2016: the year in self-driving cars and a look ahead to 2017

selfdriving cars
via various

Since they first appeared on our radar in 2011, TreeHugger has been a bit obsessed with self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs). Readers have often questioned this obsession, asking what they have to do with sustainability or green living. In response I have noted that where we live and how we get around are among the most important drivers of sustainability, and that AVs might well fundamentally reshape where and how we live, that they might destroy our cities or remake them. They will cause massive change, but a big question has been, how soon?

Writing in Backchannel, Mark Harris suggests that it is sooner than we think. He says everyone has hopped on the autonomous bandwagon and that things are happening very fast. It isn't just Google (now Waymo) anymore; Ford, BMW and Volvo are all introducing AVs.

...in 2015, a horde of startups and newcomers burst onto the scene, eager to explore the boundaries of self-driving technologies—and the rules surrounding them. “2017 will show us that limited deployments are technically, legally, and socially possible, even under today’s laws,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina.

Nvidea bix© Nvidia Drive PX2

Other companies are jumping in to bring down the cost of the technologies involved; Nvidia now sells a AV driving supercomputer in a water-cooled box that may show up in Teslas, "But it faces stiff competition from automotive suppliers Bosch and Delphi, as well as two Bay Area startups founded by ex-Googlers — Nuro.ai and an as-yet-unnamed company being run by the company’s well-respected former self-driving car lead, Chris Urmson." He concludes:

The first self-driving car experiments are over, and the results are clear. The technology is feasible, becoming increasing affordable, and has a multi-billion dollar potential market. But in 2017 the tough work of scaling and commercializing begins. Concerns remain about the safety and reliability of the autonomous vehicles, especially in their interactions with their human operators and other road users. Truly high-definition mapping is still in its infancy and expanding the zones of AV operation will be a slow, painstaking process.

More at Backchannel.

We have spent a lot of pixels on this issue in 2016, discussing the when and the what. Here is some of the discussion:

How self driving cars might change our cities, and when

This has been the billion dollar question, when? Peter Walker of the Guardian talked to Anand Babu of Sidewalk Labs, a google spinoff, who “believes cities could be fundamentally reshaped by the mass arrival of shared, driverless cars, something he forecasts to happen sooner than many people think.”

Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal, who has a nose for technology, isn't so sure.

To many industry insiders, these claims are largely hype. They’re not false, but they abuse the terms “autonomous vehicle” and “self-driving,” which evoke images of hopping into a car, entering a destination and disappearing into sleep, food or our phones. That is not what we’re going to get by 2021. It won’t happen for a long time, maybe decades. It is all about the definition of autonomous and self-driving.

More: How self driving cars might change our cities, and when

How can we design cars to reduce distracted driving?

distracted drivingChart by Lloyd Alter from Insurance Journal data/CC BY 2.0

I personally have been pretty negative about the impact of self-driving cars, believing that they will lead to serious sprawl and that they will not work very well in cities (reasons to follow) but changed my mind on December 21 of this year, when I learned that the vast majority of crashes involving distracted driving do not involve cellphones or radios, but in fact are caused by daydreaming or being "lost in thought." Add all the other distractions, like smoking, looking around, playing with the audio or just talking, and you have moving disasters waiting to happen. Basically, most of us are terrible drivers, which is why 37,000 Americans died last year and 2.35 million were injured, at an estimated economic cost of $230 billion. The autonomous vehicle has got to be a lot better at this than humans. More: How can we design cars to reduce distracted driving?

Will self-driving cars fuel urban sprawl?

broadacre cityFrank Lloyd Wright: Broadacre City/Public Domain
Remember the line about mortgages and housing prices: "Drive 'til you qualify"- but what if driving is not tedious and boring? As Chris Mims writes,

..you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children. Your commute will be downright luxurious, quiet time in a vehicle designed to allow you to work or relax. Shared self-driving cars will have taken so many vehicles off the road—up to 80% of them, according to one Massachusetts Institute of Technology study—that you’re either getting to work in record time or traveling farther in the same time, to a new class of exurbs.

I keep thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, where basically, suburbia goes forever, now connected by AVs. More: Will self-driving cars fuel urban sprawl?

