A trend has begun to emerge in the field of transportation: self-driving cars. Auto manufacturers and Silicon Valley tech titans are pushing toward a future where vehicles use artificial intelligence to drive themselves. This future is being presented as one where congestion and accidents are a thing of the past. Through new technology, they argue, we can tackle the problems that threaten urban livability and accessibility.
However, I see this push as ill-guided for a number of reasons. I fear that better, less-flashy solutions will get pushed to the wayside again, as they did in the early 20th century when the idea of car-ownership became normal. A future of self-driving cars glosses over two critical shortcomings: one, the close ties that the automobile has to American values of individualism, and two, the reality of congestion.
A key reason why a massive push towards self-driving cars seems ill-guided is that it completely ignores the appeal cars have to Americans. Cars, at their core, offer Americans a way to go where they want, when they want. To own a car is to be the master of your own fate — you are beholden only to your schedule, and you can take yourself where you would like to go.
Now it seems like the self-driving car would deliver a similar experience. After all, you simply punch in your destination when you wish and you will be taken there. However, this scenario results in the removal of agency from the individual; the driver becomes the passenger. As a result, the psychological appeal of driving is removed.
At this point, the utility of a self-driving car is diminished because there already exists more efficient forms of autonomous or semi-autonomous transit options that can carry more people to their destination in less time. Trains and buses are largely underutilized in the United States, which reinforces the idea that the appeal of cars lie in the agency that the driver possesses. Cars represent freedom and individuality, and self-driving cars remove that appeal.
Another argument being made for self-driving cars revolves around their ability to solve some of the problems associated with driving, namely congestion and pollution.
The argument here is that with intelligent software that can communicate with other cars and smart traffic lights, self-driving cars will be able to avoid common traffic-causing behaviors like last minute merging. While this facet of self-driving cars may in fact ameliorate some congestion, the idea that self-driving cars will make meaningful strides in reducing congestion and greenhouse gas outputs borders on laughable.
Even if cars are self-driving, at the end of the day, you still have millions of vehicles built for one to four people, carrying people on largely predictable routes during the same times. This sort of pattern lends itself to mass-transit options like commuter rail and bus rapid transit over hundreds of new, expensive, privately owned self-driving cars.
If we have a real commitment to making our cities more livable, then we should work on enriching our existing mass-transit options instead of advocating for a system that creates the problems it seeks to solve.
Now, just because the vision of self-driving cars is imperfect does not mean that there is not a place for this technology.
The biggest issue that mass transit presents is that it prioritizes efficiency, and thus riders have to cluster at designated stops to use the service. For riders who live in lower income areas, the most efficient transit options could be out of reach. Self-driving cars could play a role here by providing first and last mile transit for these people which in turn would give them more access to opportunity. This use-case is a much more effective use for this technology and it could help to ameliorate deeper societal issues.
Autonomous driving technology could also be incorporated into existing mass transit options to help make those more effective. This technology is already being used in Vancouver, Canada and their SkyTrain system is fast, efficient and on time.
While I look forward to a future where it’s easier to get where you want to go when you want to, I do not see a future built around self-driving cars as being the most effective for these. Conventional transit options, when paired intelligently with new technologies, provide solutions to the issues of congestion, pollution and inequality that all of America’s cities face today.
Jordan Griffith, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at JGriffith19@wooster.edu.