of owning their car is completely sunk. And they “need” to have a car for certain trips, such that a trip that could ostensibly be made by transit is cheap, because we have already sunk the fixed costs. Once we remove the fixed cost, car ownership is silly, and people will accurately value each trip. Mode share for non-car trips goes up, and combining trips goes up. That means – fewer cars on the road, fewer cars parked.

  25. Or – send the car to be an Uber for someone who doesn’t own a car. Making uber trips cheaper. Making getting rid of the car more sensible. Virtuous cycle.

  26. A really well designed ride sharing app will quickly match people for ride shares, and cost will drive usage. QED

  27. And if… they aren’t worried about getting hit while riding their bike to the train station, but doing so is completely free – bike mode share goes up. Especially if since we know mode share is going up that we do things like provide secure parking or bike share.

  28. “gracile” is a new word for me–it’s very rare that I have to look up a word, but once I found it, it made sense. In the field of railroading, American railcar standards require much sturdier (and thus heavier) construction than typical European rolling stock. I remember reading an auto enthusiast publication* many years ago where a columnist lamented the “backward” engineering of “Detroit iron”, which was designed for minimal maintenance and brute-force performance. Subtlety and finesse are not our strong points. I think that one of the reasons why bicycles don’t get that much respect in the US is that the most expensive bikes are also the lightest, and that just doesn’t “resonate” with the typical American mindset.

    *I’m no “gearhead”–I probably read the column while waiting for my turn at a barbershop.

  29. And for those of us who occasionally need to move something big, or some bulky building materials, it makes more sense to rent a truck for the special task, then drive a more fuel-efficient car for daily errands or commutes. (This is assuming that one’s errands are beyond easy bicycling range or would be too inconvenient for transit). Of course, there are some people who have work-related need for a truck–how long will it be before self-driving commercial vehicles become available?

  30. The awesome part comes when you want to order some big quantity of something standard like lumber, and just call the lumber yard, they put it on a truck, and it drives itself to the destination.

    There are some holes in the argument, say for example you are a plumber and have a rotor rooter. That equipment lives in the truck. On the other hand, you could have a set of trucks with that equipment that get called in when needed to join the plumber who travels without heavy gear. Potentially from an equipment rental facility that can load various sets of equipment onto the gear truck as needed. There are a lot of possibilities for efficiency.

  31. Most ridesharing occur between family workers, friends, and co-workers. And they’re where it is the most effective. No matter how smart the app is, strangers ridesharing on a random basis in private spaces will still be uncomfortable for many people. And there are problems of vehicles clogging up the streets waiting for people.

  32. I think if people know that they need their vehicles often enough, they will want to own that vehicle. Vehicle is an asset that holds some values, despite depreciations, in the long term. It is also an extension of their own living space. You can decorate your car and store personal property like as in your own house, which you wouldn’t do in a public park.

    When a car gets dings and scratches it is not a big deal if you own it. The cost to fix it varies and that you can choose not to fix it by accepting lower resale or trade in values. If you rented a car and if you get dings and scratches it can cost an extra few hundred bucks easily.

  33. The killer app is schoolchildren. People don’t carpool now because they are dropping their kid off on the way to some other destination. Instead have the car take all of the kids and you can take some other uber straight to work. QED. Of course this makes me again bemoan the death of the simple schoolbus

  34. strangers ridesharing on a random basis in private spaces will still be uncomfortable for many people

    Also: I presume you’ve never seen the amount of people using casual carpool

  35. A lot of these dings and scratches come from outside environment that no one can control, like some loose rock on the road.

  36. Why would many people still ride BART and AC Transit since they also know that they can casual carpool for free or a buck or two? BART had strikes a few years ago which forced many to casual carpool, but BART has regained its pre-strike ridership and then some.

    Some people don’t mind sharing private space with strangers, just like some people don’t mind changing their clothes in public locker rooms. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

  37. Joe,

    I think we need to start quantifying what we mean by low, medium, and high density.

