Urban Design

Urban Design by Corporation

Following the death of an Arizona woman after an Uber self-driving car failed to avoid hitting her, companies have struggled to address the issue of pedestrian fatalities caused by autonomous vehicles. Many cities have ended agreements allowing the testing of this new technology while others have simply withdrawn any interest they once had in hosting such tests. According to a recent Bloomberg article, it appears that some companies have now given up on trying to create technology that avoids hitting humans and have instead opted to just reform human behavior.

Andrew Ng, a prominent researcher and investor in AI technologies related to autonomous vehicles, suggests that the problem isn’t the technology’s failure in detecting and avoiding pedestrians; it’s the pedestrians who are failing to avoid cars. Autonomous vehicle technology simply hasn’t reached the point of being able to reliably identify humans in their path. More specifically, the technology isn’t capable of identifying humans and then determining what to do about them given the circumstances. But why should that stop companies from introducing the technology?

A 2016 article in MIT Technology Review indicates that companies are also weary of overcorrecting by making cars too cautious. The fear is that humans will actively obstruct the movement of driverless cars if cars are programmed to stop and wait for every human in their path. In order to avoid creating technology that either recklessly hits humans or is too cautious around humans, companies would like pedestrians to stop jaywalking and get serious about obeying traffic laws. That would theoretically allow driverless cars to warn pedestrians of new movement without completely immobilizing them at the mere presence of pedestrians. Better yet, maybe humans just shouldn’t cross streets or use sidewalks because that’s going to create a real problem for the technology.

Quickly Unload Technology Before Anyone Knows What Happened

They aren’t necessarily wrong in stating that jaywalking sometimes poses a risk to both pedestrians and drivers. But in expressing a need for humans to change their behavior in order for society to accommodate profit-driven technology, companies are providing another example of how they’re controlling the debate around societal change.

As the Bloomberg article states, car companies originally lobbied legislatures for jaywalking laws after realizing that people posed a hazard to their technology. The same entities then successfully lobbied for massive government investment in auto-related infrastructure. Neighborhoods were destroyed and cities were essentially re-built to revolve around vehicles instead of pedestrians. Congress’s abysmal performance several months ago in the Mark Zuckerberg Facebook hearings proved again that corporations are driving the conversation. In the face of public outrage over digital privacy, some members of Congress appeared to have no idea what was at stake while others took the opportunity to congratulate Mr. Zuckerberg on his business success. Here in Atlanta and across the country, city officials are lining up billions of dollars in incentives to attract Amazon’s HQ2 campus while paying little attention to any negative impacts.

And that leads us into Uber, Lyft, and electric scooter companies. Their ideas have been dumped on communities while they’ve largely ignored the legal and societal problems that have ensued. There’s no debating that ridesharing services have helped people get around town, particularly in areas poorly served by public transportation and taxi services. Similarly, electric scooters can be a fun and effective means of travel. But in quickly unloading the technology on communities, the companies have upended the livelihoods of taxi drivers and congested streets and sidewalks all while skirting employment and other regulatory frameworks. Cities are now being asked to craft rules (or enforce existing ones) while companies complain about the erosion of profits.

An apparent citizen-driven effort to eliminate scooters from Midtown Atlanta.

Do We Even Want Driverless Cars? Companies Don’t Want Us Asking That Question

While jaywalking can be a risky action for both pedestrians and drivers, there are certainly justifiable reasons for the risky behavior. But this isn’t really about jaywalking. It’s about the larger question of how we want to debate the introduction of new technology into our cities. Do we want to promote easier access to single person vehicles over safer spaces for pedestrians? Or do we want to take the time to plan a more comprehensive solution for reversing the negative impacts of these congestion-inducing threats to public and environmental health? More fundamentally, do we want companies controlling the conversation or do want to control the conversation?

By proposing the need for humans to change their behavior to adapt to proposed technology, companies are attempting to establish the existence of a widespread desire for driverless cars. The conversation is accelerated from one where we debate the merits of driverless cars to one where we debate the things that need to change so that we can have our driverless cars.

But do we really want driverless cars? There’s no getting around the fact that cars are inherently dangerous. Yet we value them (or are simply reliant on them) to such a degree that we’re willing to widely use a technology that results in the deaths of thousands of people each year. Driverless cars could alleviate many of those deaths by reducing human error, but we’ll never reach a point of zero fatalities. Perhaps saving thousands of lives at the expense of some jaywalkers is an acceptable tradeoff. Or perhaps reforming our cities and our behavior is an acceptable exchange for a reduction in deaths.

Driverless cars still present many of the same sprawl and health-related problems associated with traditional cars. Simply reducing the number of vehicle-miles driven would substantially decrease the number of collision-related deaths while also reducing pollution, congestion, and sedentary-related diseases. Driverless cars could reduce ridership and funding for public transportation, which is a primary means of transportation for lower-income individuals. Decades ago we restructured cities around automobiles at the behest of companies only to now realize (though many did at the time) that urban freeways and auto-oriented cities are highly undesirable.

We skip these important discussions when we allow profit-driven companies to drive the conversation. By the time we’ve decided that maybe we don’t want driverless cars, companies are so invested in the technology that creating the rules we want becomes nearly impossible as legislatures are pressured to consider the property and financial interests of the companies.

In the end we could still conclude that driverless cars are desirable given the costs and benefits, but we should address the larger question of who gets to frame the debate: the companies or the people?

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the legal and philosophical issues surrounding the regulation of new technologies (particularly with Uber and Lyft), we highly recommend you listen to UGA law professors Christian Turner and Joe Miller discuss these issues with UPenn professor Sarah Light on their excellent podcast Oral Argument.

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