driverless car

What Happens When People Control Driverless Cars?

Could driverless cars actually make our streets more dangerous? Using the frightening case of Air France Flight 447, The Guardian outlines how a growing reliance on technology can lead to a shortage of experience when a human controller is needed most. The idea that technology designed to increase our safety could actually lead to greater danger is known as the paradox of automation. For driverless cars, the logic follows that without the motivation, or even opportunity, to practice in challenging conditions, human drivers will be a greater danger to themselves and others when they are forced (or choose) to respond in a crisis situation.

While The Guardian article is provocative, and outlines a terrifying scenario, it’s worth noting that in its 22 year history, this is the only case where the paradox of automation led to an A330 crash. Given the hundreds, if not thousands of A330 flights daily, that’s not a bad record, even when multiplied to reflect the number of risks drivers and cars face/cause on the road. However, the paradox of automation brings up parallels with Jevon’s Paradox, which is also relevant in the driverless car discussion. In this case, more efficient use of time while commuting could make for more, longer journeys, and sprawl. With this in mind, the potential for induced-demand and even greater sprawl appear to be the true danger that driverless cars create.

It’s vital to note that while city-makers can help inform decision-makers, we won’t be the ones deciding whether driverless cars are allowed on our streets. Many city-makers appear to over-estimate our influence in this regard, or downplay the speed with which this technology is emerging. What we can do is help inform and craft policy that incentivizes shared, on-demand vehicles over privately owned zombie cars. This is particularly important given that, as of late 2015, only a handful of cities were actively considering driverless cars in their mobility and transportation strategies. Compounding the challenge, most policies related to driverless cars will be crafted at the federal or provincial/state level, where city-makers typically have less influence than at the city-level. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done. Mercedes has fired the first salvo in promoting privately-owned driverless cars, with this one, which will kill pedestrians rather than the driver, should the situation arise. And in a new promotional video, Tesla also appears to promote the private-ownership vision as well.

It’s also important to consider that the result of driverless car policy decisions will be felt far beyond our streets. Rather than focusing on the technology or specifics of transportation, we would be smart to consider the city as a whole – and how it can be made better for the people who live and work there – not just new technology. Properly preparing for driverless cars won’t be easy, but if car history is any indication, reacting to them would be disastrous.

* Image by Jon Berkeley

Mitchell Reardon

Mitchell Reardon is the TH!NK by IBI blog curator, a land use planner and urban experimenter. His interdisciplinary work centres on people and how they live, work and move through the city. Mitchell is enjoying life in Vancouver, after 6 years of living and working in Stockholm, Sweden. Catch up with him on Twitter: @MitchellReardon

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