Driverless cars are getting closer, but how will people use them?

For vehicles without drivers – whether you call them autonomous, driverless, or self-driving vehicles (and I’ll use these terms interchangeably) – developments are coming fast, both in terms of technology and business models.

In some recent news:

  • Ford is testing to try and solve the snow conundrum, and also carsharing in London across Germany, and soon in India.
  • GM is partnering with Lyft.
  • Uber is sinking millions into AVs and will soon test in a closed area of Pittsburgh.
  • Toyota has a mobility challenge at universities across the country (as my college student daughter alerted me).
  • There are so many AV shuttle pilot programs popping up that it is hard to keep count. There is even – in the U.S. – the first public transit AV pilot to start this spring in California office park – on the forefront of encouraging carpooling and transit use. Legislation to exclusively allow this pilot to move forward – sans steering wheels and other common vehicle features – is pending in the California legislature.

That doesn’t even cover the recent Senate hearing, a U.S. Department of Transportation report which kicks the can back to Congress, and a Japanese pledge to spend $3 trillion. I could go on and on with just the news from the last couple of weeks. But all this momentum leaves open broad questions about how they would work and to whose benefit.

Will you own? Will you rent? Who will be liable?

Driverless vehicles will require new systems of ownership and liability that differ drastically from private cars. I think that the airplane/shared-use model will ultimately be the dominant one. We will pay more for space, privacy, and individualized service. We will get discounts for sharing and meeting the vehicle at a common spot. Most of us will not own – or have to take the vehicle in for maintenance, repairs, and gas.

Unlike airline flights, however, which we book individually, driverless ride booking will allow for both multi-ride packages and single rides or round trips. Some car companies, particularly GM and Ford, and especially major technology companies, are veering toward a shared-use model that takes the driver out of the ride-hailing/taxi vehicle.

Airline seating, Matthew Hurst

Systems in the near future might take cues from airlines.

In terms of liability, just as airlines immediately pay up when a crash occurs, so will AV fleet owners. The public-relations damage of denying liability will not be worth it. Whatever behind-the-scenes lawsuits occur, victims in crashes will get paid off.

Make no mistake, some serious crashes will happen. No mode is completely safe under every condition on every single day. We hope that rational machines will not speed, daydream, or glance at phones, the radio, or the pretty houses. We hope they will kill far fewer than the 30,000-plus Americans who die each year with human-operated vehicles. These senseless tragedies reach every type of person and every family.

Who could be left out?

Right now, the driverless passenger vehicles being tested fall into two groups. First, companies are developing passenger vehicles that are nearly identical to the personal cars we have now. Second, small transit shuttle vehicles, some of which are accessible for people with disabilities, are in development. But since manufacturers, cities, and the rest of us are rethinking the passenger vehicle and the way mobility services are delivered, there are questions we should be asking.

(1) Whether advocacy will be loud and effective enough for AV to be universally designed to provide access for people with disabilities. Advocacy groups representing people with disabilities have a strong case regarding AVs, in that what is good for their constituents is good for everyone. Nobody questions the need for elevators and curb cuts anymore, and no one will look back if we have vehicles that better serve all of our needs. Really, does anyone enjoy putting a 30-pound six-month old in a car seat or lifting heavy luggage in and out of a trunk?

(2) Whether AV interfaces will be universally designed for people who read and speak different languages and for people with auditory or visual impairments. The world of AVs will offer better travel opportunities for people who are visually impaired, but the interface must allow for their needs. In terms of travel to foreign destinations, why should someone surrounded by an unfamiliar language be guessing (as many of us do now) when interacting with mobility technology in different countries? If you have ever purchased a train ticket at a foreign station, you know what I mean.

(3) Whether street design will change. If people continue to believe it’s their right to go door-to-door to every destination and to ignore the health benefits (and the enjoyment) of walking and biking, then we might remain with our current pedestrian- and bike-unfriendly street network. If shared and pooled rides with common meeting places (at intersections, transit hubs, or slugging-type sites) are part of the plan, it will be in the interest of those companies to advocate for pedestrians and bikers. More densely-designed communities will mean shorter trips and bigger profits for players in the transportation businesses of the future.

(4) How far rural areas will be left behind. A shared-rides model will work in cities and suburbs for first- and last-mile connections, as well as evening and off-hour trips. But in rural, low-density areas, will there be sufficient profit to support a shared-ride system? Rural areas will also take a big hit should truck-driving jobs – the most common job category in 29 states – disappear. (Add to that the many taxi and ride-hailing drivers in cities.)

This is all educated advice, observation, and speculation, but I do believe the future is here, that AVs are three years away, not 10 or 20. Google’s Chris Urmson talks about having driverless vehicles on the roads for everyone in a few years so that his kids will not need driver’s licenses.

I am skeptical of anyone, even myself, who claims to be sure about the future. I concentrate on the pilot programs, legal issues, and partnership developments. Then I read those tea leaves with a great deal of excitement and optimism. In the end, maybe I just don’t want to drive.

Photos, from top: A driverless car in New Jersey (Melody Joy Kramer, Flickr, Creative Commons). Airline boarding (Matthew Hurst, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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