How to resist self-driving car hype

This article was originally published by Pando Daily

New technologies do not just change the world on their own. They need users, they need infrastructures and they need a lot of political support.

The invention of driving

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in the middle of an exhibition on car culture, sits a grid of sepia photographs from the early Twentieth Century. The pictures, taken by travelling salesmen from Michelin, show places from Cape Town to Clermont-Ferrand (the company’s home town). Some are of smooth highways. Others show tracks dotted with potholes and boulders. 

In 1921 André Michelin and his brother Édouard had turned their expertise in bicycle tires towards the motor car, a technology that was exploding in popularity. The Michelin Roulement Universale was a tire designed to be sold around the world, but the world’s roads were of varying quality. Their road photography project was an exercise in market research, but it was also an act of lobbying. Michelin wanted improvements to the world’s highways, and they wanted them fast.

The Michelin brothers were never just rubbersmiths. While Edouard managed the practical side of the business, André handled the public relations. For French motorists and people the world over, they did something more profound than invent tires; they invented the road trip. Andre’s genius was to manufacture demand for the technology that would take his company forward. According to the historian Georges Ribeill, it was André who “first understood the technical system of the automobile which was to result from the “automobile revolution,” and of which tires were only one of the elementary working parts.” This system included the machines, fuel, maps, road networks, habits and rules that would allow for the dramatic expansion in people’s horizons in the early Twentieth Century. In 1900, André created the guide that would make his company famous and become the yardstick against the world’s restaurants were judged. Even though there were fewer than 3,000 automobiles in the whole of France at the time, 35,000 Michelin guides were produced and handed out for free. The company made the first civilian maps and gave away route guides to motorists and road signs to local road-builders. Michelin did more than anyone to standardise the world’s roads and make driving what it is today.

100 years on, we are told that we are on the brink of a new transport revolution. The hype surrounding self-driving cars is huge, and there is investment to match. The aim is to solve a problem that bedevils transport: humans. Humans are inefficient, easily distracted and accident prone. The self-driving car will, we are told, bring efficient, convenient and safe travel to all. Waymo is aiming to build the ‘World’s Most Experienced Driver’ using artificial intelligence. The UK start-up Oxbotica is promising ‘Universal Autonomy’. In 2017, Tesla customers could pay an extra $8,000 for ‘Full self-driving capability’ in their new cars, based on Elon Musk’s promise that, by the end of the year, a Tesla would be able to drive ‘from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey’. Three years on, ‘Full Self-Driving’ and the promised coast-to-coast drive seem even less realistic than they did in 2017. If policymakers do not approach such hype with due scepticism, it could lead to some decisions that exacerbate rather than solve the problems of car dependence. 

The invention of jaywalking

New technologies do not just change the world on their own. They need users, they need infrastructures and they need a lot of political support. The historian Peter Norton has explained how, in the early Twentieth Century, streets in American cities were systematically given over to motor cars. Infrastructure such as traffic lights was introduced to regulate the movements of road users. Pedestrians were compelled or persuaded away from roads except in designated crosswalks. Public transit schemes were excised or allowed to atrophy. The world was upgraded, at great cost, to suit a technology that promised everything. A trade magazine at the dawn of the motor age repeated some of the claims:

‘Streets will be cleaner, jams and blockades less likely to occur, and accidents less frequent, for the horse is not so manageable as a mechanical vehicle.’
The Horseless Age, 1896

The benefits were admittedly huge. Motor cars were transformative across the social spectrum. But the costs were only realised later. Some places became dependent upon, and defined by, the motor car. Realisation of the costs of technology – hazards, congestion and pollution as well as the wider effects on the places and ways in which people live – lagged behind excitement about the benefits. Norton gives us a warning from history: ‘If we rebuild the landscape for autonomous vehicles, we may make it unsuitable for anything else — including walking.’

The reinvention of the self-driving car

Proponents of new technologies get attention by making promises. In some places, the promise of the self-driving car is already proving to be compelling. In 2017, Nashville voters took against one light rail and bus scheme following a campaign by libertarians and tech enthusiasts. Nashville Council member Robert Swope said some months before the key vote: 

‘In 15 years, no one will own a car anymore… I can show you places around this world I have been to where Level 5 autonomous vehicles are in operation today… Why are we not embracing this?’

‘Level 5’ refers to a self-driving car that can operate autonomously in any circumstances. They do not exist and, if we take the definition literally, never will. Nevertheless, Swope advocated ‘autonomous vehicle systems that will replace the need for large, costly mass transportation’ with little consideration of what else would be required. In Florida, Republican state senator Jeff Brandes has claimed self-driving cars will make buses and trains obsolete in a matter of years, saying, ‘It’s like they’re designing the pony express in the world of the telegraph.’

As the claims surrounding new technologies start to be believed, a switch typically happens. Promises become demands. The people selling technologies initially promise to change the world without changing the world. They then admit that, if the technology’s potential is to be realised, the world will need to adapt. 

In the case of the motor car, this meant jaywalking laws, traffic lights, car parks and interstates. For the self-driving car, it could mean dedicated lanes, digital high definition maps, smart infrastructure and new rules for pedestrians. The story currently being told by self-driving car developers downplays these aspects. The car, we are told, will be smart so that the world around it does not have to be; artificial intelligence will do everything a human driver can do and more. This story, which David Mindell calls the “myth of autonomy”, will, if swallowed whole, lead to some bad decisions. Unless we understand the full self-driving car system, the rules being created by today’s algorithms could become tomorrow’s rules of the road.

2020 could be the year that hype comes back to bite the developers of self-driving cars. After a flurry of excitement, start-ups are starting to admit that the task is harder than they thought. This is partly because they were focussing on narrow questions of software and intentionally not asking the difficult questions about how other road users, highway engineers, police officers and citizens might need to adapt to a self-driving future. Tech developers should not just be left to their own devices. Policymakers urgently need to find ways to democratise the development of self-driving cars.

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