Will History Repeat Itself With Driverless Cars?

640px-Google_self_driving_car_at_the_GoogleplexI don’t hate cars. In fact, I think cars were an amazing invention that dramatically improved life in the world. But we did go too far in over-designing our world around the automobile, something we are now trying to change.

But it strikes me that we’re poised to make the same mistake with driverless cars.

I’ve attended a few conferences recently, two of which stuck out for their emphasis on driverless cars. One was the Atlantic’s City Lab conference (where I moderated a panel on regulating the new urban economy) and the other was Meeting of the Minds.

Notably General Motors was the lead sponsor of City Lab and Toyota for MotM. A couple years ago the car companies were nowhere to be found, and the urbanist conference space was dominated by folks like Cisco, Schneider Electric, and Bombardier. The car companies are clearly making a big push.

Basically every speaker and most attendees at these events were hagiographic towards driverless cars. They openly and explicitly call for banning human drivers as quickly as possible in the name of safety. There is going to be a major push by many parties to make the driverless transition as quickly as possible, and most advocates won’t hesitate to mandate them.

It’s also clear that cities are falling all over themselves to try to prove their driverless car friendliness. People from various cities are boasting of having driverless cars being tested on their streets, or trying to lure the car companies into doing so. It’s clear that they will bend over backwards to roll out the red carpet to make the driverless car companies happy. Just look at how cities competed to win Google Fiber and you’ll get a sense of what they are doing.

It seems likely to me that cities, desperate to seem cool and on the cutting edge, will aggressively compete to design infrastructure and regulatory requirements to favor driverless cars – and their manufacturers. No city wants to seem like it’s behind the times on the latest tech.

Looking back to the past, this helps me understand why cities so catered to the original automobile. It too must have been the hot new technology of its day. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be on the leading edge of car tech?

This might not be so bad but the driverless car visions being put forward by their advocates are troubling.

Toyota gave an overview of their future urban vision at MotM. It had all kinds of amazing stuff. But one thing it didn’t include was public transit. Epcot style they talked about underground highways to free up the surface for pedestrians and bicycles. But there were no subways.

Now Toyota is a car company. I don’t blame them in the slightest for promoting a future around their product. That’s their job! But the broader public needs to think about how to engage on this. You may recall that Jarrett Walker took Uber to task over its apparently anti-transit advertising. Keep in mind that Uber is a big driverless car investor too.

The other, and frankly more disturbing item is that advocates of driverless cars explicitly see them as a distributed surveillance system. They envision real-time telemetry information from the car being uploaded into the cloud, where it will be utilized by AI type algorithms.

One application cited was to update maps dynamically with information like potholes. Another was for “Amber alerts”, suggesting that driverless cars would license plate scan every other car around them to identify the suspect vehicle.

This is an extremely dangerous vision of the future as the nefarious uses of this are obvious.

It was stunning to me that there was so little talk of the potential negative of driverless cars and especially cybersecurity. The only person I heard talk about this was Ali Al Shidhani of the Research Council of Oman, who gave a presentation on cybersecurity that included driverless cars.

It’s not hard to gin up many potential scenarios of how governments, corporations, or hackers could abuse this technology.

Much like the original car, I think there’s a lot of good in the driverless one. But if we’re not careful, we’ll repeat the original sin of overreach in redesigning our world around them.

(As another example, consider the potential for pressure to create fully barrier protected travel lanes in order to keep people from “bullying” driverless cars by walking in front of them, knowing that algorithms won’t let them run down a pedestrian).

We run the risk of this because none of us, and none of our cities, want to be seen as behind the times or unfriendly to the tech industry. (“No startup will ever want to locate here again if we don’t kowtow to driverless cars, don’t you know.”)

This is definitely one we should all keep on our radar as this technology starts to come online. We should take advantage of what it offers while being very cautious about the potential downsides too.

from Aaron M. Renn


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