The Point, Counterpoint on the Dystopian Vision of Driverless Cars – Part 1

At an automated vehicle symposium in 2014, Torti Gallas & Partners provided a dystopian vision – or an opposing vision of the problems – that could occur from driverless cars.

While the points made may come to fruition, or portions of them may take place, there is the real possibility that this dystopian vision may be a bit overstated. From a traffic planner’s point of view, I wanted to provide my thoughts on the matter.

Given everything we hear today, this may come as a surprise. Due to self-driving vehicles, suburbanization will most likely increase. Why? Commuting will be easier. Self-driving vehicles will make commuting safer and more productive for all passengers. When individuals can use the time in a self-driving car to start work, the duration of the commute may not be as much of an issue. Government officials need to be prepared for the desire to live in suburbs because, clearly, some families continue to want the “American dream” with a single family home, fences for their dogs, a place to play and recreate, and to obtain better education than that which exists in most U.S. cities.

A second point from the dystopian vision also indicates that urban areas will be consumed by traffic as roadway throughput will be overwhelmed by vehicles. I have indicated, on numerous occasions, congestion management and congestion pricing, like we see in Europe, could be necessary.

Another dystopian myth is that people will not want to share “disgusting” vehicles; that it would be dirty, like other forms of public transportation. That is true today, especially when dealing with taxicabs in major central business districts throughout the United States. It is clear that many taxicabs are dirty, while mobility and car-sharing companies provide clean vehicles for people to ride in. Customers of ride-sharing companies are able to rate their driver and their car. A driver or car that receives poor ratings (and it does not take many) will lose the ability to provide that service and to enjoy the revenue that comes from driving for these types of companies.

Another theory from the dystopian vision is that door-to-door automated travel will destroy non-residential incidental en-route retail. The view also indicates that our downtowns will die.  What has actually been shown recently is that downtown and neighborhood retail centers are enjoying a resurgence as a result of bicycle routes, bike tracks, and dedicated bike lanes. While bikers purchase less per visit than automobile purchases, bicycle shoppers purchase more goods, in the course of a month than those shoppers that arrive by automobile.

Additionally, the dystopian vision suggests that city centers will need to be fenced to keep pedestrians from interfering with the flow of automated vehicles. Quite frankly, this is an issue that has been brought up as it relates to pedestrians walking out, mid-block, and causing automated vehicles to stop or slow. And to be honest, this particular point has not yet been dealt with in an adequate manner.

The reality is that driverless cars will change many aspects of our lives that we are used to today. When cars, sliced bread, and cell phones were introduced, humans adapted. We are good at adapting and changing ways that will make our lives more productive. Driverless cars will be no different – we will continue to adapt.

Our next post will continue the discussion and my (realistic) views on the dystopian vision.

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