Jarrett Walker at Human Transit is a writer and consultant on public transport planning. He’s beginning to grapple with the implications of driverless cars. In response to a series by Richard Gilbert, he notes the importance of evolution in determining the likely future state of our transport systems:
This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode. Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.
Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved. In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change. As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.
It’s an excellent point; like Walker, I’m skeptical of the short-term viability of narrow-track vehicles, let alone narrow-track vehicles that involve squeezing three lanes into where two presently go.
But the evolutionary argument is not an argument against the likelihood of a future where autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous. To the contrary – it’s one of the strongest arguments for their prevalence, as very little needs to happen. The technology can be introduced gradually, offering incremental safety and convenience improvements in various driving situations. After the world gets comfortable with that, and notes the reduction in accidents as a result, in some situations fully autonomous driving will be permitted, and probably made compulsory some time after that. Then, when automatic operation is legal in enough places, Zipcar and/or its competitors will start using them, making their service more attractive and cheaper (because they get better utiliztion from their vehicle fleet). When this becomes popular enough, companies start optimizing their vehicle designs for autonomous shared operation.
The particulars will vary, and the exact timelines are anyone’s guess. But by 2040 or so, it’s hard to imagine that manual driving will be anything other than a hobby.
The question of how autonomous vehicles and public transport will interact is a fascinating area for speculation, but it’s still too early to say how it will all pan out. My guess is that there will still be a role for shared larger vehicles – be they trains or buses – at peak times, on heavily-used routes, and over longer distances. But I simply don’t know yet, and I don’t think anybody does.
It’s worth dealing with one more point, raised by Walker among others – that autonomous vehicles are supposedly doomed by liability issues.
By the time fully autonomous operation becomes common, it’s likely that most of the bugs will have been ironed out, and accident rates will be very low, particularly in comparison to the costs caused by human drivers making mistakes. Beyond that, we have a legal and insurance system that deals with sorting out liability between parties when accidents occur. Sometimes when a plane crashes, it’s the fault of pilots or airline maintenance. Sometimes it’s the fault of manufacturer design flaws – including software flaws, by the way. And sometimes it’s just bad luck. And, funnily enough, we still manage to fly planes.