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Our Cities Will Be Beautiful In The Driverless Future–But First We Have To Get There

How can we push past public fear and political red tape to get to the beautiful world that awaits when no one drives anymore?

Our Cities Will Be Beautiful In The Driverless Future–But First We Have To Get There
[Top Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

Imagine a city where cars roam free, dropping off their relaxed occupants and then sliding back into a sea of slow-moving but non-stop traffic. Cyclists weave through, unmolested, and pedestrian crossings flip to the green Walk sign often, almost magically syncing up with gaps in traffic.

The promise is seductive. You’ll never get hit by a drunk driver, a texting teen, or just someone distracted by their bad day. You’ll never have to circle the block looking for a parking space. Sidewalks will double in size because on-street parking is no longer needed outside of residential areas.

Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

A driverless future seems more and more likely. It’s not just the success of Google’s self-driving cars, or the promise of huge environmental benefits. Today, our cars all but drive themselves already. Cruise control and anti-lock brakes have been joined by lane-detection, and some cars will put a computerized foot brakes if the car in front suddenly slows.

“Look at adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings,” says Christian A. Strømmen, an interaction designer from Norway. “Once you get used to it, it feels so awkward driving without.”

That is, every aspect of the cars we drive “ourselves” is already automated: steering, speed, braking. Famously, Google’s self-driving cars have clocked up 1.7 million miles over six years, all without major incident.

“In more than a million miles of real-world testing, autonomous vehicles have been involved in around a dozen crashes (with no major injuries),” says John Nielsen, AAA’s Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, “all of which occurred when a human driver was in control, or the vehicle was struck by another car.”

Self-driving cars are already way better than people-piloted cars, so what’s the trouble?

“Current laws never envisioned a vehicle that can drive itself, and there are numerous liability issues that need to be ironed out,” Nielsen says. “If an autonomous vehicle gets in a collision, who is responsible? The “driver,” their insurance company, the automaker that built the vehicle, or the third-party supplier that provided the autonomous control systems?”

How will the laws adapt? And how will we adapt? People are hesitant to embrace change, but the change that driverless cars will bring to our cities and lifestyles is enormous. What will it take to get there?

Stuart Monk via Shutterstock

You Are A Bad Driver

Human-driven cars are one of the most dangerous things in the world today, but despite that fact we’re still–irrationally–scared of careening through the streets with a computer at the wheel.

This is false perception. Self-driving cars are overwhelmingly better drivers that humans. A robocar “doesn’t get distracted or tired, misjudge traffic conditions, talk or text on a cell phone, or suffer road rage,” says Nielsen.

And all those potential distractions are more dangerous than you probably think: In 2013 alone, there were nearly 6 million vehicle crashes in the U.S. that resulted in 32,719 deaths, more than 2 million injuries and 200,000 hospitalizations. All those deaths make vehicle collisions the leading cause of death for Americans under 34.

These are deaths we could stop. According to the AAA, government and safety experts say an estimated 80% of crashes could be avoided by self-driving cars. And this is on current roads, which are shared with regular cars. An all-self-driven city would fare even better. But people remain hesitant:

“The one death caused by a malfunction will weigh heavier in people’s minds than the 100,000 deaths automation stops,” says Strømmen, neatly summing up the problems of public perception, the other barrier to fully driverless cities. But when 1,500 drivers in Boston were asked if they would buy a fully autonomous car in the future, only 44% said yes.

Songquan Deng via Shutterstock

The Future City Is Really Nice

Self-driving cars have benefits beyond safety. If all we did was switch out human drivers for computers, we’d miss many of the later steps. A look at a hypothetical future city where all cars are self-driven is more than just free of preventable car-related deaths.

The first thing you’d notice is the space. Today, cars spend 95% of their time parked, doing nothing. If those cars were employees, you’d fire them. But self-driving cars can be put to work. At the very least, they could park themselves in underground or multi-story lots away from busy downtown, where space is scarce.

