Self-Driving Car Gets Stuck in the Slough of Despond

The future they want

In which we learn a new and useful word: techno-chauvinism.

Over the last few years this TreeHugger has come to worry about self-driving cars and, in particular, their effect on cities and urban planning. I worried about Jaywalking 2.0 and the need to physically separate pesky pedestrians. As auto manufacturer George Graham said in 1924, “Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights.” I thought it was more a legal and social problem than a technical one, but Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal writes about how there are still lots of technical problems to be overcome in Driverless hype collides with merciless reality. Not for the first time, he uses the Gartner Hype Cycle.

There are many reasons the self-driving tech industry has suddenly found itself in this “trough of disillusionment,” and chief among them is the technology. We don’t yet know how to pull off a computer driver that can perform as well or better than a human under all conditions.
He suggests that I can stop worrying about how AVs will affect planning and transit, because they will "take decades to come to fruition."
It means cities don’t yet need to wonder what will become of their mass transit. And it means Uber and Lyft aren’t likely to ditch human drivers soon, and their investors should value them accordingly. In the meantime, we’ll have to adjust to the reality that autonomous driving could be headed for narrower—but still transformative—applications. And if our desire for driverless taxis and delivery vans is strong enough, we might need to create dedicated roads for them.

This is where it gets problematic, because dedicated and separated roads are exactly what I have been worrying about, and why this obsession with AVs is so misguided.

View down on Futurama

technology almanac/ Separated streets in Futurama/via

Jargon watch: Techno-chauvinism

Mims talks to Meredith Broussard, author of “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.

Our love affair with self-driving cars is a form of “techno-chauvinism,” Prof. Broussard says. “It’s the idea that technology is always the highest and best solution, and is superior to the people-based solution.”

Seriously, I am hopping on my bike to go buy that book. Because in cities, that bike is probably the highest and best solution. They exist, and with batteries and motors, they are serving more and more people. That's why technology writer Horace Dediu says bikes will eat cars.

Writing in City Journal, Nichole Gelinas makes many of the same points about appropriate technology, and the pressures that the AV might put on our urban fabric.

In the mid-twentieth century, cities changed their infrastructure to fit cars, often for the worse. Government rammed big highways through cities to compete with the quickly populating suburbs, which could handle lots of traffic; city neighborhoods emptied out even faster as a result. Government ripped out streetcar lines and neglected mass transit, only to reverse those decisions decades later. In the future, cities may have to resist pressure to build more limited-access highways to avoid “confusing” driverless cars, or to set traffic lights to favor caravans of fast-moving driverless cars rather than pedestrians and cyclists. “Didn’t we learn in the twentieth century about how many mistakes can be made with the automobile?” asks [transportation safety professor Oliver] Carsten.

While all the engineers are stuck in this trough of disappointment, or slough of despond, perhaps we should take a time-out and think about all this.