Planning For Autonomous Vehicles

As a member of the local planning board I was very interested in reading the Op-Ed from the LA Times on preparing for the age of autonomous vehicles. Steven Strauss argues that just as turn of the century planners worried about dealing with waste from the 20 million horses used for travel instead of the literal oncoming of  automobile owners, we should be preparing for fleets of self driving cars now.

Strauss describes a future where practically everyone rides in fleets of autonous cars (AV) instead of owning one for themselves. This would  reduce the number cars needed and therefore auto workers as well as bus, truck, and taxi drivers. He also proposes that insurance companies will have prices fall due to the roads being safer because AV’s are never drunk nor distracted when driving. Strauss also contends that current mass transit projects like high speed rail are therefore obsolete before completion.

I know AV’s are coming. Google recently had one of their self driving cars given a ticket for driving too slow.

I don’t believe everything Strauss describes will come true. Cars are a pure form of independence. I will drive myself where I want to go. I think that applies to not only the teenager with their first taste of real freedom, but also to adults making their own choices, as well as the last gasps of doing for oneself by senior citizens.

We choose cars not just for function, a truck for work and minivans for family, but also as a representation of ourselves to the world. Car makers give us thousands of options in order to find a car that that is just for us.

I believe that AV’s will be a boon for the elderly, handicapped, and very urban dwellers who already depend on mass transit. I believe that they could make roads safer with fewer numbers of drivers. Rural America does not fit the mold of his description. The largest city in my county does not have wide spread high speed internet from cable and DSL, much less gigabit options. Self driving cars need a modern road system and reliable cellular and GPS reception, none of which can be guaranteed everywhere you go outside of big cities.

Not owning a car requires a new mindset. While I can imagine some kind of automated service that links to my phone’s calendar app and has a car at the ready for my next appointment, I can’t reconcile the logistical nightmare of getting a car for a spontaneous trip whether it be for fun or for necessity. I live a good twenty minutes away from the modern mecca of civilization, Wal-Mart, and there are no available pizza delivery options to my house, either. I have little hope of a fleet of AV’s operating reliably in my area.

I do believer there will be gains made in safety with self driving cars as
Strauss suggests. Fewer drivers on the road making making mistakes should reduce accidents, but the majority of drivers will be helped more by cars equipped with monitoring devices that help assist drivers automatically like the newly government endorsed auto braking system.

Will we be impacted by autonomous cars? Yes, and I definitely think we should plan for them. Fleets of them taking most passengers and cargo down the road on the other hand?

Maybe the most exciting things are still in the movies.

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