Self-driving cars, cities and planning – A comment in the journal of Planning Theory and Practice.

A new collection on self-driving cars has been published by the journal of Planning Theory and Practice. The pieces have all ended up bunched together, which is odd. But here is my commentary, which refers to some of the other papers in the collection.

Putting technology in its place

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a sort of mirage. They are, we are told, just around the corner. But look closer and they seem impossibly distant. In Phoenix, Arizona, AVs are being tested on citizens’ doorsteps. Some can choose to take part in the experiment. Others may be more passive but, whether they like it or not, their city has become a laboratory. Meanwhile, in Xiong’an, south of Beijing, the Chinese government is planning a new city around AVs. Having bought the claims of companies like Baidu, planners are creating a ‘new economic area’ with coordinated traffic control, less parking and streets that are designed to be easily machine-readable.

The protocols and results of experiments in Phoenix may be only partially relevant to London, Rome or Sydney. The ambition of planners in Xiong’an would be unthinkable in most other parts of the world. And many places would be concerned about the democratic legitimacy of either allowing experiments on open roads or creating large-scale experiments from scratch using public money. But despite the enormous variability of places, cultures and mobilities, there is huge momentum behind the project of making prophecies for AV technology self-fulfilling.

Resisting or redirecting this momentum is hard, but, as this set of papers shows, planners know that technology companies have no monopoly on imagination. In a world of disruption, in which moving fast and breaking things (to use Mark Zuckerberg’s now-dropped slogan) is de rigueur, planning is unfashionable. The cachet that comes with innovation may distract policymakers from asking who is really likely to benefit. It falls to planners to put technologies in their place.

Louise Reardon asks how planners should engage with ‘the transition to AVs’. She sees the momentum pushing this transition, but also the uncertainty that sits beneath the utopian veneer. Uncertainty, she says, is ‘the planner’s nemesis’. One can see why so many planners may be seduced by the apparent certainty of technological promises that are unbent by the real world.

Reardon explains how planners must put the values back into a debate that is too easily depoliticised. Planners are forced to ask who would win and lose and what else the technology might do even if it delivers on its promises. She suggests changing the question, moving from ‘how can we effectively implement AVs in our city?’ to ‘Do AVs fit with the vision we have for our city?’. As a researcher from Science and Technology Studies (STS), I would urge us all to remember that ‘AVs’ are not yet settled. The interpretive flexibility of this technology is an opportunity for planners to get involved in defining and shaping rather than just using this technology. Perhaps the question should be ‘What could AVs look like in our city?’ Technologies and social systems evolve alongside one another. Governing the transition therefore also means governing the technology.

This realisation should be empowering for planners. But, as John Stone and Crystal Legacy point out, their authority has in many places been eaten away by incrementally neoliberal policies. They may feel paralysed by uncertainty and a fear of failure. Stone and Legacy’s recommendation (and James Harris’s in his paper) is to learn from history. The history of the non-autonomous automobile in cities where the technology came first, before planning had begun to assert itself as a discipline or a practice, shows us what is at stake. Their question is, “Can planners today, with all our powers of analysis and the lessons of history, better anticipate the future and help avoid the creation of new problems?” One depressing note of caution from STS would be that policymakers find it all too easy to claim that, this time, it’ll be different.

Jennifer Kent is willing to make a prediction: that AVs will not cut car ownership or car use. Within the clean vision of technologists, two assumptions are that AVs will be shared and that they will complement public transport. Both are questionable. There is compelling social research that tells us, first, that many people don’t like sharing and, second, that in newer cities, private car use is ‘literally cemented into the city structure’.

I agree with Greg Marsden that we should be less fatalistic; we should hold onto the possibility that public-value AV systems could make for better cities. Marsden says that rather than starting from technology, cities should start with questions of purpose. This desire to, as Bruno Latour puts it, ‘reaffirm the sovereignty of ends’ and put means second is laudable but, as Latour goes on to argue, technologies are not just means to ends, solutions to problems or ways to get from A to B. They are better thought of as detours. They create as well as solve problems and they allow for the emergence of unanticipated futures.[1] Marsden finds reasons for both fear and hope. City planners could be forced to acquiesce in the face of technological momentum, but cities are places in which the social is inescapable; technologies cannot claim autonomy for long.

James Harris offers an optimistic alternative. He sees the possibility of public-transport AVs and automated, safe, efficient goods delivery. Well-governed AVs could mean dramatic improvements in liveability. Poorly-governed AVs would lead to yet more sprawl. Getting governance right might demand more honesty. Do we really believe, for example, that AVs should just mix with ordinary traffic or are we likely to see segregated lanes and other trade-offs? Elliot Fishman is similarly optimistic and similarly robust in his critique of the technology-led visions that are currently allowed to dominate. He asks us to remember the absurdity of our current situation, in which gigantically over-engineered cars are privately owned and barely used. The possibilities for technological improvement are clear, but the moves are not obvious ones. If we are not careful, we risk dramatically increasing car use as easier, more accessible, more efficient AVs travel with and without occupants on journeys that would previously have been walked. Fishman suggests that it is time to rethink how we allocate road space and price its usage.

Taken together, these papers provide a strong justification for planners to assert themselves in the debate over our autonomous future, as well as a sense of the challenges involved in doing so. The stories being offered by the developers of AVs are compelling ones. Some cities are already allowing their transport planning to be buffeted by the distant promise of magical technologies. When the promises of self-driving cars meet the material world, it quickly becomes apparent that ‘autonomy’ is a political claim rather than a technological possibility.[2] The ‘autonomous’ vehicle will be just as entangled in urban life as any other city dweller. No car is an island. It takes planners to demonstrate this.


[1] Latour, B (2002) Morality and Technology: The End of the Means, Theory, Culture & Society 2002, Vol. 19(5/6): 247–260

[2] Stilgoe, J (2018) Seeing Like a Tesla: How can we anticipate self-driving worlds, Glocalism Issue 2017, 3 http://www.glocalismjournal.net/issues/beyond-democracy-innovation-as-politics/articles/seeing-like-a-tesla-how-can-we-anticipate-self-driving-worlds.kl

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