The 'burbs are back, but they will be different this time.

suburbia© Matthew Spremulli via MIT News
Many people believe that this is a wonderful thing. Suburb-loving Joel Kotkin for one, who says “This is the reality we live in, and we have to deal with it. Most people want a detached home.” Indeed, over 82 percent of owned homes in the U.S. are detached. But I was dubious of this particular vision:

I sounds so grand; hyperloops, autonomous cars, the return of suburban office parks, drones dropping lunch dropping out of the sky, all that green space sucking up carbon. I can't wait.

More: The 'burbs are back, but they will be different this time.

Boomers balk at autonomous vehicles, even though they will help them the most

swanson© Google/ Their oldest passenger, 94 year old Florence Swanson

Many of the people in those suburban houses are baby boomers, and as I have noted on MNN, It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars. Some, like author Jane Gould and MNN's Jim Motavalli, think AVs might be the answer to their problems of mobility.

But guess what: Boomers like things just the way they are, and are uninterested. The comments to this post were telling; "I think most boomers remember how reliable Windows Operating Systems are and don't want to die when their 'car computer' crashes with them in the back seats! " and "HA! You'll have a massive uphill battle convincing older generations.They've used your computers with their dodgy reliability and insanely buggy software!!". They are not computer illiterate like their parents, but don't trust them with their lives. More: Boomers balk at autonomous vehicles, even though they will help them the most

How self-driving cars might improve our cities and towns

self-driving© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells
The most wonderful, positive and exciting work I saw this year came from Rachel Skinner of WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and Nigel Bidwell of Farrells, who prepared a fascinating, optimistic study, , Making Better Places: Autonomous vehicles and future opportunities.

Driverless and autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be transformational. With the right planning, they offer the potential for a better quality of life, economic growth, improved health and broader social connections, by offering convenient and affordable mobility to all of us, regardless of where we live, our age or ability to drive.

I described it as "a lovely vision; as the transformed street shown above demonstrates, there is no longer any need for traffic lights or signs, since the car knows what is allowed where; there is no permanent parking; there are not even any lanes. Pedestrians are crossing everywhere because the car knows to avoid them." And it is, it so impressed me that when I was in London I sought them out and visited their offices. It is not just a lovely vision, but they are lovely people. More: How self-driving cars might improve our cities and towns

In praise of the slow car

slow cars offroadIsetta/ Slow cars can go off road/via
Some people (Elon Musk not included) think that AVs might well be smaller, lighter and have less stuff like airbags and other crashproofing features, since they are so much less likely to get in crashes. Others think that they might well go a lot slower, since they might not have to stop and go as much and can just flow like water. Long before AVs were more than a fantasy, I was writing about how much better slow cars could be. Now Alex Steffen writes:

Smart streets in future cities — it looks to me — will likely be built not for hurtling suburban SUVs but for happy people and the slow robots that take them where they want to go.

More: In praise of the slow car

How self-driving cars might make cities better for everyone, if we plan ahead

Highway vision© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells
I used Rachel and Nigel's wonderful drawings to illustrate my post about the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) position on AVs, and how planners should plan for them. They support a “future transportation system that provides a sustainable, accessible, and affordable backbone to the strong cities at the center of our 21st century economy” that includes a rethink of our cities and our highways. They quote Janette Sadik-Khan:

Instead of adapting our cities to accommodate new transportation technologies, we need to adapt new transportation technologies to our cities in ways that make them safer, more efficient, and better places to live and work.

We can only hope.More: How self-driving cars might make cities better for everyone, if we plan ahead

Will pedestrians and cyclists bully self-driving cars?

woman walking in front of self driving car© JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
The trouble is, Rachel and Nigel's vision requires that everybody play nice together, and there is some evidence that they will not. One recent study by Adam Millard-Ball looks at what might happen when pedestrians learn that AVs will not run them down if they walk out in front of them. Today, even when pedestrians have right of way, they tend to be deferential.

Pedestrians know that drivers typically have no interest in running them down. So why not simply step out into the street and assert the right of way? In part, because they also know that there is a small probability that the driver is inattentive, intoxicated, or sociopathic, or that the vehicle may be unable to stop in time.

