Are Robotic Cars a Good Thing?

By Dom Nozzi

A friend of mine – who is a dedicated environmentalist, and in agreement with me on a great many issues — recently gushed about how much she was looking forward to the growing advances in cars that are robotically able to drive themselves.

But I was less than fully supportive of her enthusiasm.

I told her that I don’t buy the claim that we can build cars that will drive themselves, and that our transportation future will be solved or made significantly better if that were pursued. Automation of cars (and planes and transit and other things) scares me, because I don’t see how we can eliminate human error in the design of such things, or design automation that is so sophisticated that it can ALWAYS properly respond to an incredibly complex world of situations.

I am certain that we will never see a world where everyone gets around in their own personal George Jetson flying machine piloted by robots and using unlimited, no-pollution fuel. That, like the Christian heaven, is pure fantasy.

The key for our future is to not design robot cars. It is to design communities where car use is an option. Where it makes rational sense for nearly all of us to use high-quality transit (operated by humans rather than robots).

Technology is not going to save us. Unless we change our behavior by, among other things, re-arranging how our communities are designed, our world will collapse.

There is no future in private, motorized transportation.



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Filed under Miscellaneous, Urban Design

2 responses to “Are Robotic Cars a Good Thing?

  1. I have to actually disagree with one aspect of this blog entry. I agree with everything except the desire for “manned” transit. If we’re going for safety, frequency of service, smoothness of ride, and lower overall cost over time nothing holds up as well as automated systems. Let’s take one of the prime examples in operation, Vancouver Canada’s Skytrain.

    1. No fatalities in its history. Almost 400k riders PER DAY! About the same as San Francisco’s BART, even though Vancouver is dramatically smaller.
    2. Smoother ride, by far, than driver based systems.
    3. Lower costs. The SkyTrain technically turns an operational PROFIT which means the funds can be put into non-operationally profitable modes like buses, etc.
    4. The system still requires many people to keep it operating, but it doesn’t particularly need drivers, which is the dangerous part. People, in general, don’t make good operators of heavy machinery. So overall, we get increased safety and not too much of a decrease in available jobs.

    The top 3 reasons above are by far enough to win me over, the 4th reason will generally (with enough argument) get a Union into tow. Sure, some in street systems still need a person, the same reason as a car needs a person still. But for major systems, drivers are a bad idea.

    But I digress, you may be speaking more about local systems of buses or streetcars than major arterial connectors with dedicated ROW. 🙂

  2. yason

    In my opinion, undoubtedly robotic cars can be made into mainstream, if not through anything else but simply eliminating human drivers off digitized streets. Robotic cars can also increase the efficiency of an automobile, allowing families to survive with maybe one robotic car instead of two or three separate cars. For example, parent #1 drives to work in the morning, car returns home, takes the kids to school and then parent #2 to a shopping mall, waits until it gets the kids back to home, drives parent #2 to see a friend, and then goes back to the workplace of parent #1, picks him/her up and drops him/her home and finally fetches parent #2 back, too. This would also reduce the number of automobiles on the road.

    What I don’t like is the way people’s life would still be wrapped around the automobile, and the urban environment still not wrapped around small-scale urban life. As long as there’s so much room for cars in our cities, it doesn’t matter if the cars are full or empty. They still need their space by our own choice.

    I also don’t like the fact that increasing the efficiency of an automobile by robotic driving is likely increase the usage of an automobile, too. People tend to overconsume whatever is too easy and cheap to consume. So if robotic driving become easy, cheap, efficient we start thinking about satellite uses until roads are congested again–this time with driverless cars! For example, instead of using the post office or a parcel service, it might seem reasonable to load the robotic car with packages and ask the car to drive itself to the destination. This sort of abuse would shortly congest roads recreate inefficiency. Congestion would reduce down to “my robotic car is late again, I wonder what’s happening.” Putting actual people into the traffic jam behind the steering wheel is much better because people don’t like to spend time there, and they might actually do something about it one day.

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