    Mamhattan is 70,000 per sq. mile
    Paris 50,000
    Queens 30,000
    San Francisco 18,000
    Boston 13,000
    Munich 12,000
    London 10,,000
    Staten Island 8,000
    Seattle 8,000
    San Jose 5,000
    Nassau County 4,700
    San Diego 4,000
    Bergen County 4,000
    Phoenix 3,000

    It appears that roughly one needs a density of between 15,000 and say 30,000 for your vision.

  38. The gearheads will work like the NRA to defeat the full-on safety features that slow robocars down. They will demand for one thing that bicycles and pedestrians be banned from any street with a robocar lane so that they can whiz along in narcissistic glory. Essentially they’ll make “boulevards” in to non-grade separated freeways.

  39. And of course, autonomous cars will be used as yet another excuse to not invest in public transportation.

    They already are.

  40. People will purchase robocars. The manufacturers will not be allowed to provide them only as an hourly service.

  41. Yep, showing “up”, like that cop who was filmed by his own squad car stroking his schwantz during traffic stops. A TRUE “dickhead”.

    But that’s exactly what an Audi A4 is all about: mine is bigger than yours; listen to it roar!

  42. Considering that what little we’ve made driverless are mostly fixed guideway systems (people movers, e.g.) in the most controlled and simplest of situations, how does one make driverless vehicles for a typical urban scenario which is tremendously more complicated with a wide array of potential obstacles or changing conditions (cars, people, animals, potholes, road closures, snow/ice, fog, etc.)? I’m not sure that’s going to happen any time soon if ever. It’s a very daunting set of challenges to make it work reliably.

  43. Rail transit is always better in terms of ride quality, freedom from exhaust fumes, more space. I hate riding in any type of road vehicle. In fact, I get physically ill if I’m in a car for very long due to exhaust fumes. I doubt I’m the only one who seriously prefers rail.

    I don’t get the objection to sharing private space, either. I kind of like bumping into random people on public transit.

  44. Probably no real reason not to increase urban speed limits if driverless cars prove they can detect and stop for obstacles in time. I would imagine the programming might be something along the lines of having speed inversely proportional to pedestrian or cyclist density. If you detect no pedestrians or cyclists in the next few blocks, no good reason you can’t go whatever speed the street geometry allows. Probably no good reason at all for any kind of speed limits beyond what curves or blind spots may dictate.

    One of the first things we might need to do here to prevent nonsense trips like sending someone a piece of birthday cake by robocar would be to legislate that the vehicle can’t move without an occupant unless it’s a cargo truck making legitimate deliveries.

    Economics will take care of the ownership part. When people are only paying for the incremental cost of car trips they’ll save a small fortune. Unless someone has extra money to burn, why would you want to actually own a car (unless you plan to hire it out as a robotaxi when you’re not using it)? Also, the technology to enable robocars may well put their price range well above what most people can afford. There are typically two reasons people buy cars. One is necessity. Robocars eliminate that reason. The second is they supposedly like to drive. Robocars take that out of the equation as well given that once the technology is established there will likely be a prohibition on human driving. A distant third reason might be conspicuous consumption but economics will likely fix that. I doubt people will want to spend $50K or $100K just to show off to strangers.

  45. You’re right but cities will continue to need buses, delivery trucks, emergency vehicles. It may well make sense to separate everyone on different levels just for efficiency, so motor vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists can all get where they’re going without the typical constant need to stop and start every few blocks.

  46. I doubt the kids themselves will moan the death of the schoolbus. I was rarely on one, mainly for class trips, but I hated the things. They were smelly, nausea-inducing monstrosities. And it looks to me like they’re using the same buses now as they did 40 years ago when I was in school. Don’t they ever buy new ones? Also, my understanding is some kids are on schoolbuses now for an hour when they live a few blocks from school simply because it’s deemed “unsafe” to walk from school. This is definitely one area where robocars can make a huge improvement.

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