Distracted by the false promise of driverless cars

Many planners and politicians believe automated vehicles are the solution to a host of transportation problems that were created by automobiles in the first place



Conversations about self-driving or driverless cars – aka “automated vehicles” or AVs – typically begin or end with: “Well, we better be ready, because AVs are coming.” 

It’s as if our collective obligation is to accommodate any new, well-hyped technology and quietly accept the costs and consequences, regardless of our wants and needs. 

Potential problems posed by AVs are quickly dismissed with assurances that government regulation will fill any gaps while conveniently ignoring the last century of transportation history. 

Fully automated vehicles would allow occupants to play cards, read a book or sleep (like on a train), while an array of sensors, radar and computer programs take care of the driving. 

There is, however, no actual timeline for when the remaining technical, legal and ethical hurdles of AVs might be overcome.

What we do know is that in Toronto, the majority of residents now identify walking, cycling or transit as their primary mode of transportation. This is no accident. 

When transportation experts, for example, treated expressways and cars as the solution to every mobility issue, the community, led by people like Jane Jacobs, fought back to stop the Spadina Expressway (and other expressways to be linked to it). The TTC also scrapped a plan to get rid of its electric streetcars – a clean technology that is enjoying a resurgence – thanks to the efforts of Streetcars For Toronto Committee. 

Today, many planners and politicians are distracted by the promise of AVs – a new version of the automobile – as the solution to a host of problems, most of which were themselves created by automobiles. 

Many transportation experts still prioritize moving cars from point A to point B, and car-makers and tech companies are now looking to cash in with AV technology that responds to this narrow goal. The risks for the community are far greater.

We live between points A and B, precisely the areas that have been disfigured by a car-based transportation system that gobbles up huge tracts of land and diminishes our air quality, climate and safety. 

Safety is actually front and centre in the promotion of AVs as the way to spare the tens of thousands of lives lost to car-related fatalities on North American roads every year. 

But there is much irony in carmakers’ newfound devotion to safety when they continue to market their products for speed, size, acceleration and power – the very features that contribute significantly to the death toll. 

We don’t have to wait for AVs to make roads safe. Lower speed limits (enforced by proven speed camera technology), protected bike lanes (to accommodate a clean technology) and wider sidewalks can be implemented almost immediately. 

Making better use of road space while requiring less parking is another promised benefit of AVs. But a peek into the future offered by ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft suggests that motor traffic will actually increase. 

Indeed, AVs may simply replace the current inefficient one-car, one-occupant model with vehicles without even a single occupant.

AVs will also poach passengers from the very transit systems which, after years of neglect, are benefiting from increased investment. 

The financial clout of the auto industry may again undermine transit as it did to North American streetcar systems in an earlier era, without ever delivering better and inexpensive travel for the community. AVs may likewise upend public health campaigns that encourage people to walk or cycle in their daily commute.

The potential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is another foundation of AV marketing even though much of the talking is by the same companies that gave us gas-guzzling SUVs when scientists first raised the alarm about climate change. Today, these companies have replaced SUVs with monster pickup trucks. 

The lack of research or debate about how an AV-based model would translate into developing countries is similarly troubling. Will any reductions in emissions from nations with AVs be undermined by increased sales of gasoline-powered cars in developing nations?

We also don’t know whether unresolved problems with AVs will be addressed by imposing new restrictions on other road users, similar to the restrictions on pedestrians after the introduction of automobiles at the beginning of the last century.

For example, will the failure of AVs to properly detect cyclists and pedestrians result in banning these groups from certain roads? 

The future of our communities can’t be left to tech experts supported by their investors and political and corporate champions who may be happy to create the impression that AVs are a fait accompli

Communities will have their own ideas and priorities, perhaps determining that AVs cannot address pressing problems like climate change within useful timelines. Or that AV technology, if perfected, is best suited for limited applications like travel by persons with disabilities, the operation of some transit vehicles, or the delivery downtown of bulky items too big for cargo bicycles. 

We lose and big business wins if the only achievement of driverless cars is to remove the steering wheel and to increase motor traffic while diverting us from proven walking, cycling and transit solutions. 

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, road safety advocate and author of the online guide Road Follies. 

@nowtoronto

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