Life ain’t always beautiful, but it’s a beautiful ride. —Gary Allan
I remember quite distinctly my 16th birthday. Actually, I only remember a specific portion of the afternoon of my 16th birthday. Poppa picked me up from school and drove me over to the DMV in Muskogee for my driving test. I had already passed the written test in Driver’s Ed. Now, it was time to take that monumental step. I was nervous. Some of my classmates had to take the test multiple times before passing. Not me. I aced that test on the first try and was excited to show off the horrible picture on my new license. I would no longer have to ask for a ride every time I needed to go somewhere.
By contrast, my 18-year-old son is quite comfortable in the passenger seat. Even though age-wise, he’s been eligible to get his driver’s license for two years, he’s still in no hurry. He’s quite content to get a ride from his mom or his brother. As it turns out, his attitude may be the better approach for the future.
By now, I’m just going to assume that everyone is at least topically familiar with the development of driverless cars, especially Google’s various models. The concept still scares us a bit. For example, what happens if/when an automated car hits a pedestrian? There are still issues to be worked out, but the further development of the vehicles seems inevitable. Even car manufacturers such as Audi are getting in on the act. The day may soon come when all one has to do is get in a car and ride.
Complications Are Inevitable
As automated cars begin to fill the streets, though, other things beyond cars have to change as well. Streets, for example. Just this past week, solar powered roads started their first real-life test on Route 66 near Conway, MO. With so much of the nation’s asphalt and concrete infrastructure crumbling, now seems to be a good time to start modifying the nation’s roadways so that they might better accommodate driverless cars. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Most voters would likely go along for that ride.
A general assumption is that most automated cars will see primary use on freeways and Interstates where access by pedestrians is either restricted or prohibited. There, in a space designed for cars, automated vehicles already accel and are a safer ride than being in a human-driven vehicle. Again, it sounds like good news, given that traffic deaths spiked the highest last year since 1965. We’re actually becoming worse at driving.
Automated cars in urban situations, though, have not been as thoroughly tested. We assume they would be better at navigating city streets efficiently, especially as they develop the ability to communicate with each other. Traffic signals may no longer be necessary as cars instinctively know when to stop or change course. Great, again, if you’re riding.
But what about pedestrians? How do automated cars know when an individual is crossing the street? What if a child’s ball bounces out into the road? Will an approaching car know to not only avoid the ball, but watch for the child that might be following?
Walking Days Are Numbered
An article in this week’s The Atlantic takes a fairly in-depth look at how the rise of automated cars may spell doom for pedestrians. The move isn’t unprecedented. Consider how many suburban neighborhoods already are void of sidewalks. I can personally speak to the number of places where walking simply isn’t safe. Not only are there no sidewalks, intersections are too wide to cross during the few seconds afforded by a traffic light. The danger is real now and doesn’t get any better.
One possibility is that crossing the street might require some form of digital transaction. Pedestrians might need a wearable device that communicates with either the cars or perhaps the street itself to negotiate the right to cross safely. Jaywalking, something largely ignored in cities like Indianapolis, would not only be illegal but life-threatening as well. Without that transaction, cars wouldn’t know to stop.
What if that transaction had a price? Would you pay to cross the street? In some scenarios, it might be easier, and safer, to summon a ride for a trip only a couple of blocks long rather than risk walking. There is also the chance that pedestrians would find themselves excluded from a high number of heavily-trafficked streets. The days of my walking to the nearest coffee shop would be over.
Driving Becomes Illegal
When automated cars become populous enough that they outnumber traditional cars, it only makes sense that, for safety reasons alone, driving becomes illegal. Automated cars make fewer mistakes and have the ability to communicate with each other at microsecond speed. People can’t do that. While technology might prohibit a driver from executing a dangerous move, sooner or later laws are going to change to favor the safer option. Your driving days are over.
One one level, that may not seem like such a sacrifice. No drivers mean no road rage, no getting stuck behind a slow driver in the fast lane, no one cutting you off at the last minute. However, driverless cars have a point A to point B purpose to them. There is no joyriding in a driverless car. One does not just go out for a leisurely ride through the park, or go exploring down a road they’ve never traveled. Instead, driverless cars are designed to take you to a specific destination using the most efficient route possible. Sit back and enjoy the ride, even if it’s the same ride you take very day. Say goodbye to any sense of adventure.
The Atlantic raises some rather important social issues as well. One dominant scenario has no one actually owning their own car, but rather using state-funded Uber-like services instead. This move to forced public transit would almost certainly disadvantage the poor and those whom society marginalizes. Roads have already been using to divide cities both economically and racially. When one’s only option for transportation is a city-sponsored automated car that won’t come closer than five blocks to your house, you have a problem.
The “right to ride” has to be insured as such programs develop. If individuals of the future are not allowed to drive their own cars or even own their own cars, the right to access transportation is one that has to be addressed to avoid it being used to further marginalize people.
There’s also the likelihood that, since automated cars will follow a software-type non-negotiable license, that car manufacturers will require permission to sell your travel data, just like Facebook and Google sell your online data now. This may not seem like a big deal until governments start using the data to limit where one can travel, or what time of day one can catch a ride.
We Have Options
None of this means that a ride-only future is necessarily bleak. Pedestrian-only pathways could provide both a convenient and safer option for those who walk or ride a bike. Such trails are already popular, we just need more of them connecting every party of a city.
No-car-zones are already being considered in some places, such as Oslo. While the details of such an option would be unique to every location, it would provide some safety for those of us who prefer to walk across short distances.
Going for a ride is an experience that is going to change dramatically. Exactly how fast that change happens is anyone’s guess, but few are expecting the normal 20-year adaptation cycle to apply. This is a reality that is coming at us fast. We have to learn how to ride or else we may die walking.