Self-doubt about self-driving

October 21, 2017

Perhaps inspired by some discussions at last week’s Innovative City Forum as well as the prior AI Summit, I’ve been reflecting on the impact on our cities of all this exciting innovation in driverless vehicles.

We speak a lot about the virtues of self-driving cars, and there are many. As evidenced by this recent test city near Pittsburgh, the dream of autonomous vehicles operating safely within an urban environment is approaching reality.

Source: CBInsights, The State of Auto Tech, May 2017

It’s not hard to imagine that self-driving cars will usher in a disruption in transport on the order of what the internet did to print journalism. We’re now realizing how much the interwebs have fundamentally changed human behavior. We read news on news apps and social media feeds. We no longer buy CDs but rather subscribe to Spotify. We binge-watch whole TV series’ seasons on Netflix. We rarely spend a day without checking Facebook1.

So if we’re willing to accept the premise that self-driving vehicles could prove fundamentally disruptive, I submit that it’s worth considering some of the potential unintended consequences arising from the widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

One is the risk of increased sprawl of suburbs. I fear that self-driving cars will encourage suburban living by making long commutes more palatable. I’m not a big fan of suburbs. I view them as sidewalk-devoid, culturally bankrupt plots gridded with McMansions, malls, and Macaroni Grills2. A primary residence in a cosmopolitan city center with an escape dwelling in the countryside in the middle of nowhere makes me happiest. Of course, this is my personal preference, and I mean no offense to suburb dwellers. Some of my best friends are suburb dwellers.

The worst part of suburbs in my opinion are their segregating tendencies. Suburbs isolate people into homogeneous, economic and cultural enclaves, robbing them of the benefits of diversity and communal interaction necessary to a functioning society.

I could also imagine that self-driving cars (and more aptly, autonomous drones), will dramatically reduce the delivery cost of physical goods. This is arguably a benefit; however, my concern is that negligible shipping costs will alter human behavior for better and for worse. One consequence is that consumers may shift from owning physical goods to simply renting them. Why own a vacuum when you can simply have one dropped off and picked up for an hour every week seamlessly? Freeing closet space and pantries of clutter sounds wonderful.

However, another consequence is that consumers may laze into expecting everything on demand. Why cycle to the produce store or local farmers market for a fresh tomato when you can order one delivered on-demand for only a few cents? Eliminate the weekly banter with the local cheese merchant or fishmonger, and we eliminate a piece of our soul.

Finally, if the demand for delivery of physical objects increases, and the pain of commuting diminishes, what will limit our threshold for traffic congestion?

Will our roads be clogged around the clock? Will the epic traffic jams of places like Sao Paulo and Beijing become commonplace in all large cities? Will our pleasant sunny days be shaded by overhead clutter?

1 Disclosure: I quit Facebook years ago for precisely this reason.

2 I chose this U.S. restaurant chain for alliterative purposes; in France it might be Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill. Every country has some equivalent.

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posted in technology by mark bivens

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