THE SECOND COMING OF CARS: Will Self-Driving Cars End Congestion, Improve Safety, and Save the Environment?
Self-driving cars, a.k.a. autonomous vehicles (AVs), are all the buzz these days. They are already being rolled out for real-life testing; within a very few years, sooner than anyone believed possible a short while ago, they will soon be nationwide. Whether we want them or not; whether we are ready or not, they are moving from “Level 3” autonomy, where a human must be available to retake control, to "Level 5," cars that go on their own. The breathless headlines announcing their arrival amplify our society’s techno-utopian impulse, with enthusiasts (and marketers) describing the countless ways AVs will revolutionize and improve nearly every aspect of our lives and society. We are being told that autonomous vehicles will come to the rescue of our increasingly dysfunctional transportation system. Car crashes won’t happen. Pollution will decrease. Congestion will go away. Parking lanes will be turned into parks or bike lanes. Access disparities will decrease for low-income and rural areas.
At the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I don’t believe it.
Change: Yes. And lots of it; much of it disruptive. But improvement? No more likely – in fact, probably less likely – than damage. The only thing that has a chance of creating a more positive outcome is proactive regulation of the product and its use. As ZipCar founder, Robin Chase, has been pointing out, we are faced with a Heaven or Hell choice. Without successful strategies to steer us towards positive outcomes, AVs will not eliminate traffic congestion, reduce aggregate vehicle miles travelled (AVT), injuries, air pollution, or the need for parking, and may actually make it all worse.
The good news is that so much of what we need to do to maximize the benefits, and avoid the catastrophes, of the seemingly inevitable onslaught of driverless cars are the common-sense things we have already started doing because they are worthwhile under any circumstances -- prioritize modes that move the most people, cause the least environmental damage, and equalize access; build more transit, bike lanes and sidewalks; price highway access, curb access and parking; etc. However, the coming of AVs means we have to do a lot more of it, sooner.