Autonomous Future Pessimism

A recurring article topic for city and transportation related websites such as CityLab and for national news outlets alike is the impending nationwide rollout of Autonomous Vehicles (AV). Although these vehicles are anywhere from 3-5 years away from being introduced in any meaningful quantity and 15 or more years from more widespread adoption, it hasn’t stopped their latest advancements from making headlines. AVs are often presented as panacea for the world’s ills from lack of affordable housing to declining public transportation figures. Yet, what are AVs at their core if not cars? Cars that occupy valuable urban space and pollute the atmosphere; more problem than solution if you ask me.

Google car
Google Car under test in California

Though I run the risk of sounding technophobic, regressive or even like a Luddite, an AV is a car without a driver that has more potential for harm than good. There is nothing Americans love more than their cars (except maybe for their guns in some parts of the country) and will sacrifice their well-being and that of others to accommodate automobiles in different facets of their lives. The automobile is perhaps the most impactful piece of technology upon the shape of the American built environment and the types of lifestyles it begets. Automobiles promote inactivity, release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to air pollution in cities, especially along congested corridors.

Though AVs are likely to reduce traffic deaths in areas with widespread adoption, it is hard for me to see how they can serve as effective means of transportation when the vast majority will simply be private cars. Just as the rise of TNCs (Transportation Network Company) like Uber and Lyft have increased vehicle miles driven in cities like New York, convenient, fast and driverless vehicles are likely to spur further private car usage growth.

No one, not even the mayors of transit dependent cities like New York, seems to like or like to talk about buses. In New York, almost two billion people ride slow, meandering buses that are suffocated by private car and TNC traffic. For the first time in years, New York’s weekday subway ridership figures took a dive. As transportation funding and performance stagnates and declines in New York and across the United States, it is no wonder that riders are ditching buses and trains for the friendly confines of Uber, Lyft and the like. Though the advent of AVs may offer opportunities for some flexible public transportation options, the low rate of TNC rides that are shared does not make me optimistic.

AV bus
Easy Mile autonomous minibus

AVs are expected to be very expensive, so much so that at the start, corporations may be the only entities that can purchase them. This could spell disaster for cities and public transportation users in them because while most private cars will not be autonomous, TNCs like Uber and Lyft could quickly roll out huge fleets of these vehicles. Gains that these services have already made in the last three years will be accelerated with the reduced costs and higher reliability that AVs will likely bring.

If car loving Americans are offered all of the comforts and convenience of a private car, without the need to grab the wheel, will we see another boom of automobile suburbs and single driver(less) commutes? Car ownership rates in the United States are much greater among higher income individuals. These are the same people that could be early adopters of AVs as private cars, replacing their cars on a one to one basis, with no consideration for public transportation.

The Federal Government is, unsurprisingly, taking an extremely deregulatory approach to the technology and its impacts on our lives. States like New York, under the direction of noted car and motorcycle enthusiast Andrew Cuomo, are welcoming AVs and the private companies that are developing them with open arms. New York City’s approach is luckily far more cautious, which pitted Cuomo versus Mayor de Blasio in another battle in the long war between the two of them. As subway and bus riders can attest to, nothing good can come of their constant undercutting of one another.

GAMC Daily news
NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo inaugurating the new Kosciuszko Bridge with a ride in FDR’s car (Source: NY Daily News)

I wish I was more optimistic about how AVs will change our cities and suburbs. Perhaps they will redefine how we get around and open up new opportunities that will reduce carbon emissions, create jobs and lead to healthier lifestyles. However, it’s hard for me to believe that AVs are or will be anything other than expensive, driverless cars. Indeed if it looks like a car, drives like a car, and honks like a car, then it probably is a car. A car that will accelerate the release of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbate sprawl, further income and geographic inequality and strand low income Americans with what’s left of our flailing public transportation system.