The Strong Towns Podcast

Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming. Do We Have a Say in Who Benefits?

June 3, 2019

The hype about autonomous vehicles—”AV’s” for short—is often breathless. Advocates have touted the emerging technology as the key to everything that ails our cities—heck, they just might bring about Mideast peace and cure cancer!

At Strong Towns, we’ve been, well, skeptical. At the core of our critique of the prevailing pattern of development in North American cities is the observation that, around the middle of the 20th century, we undertook a massive, uncontrolled experiment. We did it everywhere, all at once. In this Suburban Experiment, we totally redesigned everything about the places we live, and jettisoned tried-and-tested ways of designing and laying out human-scale places, in order to better accommodate a brand new means of transportation: the automobile.

Look: AVs are coming. And they’re not going to be all bad, or all good. But there is a real risk that, as a society, we’ll engage in the same sort of hubris again: redesign everything around a brand-new technology before we really understand the complex ways it will affect our society and economy.

Who Will Benefit Most From AVs? And Can We Do Anything About That?

Recently, we were interested to learn of a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Where Are Self-Driving Cars Taking Us? Pivotal Choices That Will Shape DC’s Transportation Future.” Although the study is focused on Washington, DC, its implications are relevant to every city, large and small.

In this week’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, the study’s lead author, Dr. Richard Ezike (Twitter: @DrRCEzike), chats with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about the study’s key findings and, more importantly, the questions that continue to bedevil the best minds working on this subject.

A crucial insight they both agree on: We’re not starting from a level playing field. We live in a car-dependent world, the result of a combination of past policy choices, individual responses to those policy choices, and institutional inertia in the decades since. We have inherited a world where the poor, in most places on the North American continent, must pay an expensive ante to even participate in society. You swallow the fixed costs of car ownership, or you endure an environment that, for non-drivers, is often, to use Chuck’s word, “despotic.”

AVs might hold some potential to free people from this costly ante, by making it possible to just pay for the transportation you need, or to more easily access existing public transit via “last mile” connections. But Marohn and Ezike agree that we can’t just expect AVs to solve all the problems of our built form, by, say, allowing us to multi-task during long freeway commutes, or to no longer need as many parking spaces. And we need to be aware that AVs will shape that development pattern, especially if we don’t get the price right.

AVs actually offer great potential for getting the price of driving right: if you’re paying for a ride, rather than the fixed cost of owning your own personal vehicle, it’s possible to bundle far more of the costs of driving itself into the price of that ride. But in the car-dependent world we’ve already inherited, that means potentially punishing those who can least afford it. Ezike sees this as a policy challenge: if we grapple with what our transportation system is really costing us (including in environmental impacts), are we willing to also grapple with helping those who can’t afford those costs, either by providing better public transportation or more options to live in complete communities?

it’s important, urges Ezike, that people be in the room who are going to speak up for fairness, for equity, for environmental concerns, for public interest and transparency. AV technology is coming. Those who care about who will benefit from it should get in the room with the people who are already talking about these innovations, and be part of the crucial decisions that shape how we, as a society, are going to respond to them.

Listen to the episode to hear more of Ezike’s insights on this topic, and let’s keep the conversation going in the comments!