AVs represent a huge leap forward in transportation technology. They combine electric power with AI as the driver. We aren't sure what to make of it. Should we be excited, scared? will it work with human drivers on the roads, in the ice and snow? How will it change life as we know it?
The internal combustion engine that made cars possible, changed our society significantly. They car lead to urban sprawl and strip malls. It led to the death of downtowns. It led to an enormous increase in CO2 emissions. The car facilitates individual freedom that was unknown before. AVs are now about to do the same thing.
AVs are on the threshold of being able to drive without human supervision in carefully managed and mapped areas. Everything from transport truck driving, to taxi and pizza delivery services are betting on the technology. California has seen the AVs drive a million kilometres on its road, has announced that it will be allowing AVs to drive on the roads with a human soon.
AVs are clean provided the hydro is clean. We envision they’ll work like robot taxis at first – like a ride hailing app. Eventually their cost of operation per kilometre will be lower than traditional cars. The cars of today sit unused for 95% of the time. These robotaxis could have nearly 100% utilization rates in larger urban areas. Urban car ownership is expected to fall to 30% of today by 2050. Imagine the amount of land that will be freed up if we don’t need the parking facilities that we do today. That land could be used for parks and urban gardens.
While we are seeing heavy media coverage of the few accidents the AVs have been in, these accident rates are statistically already much much lower than those of human drivers. The accident rates will continue to fall as the technology improves. The improvement is fast as the AI and algorithms that power these cars learn not only from their own mistakes but from each others mistakes. It is truly amazing technology.
Road wear, pollution from combustion engines, tire particulates, all will be reduced with fewer cars on the roads. Urban planners are already looking ahead with economists at how to price out road use to these vehicles. Ideas currently being considered include dynamic road toll pricing, congestion surcharges, time of day charges, and length of trip charges. Planners could work to discourage long trips in cars and thereby encouraging public transit use. Municipalities could also discourage empty robotaxis from clogging the roadways. Municipalities could also give subsidies to AV users in poor and public transit underserviced areas.
An aspect of AVs that isn’t getting a lot of attention however, is that they could be eaily used to manipulate cities and used a tool of social control. They could simply be programmed to not take people to certain parts of the city, or to only allow set ‘classes’ of riders to travel to certain destinations. It could, in authoritarian hands become Orwellian.
The operators of these cars will know a lot about everyone using them. From where we got picked up and dropped off, to our regular travel patterns, to methods of payment, frequency of use and even what is discussed in them. Uber, for example, was able to identify one night stands form the analysis of passenger data. In China they have a social credit system which assigns points based on behavior and allows train travel to be restricted for those how don’t have enough points.
When the internal combustion engine and cars began to replace horse and buggy there were many people who feared them. There was a belief initially that the human body couldn’t stand travel at speed. There were safety fears. Some of the fears were founded and some weren’t. What we didn’t know was how the car would change the fabric of our societies and impact the way we live.