Those tragic fatalities are raising overdue questions about whether people and places will be ready when this new technology moves from beta-testing to a full-throttled rollout.
As an urban planner who has analysed how technology affects cities, I believe that driverless vehicles will change everything that moves and the stationary landscape too. Until now, the public and governments at all levels have paid too little attention to how letting these machines drive themselves will transform urban, rural and suburban communities.
The Tesla Model S electric car that crashed into a fire engine in Culver City, California, in January 2018. Image: KCBS-TV via AP.
But public awareness and consumer acceptance will take far longer, perhaps decades. It will depend on the machines’ safety record, plus the time it takes to implement legal and political changes like enacting local laws governing the use of self-driving cars.
This shift requires everyone from automakers to consumers, insurers to planners and officials at all levels of government, to work together. Being proactive about guiding this technological change is essential. Rather than waiting until it happens or leaving it for the last minute, now is the time for education, thoughtful discussion and planning.
This juncture resembles what happened when automobiles replaced horses and the internet gained traction. In those cases, the technology changed how people lived, worked and got around. And the transformation occurred before the public or governments were ready.
Likewise, the advent of motorised transportation more than a century ago completely changed cities, towns and suburbs. Replacing horses with the internal combustion engine demanded wider, better roadways and the invention and proliferation of traffic lights, gas stations, automotive dealerships, public parking lots and private garages. Governments had to regulate who could drive and which vehicles were roadworthy.
Driverless transportation, likewise, will demand new infrastructure and laws as it changes commuting and travel patterns in ways that few communities are contemplating today. Depending on what happens, the results could be positive or negative.
Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan delved into the angst and anger Americans felt toward early automotives in the documentary ‘Horatio’s Drive.’
Just think about what your community might be like. Picture wider sidewalks, new cycling and jogging lanes, and additional green space. It’s no wonder that urban planners are already pondering the possibilities.
What if autonomous vehicles were to drive about empty, rather than parking? That would increase congestion rather than abate it. Public transit use could decline once commuters have the freedom to do whatever they wish aboard their vehicles. If they become more tolerant of longer trips to work, driverless cars could potentially increase sprawl.
The truth is, no one knows what to expect. While engineers have been developing the technology for decades, social scientists, politicians and government officials have only recently started to grapple with its repercussions. And public opinion and engagement is further behind.
Leaving everything up to market forces and consumer whims could possibly create more problems than autonomous vehicles would solve. That’s why I believe in taking the planning side of the transition to driverless vehicles off autopilot.