Earlier this week, the money-bleeding app-based taxi company Uber announced it had introduced two self-driving cars to the streets of downtown Toronto — albeit with flesh-and-blood humans driving them for now. Uber isn’t the first company to get provincial permission to test out self-driving cars (it’s the seventh), and jurisdictions elsewhere are moving even quicker: in San Francisco, for instance, a General Motors-owned company is offering its employees autonomous cars for their commutes.
Engineers face a bunch of basic technological questions when it comes to self-driving cars, and we shouldn’t assume the answers will come easy. Who will we tell computers to kill in a bad situation? That one’s ethically complicated and will almost certainly require politicians to pass a law immunizing manufacturers against lawsuits — and that’s before their cars even hit the road.
But if these technical and legal kinks get worked out — and that’s still a big “if” — one fundamental question will remain: What do we want autonomous cars to do, exactly?
There’s the obvious question of how to deal with autonomous vehicles putting millions of people out of work, both directly by making drivers redundant and indirectly by eliminating the need for the people who put them up and feed them (an estimated 2.2 million people work in truck stops along Interstate highways; in Ontario, more than 100 people are employed at every OnRoute station.)
But the secondary effects of autonomous cars will be even more profound and will change how we live. Forget making your commute easier: they’ll change where you’re commuting from. But while self-driving cars could make lengthy commutes less painful for drivers (thereby encouraging people to live farther from their jobs, in more affordable digs), networked fleets of robo-cars could make traffic congestion a thing of the past, allowing people to live more affordably in denser communities (having been spared the cost of car ownership).
Several provincial policies shape land use — most notably the Greenbelt and Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. But actual enforcement of anti-sprawl policies has been spotty and mostly left to local authorities with multiple competing interests. Autonomous vehicles could undermine the province’s anti-sprawl measures, or it could reinforce them, but the government can’t simply assume they’ll be benign.
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Voters, though, tend not to care much about land use. They’re more excited by money issues — and autonomous vehicles could hit cities right in the budget, hard. Toronto, for example, collected nearly $60 million from parking tickets in 2016, and if autonomous cars are programmed not to park illegally, that revenue could simply evaporate. Some studies predict robo-cars will over time eliminate up to 90 per cent of the need for parking. And tickets are just one form of car-based city revenue. The Toronto Parking Authority could be transformed from a cash cow into a massive concrete and asphalt white elephant.
And that’s the optimistic case. Increasingly, planners and regulators are worried about the so-called zombie car problem — that of motorists potentially sending their vehicles off with no occupants. For example, someone might choose to avoid daytime parking fees by directing their car to drive back home and return eight hours later to pick up the owner. That’s twice as much mileage, resulting in totally useless traffic that’s not actually transporting anyone.
There are policy answers to all these potential downsides, but governments are going to have to make a choice soon about how they want to shape the market of the future. If robot drivers put empty cars on already-jammed roads, the province will need to get serious about congestion pricing; if autonomous vehicles punch holes in municipal budgets, more reliable taxes may be needed to fill the gap.
And that’s the problem: we need public policy to start guiding this process, but so far governments have been happy to let it be driven by automakers, tech companies, and consumers. We’re rapidly approaching the time when politicians, including in Ontario, will have to make a clear decision about the sort of future they want for self-driving cars and determine how they’re going to get there. Putting off a decision may be easier, politically, but doing so won’t help leaders avoid the consequences.
Photo courtesy of zombieite and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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