But if they know that the car is a computer that is programmed not to hit them, they might just walk right out. Millard-Ball lays out a couple of possible scenarios, including more rules for pedestrians, which is the one that I think is likely. More: Will pedestrians and cyclists bully self-driving cars?

The self-driving car might lead to a new kind of anti-jaywalking campaign

I think it might be deja vu all over again, as new anti-pedestrian rules are brought in to ensure that pedestrians do not block cars, much like they did with anti-jaywalking campaigns 90 years ago. So does Marshall McLuhan Award winner Douglas Rushkoff, who thinks that the car companies and the drivers will always rule the roads, because that's where the money is:

Now that we live in an automobile culture, it's only natural that our leading technologists seek transportation solutions that build on the automobile. After all, they are more expensive (and thus profitable) to manufacture than any sort of mass transit, and their costs are externalized to individual consumers, who see them as high-tech status symbols rather than financial obligations.

More: The self-driving car might lead to a new kind of anti-jaywalking campaign

Will self-driving cars lead to grade-separated cities?

View down on Futuramatechnology almanac/ Separated streets in Futurama/via
It might go beyond that and lead to a redesign of our cities where pedestrians are not allowed on the roads where cars go, but are made to walk on grade-separated walkways with the cars below. This was thought to be a good idea in the sixties and seventies, and has been tried in colder cities from Minneapolis to Calgary where pedestrians go up, or Montreal and Toronto where they go down. The big difference is that it will be more like Hong Kong, where the the pedestrians are not allowed to be on the roads, and are forced up onto the elevated walkways. I quoted Professor Steven Fleming: "I’m sure as I write, executives from Google are wining and dining politicians, just like Henry Ford, convincing them streets should be given to driverless cars." More: Will self-driving cars lead to grade-separated cities?

Another look at PLP/Architecture's CarTube

London view © PLP Architecture
Others, like PLP/Architecture, agree that AVs will not play well with people:

“The real issue is control,” Hesselgren explains. “Trains and tubes have controls; cars don’t. Autonomous cars do, but they don’t work well with pedestrians, cyclists and other unexpected elements. The only way you can have a high-capacity car network in a city is to have a dedicated track.”

Instead of putting the people behind fences or up on elevated walkways, they generously put the AVs in tubes underground. I was dismissive at first, but on a second look concluded that the idea was not so crazy, noting that it is still a silly idea for a seven percent solution, with a bunch of people sitting alone in their cars watching videos, but cannot be so easily dismissed as I originally did, because there are some critical insights." More: Another look at PLP/Architecture's CarTube

If you think Uber is an attack on cities and transit, you ain't seen nothin' yet

uber going through red lightVia Gizmodo who added red circle/Video screen capture
Then we have to worry about the coming conservative attack on public transit, where politicians are beginning to see Uber and self-driving cars as a way of getting rid of rail and buses as 19th century technology. As one commenter on my post about Beverly Hills going AV noted, "Why do we think transportation needs to be publicly managed? The public doesn't manage food distribution. It just gives out food stamps. The same could be done for autonomous rides." Others are talking about going Uber in the interim. But this is definitely the coming discussion everywhere. More: If you think Uber is an attack on cities and transit, you ain't seen nothin' yet

Why we don't need self-driving cars, but need to get rid of cars

testing google car© Google car test
Perhaps we should just call the whole thing off and recognize, as Rebecca Solnit tells us:
We don’t need new ways to use cars; we need new ways to not use them. Because here’s the thing people keep forgetting to mention about driverless cars: they’re cars.

She goes on and wins my heart, by suggesting alternatives:

Apple, Tesla, Uber, Google and various auto manufacturers’ pursuit of driverless cars is an attempt to preserve and maybe extend private automobile usage....That’s not the future. That’s dressing up the past. We need people to engage with bicycles, buses, streetcars, trains, and their own feet, to look at ways they can get places without fossil fuel.

More: Why we don't need self-driving cars, but need to get rid of cars

There are a few more that I could not fit in to the story line, below in related links.

2016: the year in self-driving cars and a look ahead to 2017
What's past is prologue to what will be a breakout year.

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