Driverless cars are here – but the roads aren’t ready for them

A driverless car being piloted in San Francisco. Image: Getty.

The recent deaths of a woman struck by a car Uber was testing in driverless mode, and of a man whose Tesla Model X crashed when his hands were off the steering wheel because he was letting the car do some of the driving, may shift the debate over autonomous vehicles.

Those tragic fatalities are raising overdue questions about whether people and places will be ready when this new technology moves from beta-testing to a full-throttled rollout.

As an urban planner who has analysed how technology affects cities, I believe that driverless vehicles will change everything that moves and the stationary landscape too. Until now, the public and governments at all levels have paid too little attention to how letting these machines drive themselves will transform urban, rural and suburban communities.

The Tesla Model S electric car that crashed into a fire engine in Culver City, California, in January 2018. Image: KCBS-TV via AP.

Critical juncture

Driverless vehicles are closer than you may realise to moving out of testing mode. General Motors, for instance, plans to start producing ride sharing models as soon as 2019.

But public awareness and consumer acceptance will take far longer, perhaps decades. It will depend on the machines’ safety record, plus the time it takes to implement legal and political changes like enacting local laws governing the use of self-driving cars.

This shift requires everyone from automakers to consumers, insurers to planners and officials at all levels of government, to work together. Being proactive about guiding this technological change is essential. Rather than waiting until it happens or leaving it for the last minute, now is the time for education, thoughtful discussion and planning.

This juncture resembles what happened when automobiles replaced horses and the internet gained traction. In those cases, the technology changed how people lived, worked and got around. And the transformation occurred before the public or governments were ready.

When the internet first became popular in the 1990s, few people – if anyone – predicted the social and behavioral changes in store.

Likewise, the advent of motorised transportation more than a century ago completely changed cities, towns and suburbs. Replacing horses with the internal combustion engine demanded wider, better roadways and the invention and proliferation of traffic lights, gas stations, automotive dealerships, public parking lots and private garages. Governments had to regulate who could drive and which vehicles were roadworthy.

Driverless transportation, likewise, will demand new infrastructure and laws as it changes commuting and travel patterns in ways that few communities are contemplating today. Depending on what happens, the results could be positive or negative.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan delved into the angst and anger Americans felt toward early automotives in the documentary ‘Horatio’s Drive.’

Picture this

Ideally, self-driving vehicles will make it easier for people who can’t drive for any reason. These vehicles also promise more relaxed and productive commuting and excursions for everyone else.

Additionally, they could make the roads safer. Almost 6,000 American pedestrians and more than 37,000 drivers and passengers die in car crashes every year. Despite the two recent fatalities tied to autonomous driving, it’s likely that this number would be lower without people in the driver’s seat.

If these contraptions stoke ride-sharing growth, traffic may subside and pollution may decline. The amount of space occupied by roads and parking could shrink.

More homes and businesses will make do with smaller garages or none at all. Entrance ramps and other prime real estate hogs will be repurposed. Pollution will probably decline if in all likelihood most autonomous electric vehicles run on electricity, rather than gasoline or diesel and they draw a rising share of power from wind and solar energy.

Just think about what your community might be like. Picture wider sidewalks, new cycling and jogging lanes, and additional green space. It’s no wonder that urban planners are already pondering the possibilities.


Unanticipated consequences

Yet this technology might have serious downsides.

What if autonomous vehicles were to drive about empty, rather than parking? That would increase congestion rather than abate it. Public transit use could decline once commuters have the freedom to do whatever they wish aboard their vehicles. If they become more tolerant of longer trips to work, driverless cars could potentially increase sprawl.

The truth is, no one knows what to expect. While engineers have been developing the technology for decades, social scientists, politicians and government officials have only recently started to grapple with its repercussions. And public opinion and engagement is further behind.

The ConversationLeaving everything up to market forces and consumer whims could possibly create more problems than autonomous vehicles would solve. That’s why I believe in taking the planning side of the transition to driverless vehicles off autopilot.

Mark Wilson, Professor and Program Director, Urban & Regional Planning, School of Planning, Design and Construction, Michigan State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.