Monday, March 04, 2019

Autonomous Cars - Are they a magic bullet



Over the years it seems that there is always something on the horizon that is going to solve all our urban design problems. In the early 1900’s the implementation of zoning ordinances was supposed to be the magic bullet that would solve the difficulties facing cities at the time. Then there were highways, exclusionary zoning, easy to get mortgages, urban renewal, and pedestrian malls among others that were all going to solve our urban problems. Today we know from history that while each of these things had their benefits, they also came with unintended consequences and in the long run did not solve our urban problems. Today we have a new magic bullet on the horizon that many feel is going to revolutionize the world and solve all of our urban problems – the autonomous car.

Autonomous cars could have a major effect on our cities but maybe not in the way many people think they will. My first planning professor had a favorite saying, “What do we know about the future…nothing” and when it comes to autonomous cars there are those that believe that the adoption of autonomous cars will revolutionize our cities for the better. But as with all technological advances there comes a cost and what the final cost will be we will not know for some time. In addition, the changes we see will be different than envisioned and like so many of the magic bullets from the past, the unintended consequences may be more severe than we expect.


According to the utopian dreams of many who think that autonomous cars will be the savior of our urban areas as they will eliminate the need for parking, eliminate congestion, and make our cities safer to walk and bike. There will be so little traffic on the streets of your downtown area that the urban area will just come alive. Of course this vision sounds wonderful and what urban designer/urban planner doesn’t want our urban areas to be transformed into the perfect place that people will want to be around.

There would be many benefits to the implementation of autonomous cars. For the elderly that should no longer be behind the wheel of a car, an autonomous car would allow them to have the mobility when driving is no longer an option. Often times the elderly can become isolated because of their loss of driving abilities, especially when they want to age in place in a built environment that was not designed for it.

Another example of a situation where autonomous cars would be an advantage would be parents with children. Rightfully Uber and Lyft do not allow anyone under 18 to set up an account or travel along in a vehicle. Being the father of two teenage girls I would not allow my daughters to travel alone in a car with strangers although there has been undercover investigations showing that drivers from both companies will accept passengers alone that are underage. However with autonomous cars, say a mother has a child that is sick, a car could pick up her children and bring them home safety.

However, what really happens will probably be something truly different. There is some that fear that the advent of autonomous cars will make things worse not better. There is the fear that the implementation of autonomous cars will cause the urban environment to become even more auto-centric than it already is.

Think about how our urban environment has changed with each development in technology. First you had the streetcar suburbs, then as automobiles became more the transportation of choice people moved farther and farther out. So will the implementation of autonomous cars make this situation even worse?

When it comes to the cars themselves, there are literally dozens if not hundreds of articles dealing with the problem of the cars themselves including privacy issues, a public that is skeptical, the lack of laws concerning the cars, lack of clear responsibility, moral and ethical questions on how the cars will respond to situations, and when hackers will start targeting the cars and what damage will be done.

Autonomous cars are coming and we have no idea how those changes are going to affect our built environment. What we should not do is expect autonomous cars to be the magic bullet to solve our urban design problems. While autonomous cars will help solve some problems they may create their own problems, like all technological advances. Instead of expecting autonomous cars to solve our problems we need to be working today on solving those problems and making the built environment a better place.


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