By Dom Nozzi
December 16, 2016
Autonomous cars remind me of the many techno optimists in the 60s and 70s who assured us that we would soon be driving flying cars like The Jetsons.
So much faster! End of traffic jams! No air pollution!
Assuming autonomous cars become a significant part of our lives — which is highly unlikely given enormous difficulties associated with making autonomous vehicles work in the real world — such vehicles are likely to create a great many negative unintended consequences.
First, there will be a huge increase in per capita car travel due to the relative ease of car travel by such vehicles. Many trips that were formerly made by walking/biking/transit (or not at all) will now be by car — including by kids, the handicapped, and seniors who are now unable to drive.
Second, there will be a need for wider roads to handle that per capita increase.
Third, we will see higher average car speeds.
Fourth, we will see more pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars since the software will direct the car to kill such people rather than the driver.
Fifth, there will be a big increase in obesity due to the increased amount of travel by car.
And finally, we will suffer from a perpetuation of unsustainable transport energy consumption, toxic air emissions, and dispersed land use patterns.
Overall, like standard cars, autonomous cars are extremely toxic to cities. To be healthy, cities require slow speeds (which promote the agglomeration economies that cities require). Higher speeds induce more low-density dispersal, which destroys city health and the essential need for social capital. Cars isolate us, yet our genes and our cities need interaction.
In general, autonomous cars are a solution looking for a problem.
Given the consequences I mention above, we need to hope that autonomous cars are as “successful” as George Jetson’s flying cars. I’m not worried because I am confident autonomous cars will soon be forgotten.
What bothers me most is that such pie-in-the-sky vehicles distract us from pressing city and human needs we have neglected and failed to address for several decades.
How much progress have we made on passenger rail design and implementation, for example?