But why stop there? Your car could spend its day working as hard as you, operating as an Uber-style taxi, or a delivery vehicle. This all leads to fewer parked cars, which in turn means more space for bike lanes and larger sidewalks. Instead of parked cars lining every downtown street, we might see park benches or street vendors, making the whole space much more livable for humans.

Now take a deep breath. The air will be cleaner. One recent study claims a 94 percent reduction in emissions if all taxis were self-driving and electric. Multiply that by all the cars on the road and city air could be as fresh as country air, and probably better-smelling.

The Driving Park

Banning drivers ignores one big aspect of car use: driving for pleasure. Stephan Legrand, runs Exotics Racing, a race track in Las Vegas where anyone can take a Ferrari, Aston Martin, or other supercar for a spin. His service is useful and fun today, but may be essential to car enthusiasts in a driverless future.

“One might own a 600 hp exotic car,” says Legrand “but in city traffic, one can’t use that power to its full potential.”

“For me, driving is my meditation,” says IT consultant Samer Farha, “It’s just me, my music, and the road. I only have to think about the road.” Legrand disagrees. “Driving in a city can’t be relaxing,” he says. “It’s only nerve racking, as drivers must avoid wary pedestrians, cyclists, animals, and other obstacles.”

I asked Legrand if he might consider building replica city blocks for people like Farha to tootle around, but he didn’t think it would prove popular.

Flickr user Owen Byrne

“It will become a status thing”

Switching will come slowly, and not just because today’s manually-operated cars will be on the roads for another decade or two.

Strømmen again: “My guess is that we’d stick with our own car, but probably use [a self-driving] car instead of a car number two.” That second car might be lent to the kids instead of letting your teens take out the family car, and eventually it may become the main family car, in much the same way our phones have replaced our cameras and iPods.

There might be social pressure, too. In our hypothetical future, you’ll be accustomed to zipping from place to place with no traffic jams and few bad drivers. Then you see a human holdout, somebody insisting on driving their own car. It hurtles through the placid waves of robot-piloted transport, causing your own car to swerve. You look up from your newspaper, tutting and shaking your head. “Go back to 2015, you moron,” you think as loud as you can, before returning to your sudoku.

Now imagine you are at dinner with friends, and somebody confesses that they’re driving themselves home. The reaction may be the same as a smoker or drink-driver might get today. Social pressure may be the biggest propellant of change in the world today.

Sydney, Australia-based radio content director Charlie Fox says “I think if you drive your own car, you’ll be perceived [as] lower class. It will become a status thing.”

We might not need our own cars at all. With so many vehicles buzzing around and offering rides while their owners are at work, you could forget about owning your own. We already dial up an Uber from a phone app, so the experience wouldn’t change, other than that you wouldn’t have to talk to a driver, and the drivers won’t be paid a pittance to work.

In big European cities like Barcelona and Berlin, people already use the local equivalents of ZipCar and pay by the hour only when they need a car. Some cities, like Leipzig, have integrated municipal-transport systems which include car sharing. Leipzig’s TeilAuto can be used by anyone, but if you use it along with the city’s trams, buses, and bike-share scheme, you get cascading discounts.

Flickr user Doc Searls

Car Hacks

A final barrier is data security. The AAA’s John Nielsen says that currently “One in five new cars sold have the ability to collect and transmit data outside the vehicle, in order to improve safety and convenience for drivers.” Think crowd-sourced traffic updates like Waze, or security systems like LoJack.

“Future autonomous vehicles will likely generate even more data,” Nielsen told us. “Questions about who owns this data–and has the right to control its distribution and use–are not well addressed in current laws.”

So we’re back to the legality of self-driving cars. If the problems faced by Tesla, whose attempts to sell cars direct to consumers have been blocked by dealer-friendly legislation in some states, are anything to go by, the law–and the entrenched interests that support the status quo–could be the biggest barrier to a safer, cleaner future.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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