Many bloggers are starting to tease out the social and infrastructure implications of driverless cars, including David Alpert over at the Atlantic:
[Driverless cars] will bring many changes, but when it comes to the car’s role in the city, they may just intensify current tensions.
David suggests that new technology will simply exacerbate current trends by “trigger[ing] a whole new round of pressure to further redesign intersections for the throughput of vehicles above all else”:
If autonomous cars travel much faster than today’s cars and operate closer to other vehicles and obstacles, as we see in the [University of] Texas team’s simulation , then they may well kill more pedestrians. Or, perhaps the computers controlling them will respond so quickly that they can avoid hitting any pedestrian, even one who steps out in front of a car.
In that case, we might see a small number of people taking advantage of that to cross through traffic, knowing the cars can’t kill him. That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.
Our metropolitan areas could then look, more and more, like zoos for humans interlaced with pathways for the dominant species, the robot car.
Personally, I think one of these scenarios (i.e., “travel much faster…[and] kill more pedestrians”) is unlikely. Initially, driverless cars will almost certainly be much more expensive than equivalent conventional vehicles. A car that is both (1) more expensive and (2) more dangerous seems unlikely to sell well, to say nothing of the likelihood that such lawsuit-magnets would be sued utterly out of existence. To catch on with a mass market, driverless cars will at least need to uphold safety’s current status quo.
As far as David’s second fear (“metropolitan areas [that] look, more and more, like zoos for humans”), I’m unclear how much that differs from current development patterns. While there are plenty of examples of “walkable” cities, much of contemporary American infrastructure is extremely unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-car users. To the extent that cars dominate today’s roads, a move to driverless cars seems only to continue, rather than augment, that trend.