Will autonomous vehicles change the world?

© Mercedes Benz

The Drive section of the Globe and Mail, which calls itself Canada’s national newspaper, usually is filled with coverage of fancy cars, so it is surprising to see almost the entire section devoted to a series on autonomous vehicles. It starts with a brash statement:

The self-driving car will likely change society more than any technology has over the past century. Roads will be safer, we’ll have more free time, cities will be reshaped and traffic may become a thing of the past.

All of these are arguable, as is the section on elevators, where Jordan Chittley tours the Birkbeck Building, with one of the few manually controlled elevators in the City, to make the point that people didn’t like automatic elevators when they were introduced.

In the early 1950s, push-button elevators were introduced en masse. Building owners could save money on operators and automated elevators increased efficiency and capacity. But there was a problem – people hated them. “We have clear stories of people walking into elevators and walking right back out,” [Professor of architectural history Lee] Gray says. “Passengers were saying, ‘I don’t want to drive this thing, where is the operator?’” Many people didn’t feel comfortable giving up control to a machine, where all they had to do was push a button.

I am not sure that the analogy works. You do not have elevators running up stairways with people having to get out of the way when the elevator cab comes. With the exception of some new elevators from ThyssenKrupp, you don’t have lots of elevators running in one shaft. And perhaps most importantly, you usually have buildings designed around elevators. This is a lot more complicated and requires a lot more trust.

GM Futurama© GM Futurama 1939 World's Fair

In another article in the series, Matt Bubbers doesn’t think that self-driving cars will be here as quickly as people are saying, and points out they were promised during the 1939 world’s fair.

Safety and speed: yours by 1960, promised the exhibit. Its designer, Norman Bel Geddes, would be the first but not the last to make predictions about when self-driving cars might take over daily commutes and reshape cities.

But here again, like the elevator analogy, it misses a big point: Bel Geddes proposed a redesign of the city to separate cars from pedestrians. That’s why I wrote about Futurama as a model for a world with self-driving cars noting:

If the cars are so smart that they know to stop in time to avoid hitting someone, “we might see a small number of people taking advantage of that to cross through traffic, knowing the cars can't kill him. That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.”

Because as Bubbers notes,

An AV must first see the world around it, then distinguish and recognize individual objects, predict where they might go, and how it should navigate them. Driving in the chaos of a city – where a child could dart from between parked cars – in snow, fog or rain, and on bad roads with little or no markings is a complex task and presents a huge challenge for a machine.

Of course the human-driven car doesn’t do a very good job avoiding kids darting out either, and often doesn’t slow down for snow or Hallowe’en. Cars, of any kind, don’t mix very well with people, which is why so many get killed and injured. Where I live in Toronto, 14 people were hit in the last 18 hours. The autonomous car cannot possibly do a worse job than the human driven car does, but is still going to be problematic. As City of Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat notes, cars don’t really fit well in cities at all.

“The introduction of cars as the primary form of transportation in our cities was based on a false premise … that there would be enough room on the street for everyone to be getting around with ease in their car,” Keesmaat says. It “was a fundamental premise that we got wrong.”

The authors note that the goal should be to use self-driving cars to create a better city- eliminating street parking, reducing the number of cars on the road, reducing pollution. Jennifer Keesmaat continues:

“In 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll look back at this moment in history and say, ‘Wow, that was terrible, remember when people used to commute for 45 minutes each way?’” says Keesmaat. “Great cities are places where sometimes you can walk, sometimes you can cycle, sometimes you can take transit, sometimes you can take a car and, if we see autonomous vehicles as being a part of the layering to all of those movement choices, they can enhance our overall city building objectives.”

Will the self-driving car change society? Will roads be safer, will our cities be reshaped? Will traffic be a thing of the past? The authors think so, but is is in the Drive section of the Globe which has its own agenda. I would love to see what the writers in the Walk and the Cycle section would say, but they don't exist.

Read the series here at the Globe and Mail.

Will autonomous vehicles change the world?
The Globe and Mail devotes a whole section to the self-driving car.

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