The driverless car fiasco

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Driverless cars are fast becoming the next big thing, with timelines for their arrival collapsing at breakneck speed. They remind me of the Minions.

Craaashhh!

The website grist.org has an article by Katie Herzog called “No One Wants Driverless Cars Except for People Who Make Driverless Cars.” She reports on several polls suggesting that driverless cars are somewhat less popular than the wave they are riding.

People seem to be very impressed by the idea of a computer taking over from the human driver. Color me underwelmed. People forget that no manmade computer can match the intuitive driving intelligence of the human brain (actually a manmade computer, I suppose, but never mind).

To switch on the ignition and move out into traffic is to switch the brain into a gear that may perhaps use more subconscious survival techniques than are involved in any other human activity. For one thing, while driving a man or woman are in as much danger as they are likely ever to be in normal human life. The way we all make driving decisions without thinking about it is the brain at its best. A road full of cars operates with a degree of efficiency that no computer could match. The amazing thing about driving is not how many accidents there are but how few there are.

But take away that cognitive moment-by-moment creativity that is the act of driving a car and replace it with a computer – one that figures everything out in a split second based on algorithms triggered by sensors placed in strategic locations throughout the automobile. Factor in, as I suppose you must, that the car’s computer is programmed to obey all driving laws and regulations. Then quadruple the number of cars on the road because everyone will let their cars go do their errands for them. Then factor out the money spent on road maintenance now that fewer actual people will be driving, and the pressure on government to keep roads shipshape will decline.

With all that, imagine how fast the traffic will go. It will not speed up. It will slow down, slow down dramatically. Those who still do their own driving will be very frustrated by road sloth, the constant and constantly moving traffic jam. Some drivers might juke in and out of traffic, making life harder for the poor automated car’s computer, which will have to keep an eye out for these reprobates – and the pressure for laws to ban driving will increase.

Will the computers in cars be programmed to drive over to the side of the road if a deep pothole momentarily jolts their program out of alignment? What if one self-driving car is hit by another? Will they be programmed to exchange insurance data? I do not deny being frightened by the news that Google’s developers are contemplating a coat of glue so that pedestrians hit by driverless cars will stick to the fender rather than falling onto the road to be “bloop-blooped” by the guilty driverless car and those that follow it.

As an urbanist, I worry that injecting cities with thousands and even millions of driverless cars will bring such a wave of unintended consequences that prudence argues against it.

But no, I am not afraid of driverless cars. I’m sure that good sense will prevail before they hit the road. On the other hand, that good sense did not prevail when modern architecture – with its equally obvious monumental flaws – hit the road and took control more than half a century ago. Okay, I am scared.

After quoting sources pro and con, Katie Herzog ends her Grist piece with this home truth: “Besides, there’s already a vehicle out there that is cheap, green, and also lets you snooze through your morning commute: It’s called the city bus.”

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to The driverless car fiasco

  1. Glenn Turner says:

    You are way off base on this topic. Imagine a city without parking lots or on-street parking. Imagine that buildings no longer need to be periodically scrubbed to remove the soot from exhausts. Imagine no horns blowing at all hours. Imagine not needing to own your own car at all. Imagine driveways converted to gardens. Imagine the auto insurance racket out of business. Imagine the highways without over-tired truckers jacked on Red Bull. Imagine the emergency rooms without grotesque car-crash injuries caused by drunks or careless teens. There is a lot to like in this driverless future.

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    • I like all you say, Glenn, but I’m afraid I lack the abundance of imagination required to believe that anything like this is likely or even possible. Could be wrong. Doubt it.

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    • Flashback 1916: Imagine all the land once used to grow hay for the city’s army of horses now devoted to growing food for people. Hunger will be no more! Imagine all the smelly stables vanished because a single motor car can do the work of two dozen horses. Think about all the left over space in our cities. We could solve the housing shortage! Automobile technology will ease congestion because cars are far more efficient than horses. Horses are so easily spooked. Imagine all the lives that will be saved from bolting horses. Humans are much more rational actors. Etc, etc.

      I think if you asked economists, they’d say we’ll fill up the extra capacity with more self-driving cars. We’ll self-drive to more mundane things. We’ll live more spread out across the landscape because we’ve eased the drudgery of driving. Spreading out means gobbling land and resources.

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  2. Driverless cars don’t solve the sprawl problem, they might even exacerbate it. The more success the driverless system becomes, the more we will thoughtlessly sprawl. I can imagine someone working in Los Angeles and living in Las Vegas (4 hours away). Sounds perfectly miserable.

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    • It’s not a phenomenon I’ve paid much attention to, but being more attuned to the flaws of computers and also to the sophisticated operating systems they will replace (the human brain), and the tendency of planners to leave major factors out of their equations, including the tendency to rush into things (already in operation), I just can’t see much good coming out of this. But I will predict that the first death of a pedestrian or a passenger in a driverless car, if early enough in the process, will bring the whole thing screeching to a halt, sending the investment locomotive into a ditch.

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  3. ericritter65 says:

    Self-driving automobiles and maybe even, tractor-trailers first, scary the heck out of me! I like to be in control. Maybe they “might” work on the highways, but then a real live human-being needs to be engaged for the secondary and local roads!

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