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New Report Highlights Driverless Car Urban Impact; Takes Techno-Dystopian Stance

Earlier this month, Professor David Begg of Transport Times published a new report on automated transport technology focusing on the potential impacts on London. This is one of the first attempts to apply this new technology to urban areas in a systematic way.

The U.S. Institute of Electrical Engineers has estimated that up to 75 percent of all vehicles will be autonomous by 2040. Automated vehicles are the future but they are also quickly becoming the present. The chief concern among proponents is the potential for burdensome government regulation. It is absolutely critical lawmakers and regulators do not stand in the way of automated vehicles.

In his report, Begg explains, like many others have noted, an issue with this technology is who is to blame when a “robot car” is involved in a collision. He asks, “Who is liable? Is the driver to blame? Is the car maker to blame? Might ‘no fault’ legislation be needed to deal with his problem?”

To be sure, there are very real issues surrounding products liability and insurance. But this is frankly a secondary concern when confronted with the overwhelming evidence that driverless transport will save thousands of lives annually, and so far there is little indication that common law evolution cannot handle the advent of automated vehicles. Yet Begg only mentions these potential accident reductions (over 90 percent of crashes are due to human error) after expressing his speculative concerns.

Driverless transport greatly increases travel safety and mobility. Automotive accidents kill more than 30,000 Americans per year and over one million worldwide. Every year, 3.8 million people are injured in accidents. Eliminating up to 90 percent of crashes saves lives, saves money, and decreases accident-produced congestion. In addition, with automated vehicles, the disabled, elderly, youth, poor, and, well, drunk are granted access to high-quality, highly safe personal mobility. Grandma, little Johnny, and bar patrons at 3am should not be driving. With self-driving cars, these dangers are taken off the road without taking the “drivers” off the road.

Some of Begg’s other findings include:

  • Heathrow Airport has been operating 21 driverless pods for two years now;
  • In the U.S., four states (California, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida) have enacted legislation expressly permitting the operation of automated vehicles on public roads;
  • Google’s self-driving cars have covered 700,000+ miles on public roads without any automated-caused accidents;
  • 49% of consumers polled in the U.S. and U.K. said they would be comfortable using a self-driving car in 2011; and
  • Over six in ten people agree automated vehicles would make roads safer for all users.

Those following the innovation in driverless technology may be familiar with some of these issues. But Begg’s report delves deeper in the possibility for driverless trains, buses, taxis, and “pods,” which run alongside pedestrians and other vehicles. Begg found that 40 percent of buses operating costs are drivers’ wages. By eliminating the driver, the cost for bus fare inter- and intra-city will greatly decrease, boosting mobility for all people. Also, the opportunity to wed Uber-like taxi service with automated vehicle technology creates cheap, safe shared mobility.

Yet increased mobility is something Begg seems to fear. This is arguably his greatest focus. He rightly notes that such an improvement in the vehicle fleet will likely result in an increase in vehicle travel demand. Since much of the world is under the spell of a toxic strain of environmentalism that sees satisfied consumer preferences as a problem, Begg worries so-called “environmental justice” objectives won’t be met if people are more willing to spend time traveling in their cars. He suggests we should contemplate coercive anti-vehicle, anti-housing affordability public policies that will force people to live in dense urban cores that lack cheap personal transportation options.

Such fears are not only unjustified, they are dangerous. If technocrats obsessed with vague, fuzzy-sounding social engineering policies decide reducing carbon dioxide emissions or “urban sprawl” is more important than saving lives and improving mobility, they ought to reevaluate their priorities. As CEI’s Marc Scribner noted in a recent study, “any misstep, convoluted law, or burdensome rule that leads to unnecessary higher costs or delays translates to increased injury and death.” Policy makers should be aware that limiting access to automated vehicles for the sake of flavor-of-the-month politics will leave them with blood on their hands.