Autonomous Car Industry’s Frightening Vision for Cities

The future of cities will be programmed by sociopaths.

The "city of tomorrow" via  Ford Corporate
The "city of tomorrow" via Ford Corporate

In a future with self driving cars, pedestrians would wait in gated pens until they were allowed to cross the street. People wealthy enough to buy self-driving cars get their own special lanes in crowded cities.

Those are some of the ideas self-serving car companies are presenting to the New York Times as “solutions” to social problems. This latest bill of goods from Big Auto is extremely alarming. Let’s us count the ways:

‘Antiseptic’ soulless cities

Even auto industry representatives are apparently worried this new technology will totally wreck cities.

Frank Menchaca, head of the industry-friendly Society of Automotive Engineers, told the Times: “We need students educated in art and design to get involved in the future so we don’t get antiseptic cities.”

In other words, these guys are planning to totally redesign cities around self-driving cars. Companies like Ford have pushed these kinds of grandiose visions before (see above photo.)

It is reminiscent of General Motor’s famous “Futurama” display at the 1939 World Fair, that showed soaring highways and suburbs as a futuristic vision of a new way of living, and precipitated the tremendously destructive highway sprawl that followed in the upcoming decades.

On Jaywalking

The article starts out by wondering how self-driving cars will function in cities like New York where lots of people “jaywalk.”

Instead of, you know, just stopping and waiting, car companies have devised a way to help ensure that drivers retain their near total privilege to the roads — even in a place like Manhattan. The Times’ Eric Taub writes:

One solution, suggested by an automotive industry official, is gates at each corner, which would periodically open to allow pedestrians to cross.


Taub then dismisses the idea saying it’s “as likely as never-late subways.” But he adds “it’s an example of the thinking by those who worry about planning for the future.”

Later in the article, Taub also vaguely references Chris Gerdes, the director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, saying, “We may be able to locate crosswalks at different locations.”

Crosswalks “may” need to be “relocated?” Are there going to be less crosswalks? We don’t know.

He then adds: “A.V.s may be able to sense the presence of pedestrians and slow down when needed.”

Let’s hope so. A self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian — Elaine Herzberg — last year in Tempe, Ariz.

Special AV lanes

Taub adds:

It’s possible that self-driving cars will need their own lanes, to avoid mixing it up with cars driven by humans, whose errors now account for 94 percent of vehicle crashes.

So in crowded cities where everybody — cyclists, pedestrians bus riders — are fighting for scraps, special lanes for fancy newer cars? If this is where the mainstream discourse on this issue is at this stage, we’re in a lot of trouble.

Robin Chase, head of the New Urban Mobility alliance, famously said long ago that the future with self-driving cars would be like “heaven” or “hell.”

In the heaven version, safety improves, cities are more multi-modal, less polluted, less congested. On the other hand, without strenuous advocacy, she said, we could have the hell version, where cars cruise around for hours empty to avoid paying for parking, where sprawl is supercharged, where pedestrians have to wear special devices to be detected are blamed when they are killed by a tide of constantly roving machines.

“I know for sure we’re going toward the hell version, because the status quo produces hell,” she told me last year. “That is definitely the direction we’re going.”

And the final horrifying part of the Times story is this: It doesn’t quote anyone who seems to have a problem with the AV proponents’ anti-urban vision.

18 thoughts on Autonomous Car Industry’s Frightening Vision for Cities

  1. Instead of special lanes so AVs don’t mix with human-driven cars, how about just banning human-driven cars altogether on public roads once AVs prove themselves? Is there really any logical reason to continue to allow people to drive when machines can do it better and safer?

  2. Before the 1920’s, the city streets were designed for people. The occasional horse and the few bicycles may roam, but they yielded to people and the kids playing on the streets.

    The automobile expropriated the streets for their own use, forcing the kids to use playgrounds that were segregated from the street.

  3. This might have been covered here countless times, but I’m new: which crosswalks are better, midblock or corner? I jaywalk everyday midblock, because it’s easier and safer than corner crossing, so I think I know the answer, but official midblock crossings might have drawbacks I’m unaware of.

  4. AVs will be allowed to kill pedestrians, provided the AVs sound a few warning honks before doing so. AVs will also snap photos of jaywalkers so that the jaywalkers can be fined. Jaywalking will be criminalized and shamed. Crosswalk gates would cost too much. Big industry can’t be slowed down by jaywalkers.

  5. I see Angie is triggered again. The future will look nothing like this. Her crap is getting silly, Streetsblog. It’s affecting your brand with reasonable people and guess what…we will never win without the support of reasonable people. Angie is toxic.

  6. “The future will look nothing like this.”

    As long as people are vigilant. They are having trouble getting that big payoff they want from self driving cars, thanks to their inability to deal with pedestrians and bicyclists. $billions are at stake, and a small fraction of that in campaign contributions is enough to get almost anything.

    Will the future look like this? But perhaps with slow-moving electric vehicles taking the place of horses and buggies.

  7. “Nothing to worry about here”

    Go to CES and tell me that antiseptic cities aren’t a worry. I’ve seen their vision.

  8. If pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross the street, what difference does it make whether the cars are self-driving or manually driven? Keeping the pedestrians corralled will even protect them from regular cars (if that’s your idea of a good time).

  9. I think autonomous vehicles should be banned completely Worldwide by a binding U.N. treaty since manual human steering has been just fine especially if drivers applying for a license are required by law to take a pedestrian and bicycle awareness course in order to align with Vision Zero.

  10. Will be interesting to see when these issues pop up in presidential debates, which are mostly devoid of spatial/geographical analyses.

  11. That future is a real possibility. But, a future that prioritizes peds, bikes and transit is also possible with AVs. The “heaven” scenario that Robin Chase mentions. This is why we need to be on top of AV policy to ensure the best results. Think of the possibilities!

  12. “Partially-automated” or “semi-automatic” are terms that should be used for driverless cars. You can never rely technology to navigate the roads when it comes to safety of both driver and passengers.

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