Self-driving cars will only enhance the private nature of driving

One reason Americans like driving is the private experience of being away from others. New autonomous vehicles may only enhance that:

Your autonomous car could become an extension of your home. A place to eat breakfast, play video games, or have sex. And figuring out which of these activities you want to do most in an autonomous car is already on the minds of automotive designers…

With autonomous cars, he’s found that privacy, the length of trips, and an ability to leave the car when you want to are what people want…

Which means that creating cars with private spaces are a big part of fully autonomous car designs. “I think people may start to consider these in-car spaces as an extension of their home or office,” he says. This could totally change how we imagine transportation…

What people want to do in their cars is likely to change what kind of cars they purchase, Kobayashi said. He imagines that we will have things like sleeper cars, or meeting cars, or kid-friendly cars. This kind of division of car-function also showed up in the workshop section itself as well. Tech 2025 is a media-strategy company that works to educate the public on emerging technologies, so it invited a bunch of non-experts to workshop design ideas with Kobayashi.

For those who don’t like the effects of the car, this may only make things worse as the daily commute could be come a more enjoyable or even fun. This could encourage suburban growth while discouraging the use of mass transit.

At the same time, it would still be worth thinking about how many resources it will take to fully switch over to all self-driving cars – from development to getting them all on the road and instituting the appropriate infrastructure – versus mass transit. This is not a cheap process and could be viewed as doing everything we can to provide Americans with a luxury good (while the money might have been better used elsewhere).

Imagine corporate highways with autonomous vehicles

Pair self-driving vehicles with highways that can coordinate their movement and corporations may be interested. More on those highways:

Amazon was awarded a patent for a network that manages a very specific aspect of the self-driving experience: How autonomous cars navigate reversible lanes…

In the patent, Amazon outlines a network that can communicate with self-driving vehicles so they can adjust to the change in traffic flow. That’s particularly important for self-driving vehicles traveling across state lines onto new roads with unfamiliar traffic laws…

The patent also indicates that the roadway management system will help “assign” lanes to autonomous vehicles depending on where the vehicle is going and what would best alleviate traffic…

The main difference is that Amazon’s proposed network would be owned and operated by Amazon, not each individual automaker. It also appears to be designed so any carmaker’s vehicles can take advantage of the technology.

We’ve seen highways funded or operated with private money. But, imagine a highway built and run by Amazon for the primary purposes of moving Amazon traffic. With the traffic management capabilities and the autonomous vehicles, you could reduce the number of required lanes, increase speeds, and cut labor costs. Roads still aren’t cheap to construct but this may be feasible monetarily in particular corridors.

Even better: an Amazon Hyperloop.

Embedding traffic lights in sidewalks to help pedestrians

Incessant smartphone use is leading to urban adaptations:

That is why officials in the city of Augsburg became concerned when they noticed a new phenomenon: Pedestrians were so busy looking at their smartphones that they were ignoring traffic lights.

The city has attempted to solve that problem by installing new traffic lights embedded in the pavement — so that pedestrians constantly looking down at their phones won’t miss them.

“It creates a whole new level of attention,” city spokeswoman Stephanie Lermen was quoted as saying. Lermen thinks the money is wisely spent: A recent survey conducted in several European cities, including Berlin, found that almost 20 percent of pedestrians were distracted by their smartphones. Younger people are most likely to risk their safety for a quick look at their Facebook profiles or WhatsApp messages, the survey found…

But city officials say their work is justified: The idea to install such traffic lights came after a 15-year-old girl was killed by a tram. According to police reports, she was distracted by her smartphone as she crossed the tracks.

The direction of change is with the smartphone users: their safety matters and urban planners and officials must adjust.

I assume the future self-driving cars will be able to communicate with smartphones (or whatever devices we are all sporting at that point) to protect cars from the pedestrians. At that point, the cars will be far safer than the zombie or distracted or unpredictable activity of any pedestrian.

Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.

Self-driving cars require better maintained roads

Self-driving cars may have advantages but they might also require spending more on road upkeep:

Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called the mundane issue of faded lane markings “crazy,” complaining they confused his semi-autonomous cars…

An estimated 65 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, with the transportation infrastructure system rated 12th in the World Economic Forum’s 2014-2015 global competitiveness report...

