We need to think about the problems Autonomy will create, too.
This morning, noted record-holder, autonomy proponent and smart dude Alex Roy tweeted a small thread about getting human drivers off the road, except for those that can pass increased scrutiny for driving ability. This seems to be a common dream of car enthusiasts. That the future promises roads free of idiotic drivers, who will be confined to commuter-shuffling autonomous cars while we enthusiasts will be free to enjoy our sports cars on deserted, twisty b-roads. Hell, I think that's the best-case scenario too. Why let people who don't care about driving endanger themselves and everyone else when the technology exists to do otherwise? Why not let a small population of enthusiasts have their way with now-idiotless roads?
Before you worry that I'm advocating for everyone's car to be taken away, I agree with Mr. Roy that this should be an end-goal, a utopian vision that we should work towards. BUT. I think we as enthusiasts tend to concentrate on this end state without thinking about what happens between now and then. That is to our peril.
One of the big unanswered questions about all of this is how we transition our society from one centered around car ownership to this new model of Travel As A Service, mobility, commoditized cars, or whatever we're going to call it. We've told people for decades that car ownership is essential to their survival, and that can't change overnight.
First, there's the issue of infrastructure. This is something we've talked about on our podcast before (episode 58 in particular: media.blubrry.com/teamclearcoat/files.teamclearcoat.com/podcasts/58-robotcars.mp3), but it's important enough to restate. Level 5 autonomy can't happen without integrated infrastructure - standardized lane markings, road signs, etc. But that also includes vehicle-to-vehicle communications, to include emergency vehicles. None of that is up for debate, but what's often left out of that discussion are non-urban areas. What happens at the stage where cities and suburbs are all level 5 capable, but outlaying areas aren't? Will rural people effectively be banned from operating their cars inside cities? What does that do for things like access to healthcare or other services concentrated in urban centers?
And then there's the question of access for poor people. As Mr. Roy rightly pointed out in our twitter conversation, one potential benefit of this technology for poor people will be that cars effectively become a commodity. The idea here is that there will no longer be a need for everyone to own a car - instead, a vast fleet of cars owned by *someone* will endlessly circulate our cities, ready to transport all people regardless of income, race, etc. But it's important for us to remember that this won't just happen. It's going to take policies specifically designed to make sure, say, one area of town doesn't get left out of infrastructure improvements. Or that we figure out a way to loop in people without access to a smart phone before we ban driving where they live.
This is barely okay when collecting underpants. It is definitely not okay when introducing autonomous cars.
As is often the case with disrupting advances in technology, it's easy to just look at the end-state and conclude that this rising tide will lift all the boats; good job everyone, technology saves humanity from itself yet again! And Alex Roy is totally right - once implemented, autonomy will allow us to solve a major public health issue. And we should all be grateful that he and others are pushing this debate into car culture. And most of all, this stuff is important. We could save millions of lives globally, gain massive efficiencies in our economy and remove the burden of car ownership from those who can afford it least.
But here's the reality: full adoption of autonomous cars is step 6,874. We're now on step 7 (note: I may have made those numbers up. But you get the idea). In between, we risk leaving a lot of people behind. This should matter to car/driving enthusiasts - the conversation in the next few years will center around these sorts of conundrums: infrastructure, access, the very idea of ownership. Sure, it's more fun to talk about our cars choosing to kill us vs a gaggle of school kids, but that's largely a technology problem. The biggest fights over this stuff will not be solvable by technology - there will only be policy and economic solutions. If we're not involved, why will anyone listen to us when it comes time to Save The Miatas?