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Driverless Cars?


By JAMES KENNEDY

There was an interesting post on driverless cars at streets.mn today.  Brendan Slotterback asks a lot of insightful questions about how the potential for driverless technology would affect people's use of transit, and concludes somewhat sadly that a lot of even the best discussion going about this technology doesn't ask the right questions about that aspect of policy.


I personally think that driverless cars would be a nightmare, and am constantly confused by why so many people see the technology as hopeful.  I thought I'd link to the article and repost my comments about the idea.  I said:


I’m not sure I particularly understand why people would be more likely to carpool with driverless cars than with person-driven cars. Of course, I’m hopeful that that’s how they would be used, but the jump to the notion that there’s something about driverless vehicles themselves that would make that happen seems really tenuous to me.
The other big issues I see are:
1. I can’t see how driverless cars would deal with pedestrians and bicycles in complex crossings. I realize this is also a problem with actual drivers, but the computation involved in these kinds of decisions seems fraught with peril, should there be a failure.
2. If we had driverless cars as a regular feature of life, would most of us stop knowing how to drive? What happens if the mechanisms fail? Is there an override? And would any of us bother knowing how to work such an override (I suppose this could be dealt with through licensing somewhat, although it seems to me that that atrophy from non-use of a skill is almost as bad as not having the skill at all–I think of the Mark Twain quote about people who can read but don’t being worse than people who are fully illiterate).
3. And of course, I realize that our current car technology has a lot of computer-associated technology in it (fuel injection, for instance), but what are the implications for adding to that, in terms of pollution? Our society seems bent on assuming that computers are a clean technology, but they’re full of all sorts of horrible things. Right now, I know that a car’s manufacture and demise account for 40% of its lifetime pollution. How will that change if there is more intensive computer technology involved (perhaps it won’t, but it’s worth asking).

Particularly on the third point, I don't want to sound like a Luddite with my head in the sand.  Clearly, as a blogger, I see the potential for computers to be a positive force in our lives, and choose to use that technology to that end.  That said, I really don't think it can be overemphasized just how blind American culture is to the destructive aspects of computers, perhaps as a result of the fact that so much of our computer gadgets don't come from our own factories.  I would really suggest a movie on Netflix called The Manufactured Landscape, which just boggles the mind with both the horror and sheer beauty of the large scale manufacturing, recycling, reprocessing, and disposal of the materials we use to create the things we need (or want).  We should really ask questions like these when we're floating new ideas about inventions like driverless cars. 

The other caveat I would add is that I think a lot of solutions to our problems come from changes we need to make to our culture, rather than to technology alone--i.e., we often already have the answers to our problems, and have to implement them.  We already know how to run good BRT lines, high-speed rail, trolleys/streetcars, build good bike infrastructure, etc., and these solutions tend to be cheaper and easier than inventing whole new paradigms.  But something about our way of thinking says that it's always better to strive to reinvent the wheel.  I think this is something we should try to get away from.

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