To make up for roadway aberrations, carmakers and their suppliers are incorporating multiple sensors, maps and data into their cars, all of which adds cost.

 

It would be interesting to see some estimates of the additional costs to keep roads at a level where self-driving cars can safely operate. Does the money saved in less congestion on the roads and fewer traffic accidents outweigh the new maintenance costs?

On the other hand, having to do more frequent construction may not affect drivers as much if all cars are self-driving. Since such vehicles are supposed to improve traffic flow, construction is something drivers wouldn’t have to handle – their cars would do it for them. And, if we have driverless cars, can we have driverless maintenance vehicles?

The furor over traffic fatalities – in the early 1900s

With talk about the first Google self-driving car crash, one writer reminds us of earlier discussions about cars and accidents:

There’s some precedent for all this, of course. It’s not as though the car as we know it today was thwarted by human deaths. The first recorded traffic fatality in the United States occurred in 1899, in New York City, when a man stepping off a trolley was struck by a taxi.

The three decades that followed were chaotic and deadly. Scholars and justices debated whether the automobile was, perhaps, inherently evil. By the 1920s, cars were causing so many deaths that people in cities like New York and Detroit began throwing parades in an attempt to underscore the need for traffic safety. Tow trucks would haul smashed, totaled vehicles along the course of the parade. From The Detroit News:

“Some wrecks featured mannequin drivers dressed as Satan and bloody corpses as passengers. Children crippled from accidents rode in the back of open cars waving to other children watching from sidewalks. Washington, D.C., and New York City held parades including 10,000 children dressed as ghosts, representing each a death that year. They were followed by grieving young mothers who wore white or gold stars to indicate they’d lost a child.”

Eventually, traffic laws and other safety features—stop lights, brightly painted lanes, speed limits—were standardized. And car-safety technology improved, too. Vehicles got shatterproof windshields, turn signals, parking brakes, and eventually seat belts and airbags. In 1970, about 60,000 people died each year on American roads. By 2013, the number of annual traffic fatalities had been cut almost in half.

I am usually amazed when I look back at historical and sociological work about the major changes in society due to and in response to the car. Even with all the safety implications – tens of thousands of deaths each year – Americans went all in for the car, changing our streets, residential patterns, leisure activities, homes, and numerous other areas.

There are also some similarities with the advent of railroad technology in the mid-1800s where it took some time to develop reliable safety devices. In Forging Industrial Policy, sociologist Frank Dobbin describes the multitude of safety issues in Britain where railroads were allowed a lot of latitude until too many people were dying.

Rumbler emergency siren to shake your vehicle

Milwaukee police are trying out a new kind of siren:

It’s a siren you don’t just see, and hear, you actually feel it. It’s called the Rumbler and it’s expanding on a police force near you. It’s a siren that emits a low frequency sound that vibrates your car. It goes through the material of the vehicle, the frame, and seats. The subwoofer is located inside the grill of the car. Milwaukee K-9 Police Officer, Jeff Lepianka says the department has been adding the sirens over the last few years to battle distracted driving.

Lepianka says, “Drivers will have their ear buds in, be on their cell phone. This siren will break through this and get the people to pull over so I can get to where we need to go.”…

“With the Rumbler going people 10 to 15 car lengths are already getting to the side.”

Those precious minutes saved, could save lives.

In the name of safety and combating distracted driving, perhaps this is the wave of the future. This possible technology prompts two thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of the use of high-frequency sound devices used to chase away teenagers. Since adults lose the ability to hear such frequencies as they age, it can be particularly effective in targeting loitering youngsters.
  2. When we eventually all have self-driving cars, it would be easy to automatically pull all vehicles aside to allow emergency vehicles through. This could certainly help decrease response times but it would certainly be odd – at least the first time or two – to be automatically sidelined.

The article suggests pulling over is often delayed because of distracted driving but I wonder if this is also the case even when the drivers aren’t engaged in other activities. Have driving norms changed? At what distance are drivers supposed to pull over? I’ve noticed that fewer emergency sirens use their sirens and it is not always easy to see flashing lights.