As someone who is unable to drive because of a visual impairment, driverless cars promise the freedom of mobility that many take for granted. I use the public bus system here in Pittsburgh on a daily basis, and as decent as the system is, having access to a car would make life much easier.

The New York Times published an editorial discussing the potential negatives of adopting self-driving cars. It’s an article with which I vehemently disagree.

The author of the Editorial is a complete luddite, falling prey to the same shortcomings she assigns to the “solationists” developing the self driving car. Namely, not adequately exploring the impact of the technology on society. All of the implications of the technology that have been explored in a rigorous manner, point to the technology being a huge boon to society. Freeing urban real estate for better use than parking lots and roads, making travel cheaper for those without access to cars or public transportation, safety, reducing the costs of consumer goods, etc. etc. etc.

A few notes

  • Public transportation rely on the government paying for the system, where driverless car adoption will be market driven. (Gov’t facilitation is easier than gov’t procurement–That is unless you are talking about bombs).
  • Driving rates are declining because people can’t afford to pay 20k for a car. Driveless cars allow you to spend a lot less to access the convenience of driving. Think Zip car on a much larger scale, where the car shows up where you are rather than having to walk to the cheapest parking spot Zipcar could afford to buy.
  • Public transportation has a major impact on urban growth and development, condemning neighborhoods not connected to services to stagnate, where those on the route to flourish. In many places, bus routes are a deeply radicalized issue, one that is not going to be resolved anytime soon, even given what we now know about the geographic nature of social mobility.
  • I think it’s too early to say that driverless cars will promote urbanization or suburbanization. I would need to see a model, rather than take an editorialist’s word for it. The argument that being able to use an iPad makes commutes more tolerable, thus encouraging sprawl seems weak. Yes it enables commutes of longer distances, but we already see this at play with Google buses. Employees so freed from driving choose to live in urban centers rather than suburban ranches.
  • Getting rid of parking lots is a good thing. Subscription models allow access to driving at a much lower cost, enabling poorer individuals the mobility of upper classes (see the recent study about the geography of social mobility).

The impact of driverless cars on the social fabric of cities will be many and varied. While it is too early to know what the full extent of that impact will be, I for one am convinced that they will be a net positive for many.

Thanks to Ezra for sending me this article.

[NYTimes] Driving Sideways: A response