Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.

That I can tell, anyway, most discussion of its prospects, whether breathlessly anticipatory or frankly horrendified, is content to weigh it more or less as given. But as I’m always harping on about, I just don’t believe we usefully understand any technology in the abstract, as it sits on a smoothly-paved pad in placid Mountain View. To garner even a first-pass appreciation for the contours of its eventual place in our lives, we have to consider what it would work like, and how people would experience it, in a specified actual context. And so here — as just such a first pass, at least — I try to imagine what would happen if autonomous vehicles like those demo’ed by Google were deployed as a service in the place I remain most familiar with, New York City.

The most likely near-term scenario is that such vehicles would be constructed as a fleet of automated taxicabs, not the more radical and frankly more interesting possibility that the service embracing them would be designed to afford truly public transit. The truth of the matter is that the arrival of the technological capability bound up in these vehicles begins to upend these standing categories…but the world can only accommodate so much novelty at once. The vehicle itself is only one component of an distributed actor-network dedicated to the accomplishment of mobility; when the autonomous vehicle begins to supplant the conventional taxi, that whole network has to restabilize around both the vehicle’s own capabilities and the ways in which those capabilities couple with other, existing actors.

In this case, that means actors like the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Enabling legislation, a body of suitable regulation, a controlling legal authority, the agreement on procedures for assessing liability to calibrate the furnishment of insurance: all of these things will need to be decided upon before any such thing as the automation of surface traffic in New York City can happen. And these provisions have a conservative effect. During the elapse of some arbitrary transitional period, anyway, they’ll tend to drag this theoretically disruptive actor back toward the categories we’re familiar with, the modes in which we’re used to the world working. That period may last months or it may last decades; there’s just no way of knowing ahead of time. But during this interregnum, we’ll approach the new thing through interfaces, metaphors and other linkages we’re already used to.

Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik
Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik.

So. What can we reasonably assert of a driverless car on the Google model, when such a thing is deployed on the streets and known to its riders as a taxi?

On the plus side of the ledger:
- Black men would finally be able to hail a cab in New York City;
- So would people who use wheelchairs, folks carrying bulky packages, and others habitually and summarily bypassed by drivers;
- Sexual harassment of women riding alone would instantly cease to be an issue;
- You’d never have a driver slow as if to pick you up, roll down the window to inquire as to your destination, and only then decide it wasn’t somewhere they felt like taking you. (Yes, this is against the law, but any New Yorker will tell you it happens every damn day of the week);
- Similarly, if you happen to need a cab at 4:30, you’ll be able to catch one — getting stuck in the trenches of shift change would be a thing of the past;
- The eerily smooth ride of continuous algorithmic control will replace the lurching stop-and-go style endemic to the last few generations of NYC drivers, with everything that implies for both fuel efficiency and your ability to keep your lunch down.

These are all very good things, and they’d all be true no matter how banjaxed the service-design implementation turns out to be. (As, let’s face it, it would be: remember that we’re talking about Google here.) But as I’m fond of pointing out, none of these very good things can be had without cost. What does the flipside of the equation look like?

- Most obviously, a full-fleet replacement would immediately zero out some 50,000 jobs — mostly jobs held by immigrants, in an economy with few other decent prospects for their employment. Let’s be clear that these, while not great jobs (shitty hours, no benefits, physical discomfort, occasionally abusive customers), generate a net revenue that averages somewhere around $23/hour, and this at a time when the New York State minimum wage stands at $8/hour. These are jobs that tie families and entire communities together;
- The wholesale replacement of these drivers would eliminate one of the very few remaining contexts in which wealthy New Yorkers encounter recent immigrants and their culture at all;
- Though this is admittedly less of an issue in Manhattan, it does eliminate at least some opportunity for drivers to develop and demonstrate mastery and urban savoir faire;
- It would give Google, an advertising broker, unparalleled insight into the comings and goings of a relatively wealthy cohort of riders, and in general a dataset of enormous and irreplicable value;
- Finally, by displacing alternatives, and over the long term undermining the ecosystem of technical capabilities, human competences and other provisions that undergirds contemporary taxi service, the autonomous taxi would in time tend to bring into being and stabilize the conditions for its own perpetuation, to the exclusion of other ways of doing things that might ultimately be more productive. Of course, you could say precisely the same thing about contemporary taxis — that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. But we should see these dynamics with clear eyes before jumping in, no?

I’m sure, quite sure, that there are weighting factors I’ve overlooked, perhaps even obvious and significant ones. This isn’t the whole story, or anything like it. There is one broadly observable trend I can’t help but noticing, however, in all the above: the benefits we stand to derive from deploying autonomous vehicles on our streets in this way are all felt in the near or even immediate term, while the costs all tend to be circumstances that only tell in the fullness of time. And we haven’t as a species historically tended to do very well with this pattern, the prime example being our experience of the automobile itself. It’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also something to be gleaned from Google’s decision to throw in their lot with Uber — an organization explicitly oriented toward the demands of the wealthy and boundlessly, even gleefully, corrosive of the public trust. And that is that you shouldn’t set your hopes on any mobility service Google builds on their autonomous-vehicle technology ever being positioned as the public accommodation or public utility it certainly could be. The decision to more tightly integrate Uber into their suite of wayfinding and journey-planning services makes it clear that for Google, the prerogative to maximize return on investment for a very few will always outweigh the interests of the communities in which they operate. And that, too, is something to keep in mind, anytime you hear someone touting all of the ways in which the clean, effortless autotaxi stands to resculpt the city.

6 responses to “Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context”

  1. karl says :

    The surveillance consequences of the project give me the creep, more than the told benefits.

    But I can see another use case for self-driving car (which are not related at all to the transports of individuals). Goods delivery, with the potential of also killing a lot of jobs, the actual people driving and delivering things.

    Another usage, cleaning street fleet.

    Also… self driving Google cars for street view.

    It seems somehow a lot more reachable than human transportation.

    • AG says :

      People keep talking about goods delivery, but what they all seem to miss is that there still has to be someone to take the parcel out of the vehicle and deliver it to the destination (either at the doorstep, or in the mailroom on the 37th floor). If you’re going to tote that mass around anyway, they might as well also operate the vehicle, no?

  2. karl says :

    ^_~ because you are thinking about parcels for individuals delivered at the door. I’m thinking about all these trucks going from a storage site to another storage site.

    • August says :

      Having worked for a trucking company, I can tell you that the operation of those kinds of vehicles is considerably more complicated than your standard car, and then you have to have a variety of things in place for transportation of dangerous goods, what happens when you arrive at the dock (and what additional training your dock hands my need–docking one of those big rigs isn’t easy either, and depending on your cargo can require different things).

      Self-driving cargo vehicles even just going from loading station to loading station would need a hell of a lot of contextual decision making properties that just way-finding and traffic codes wouldn’t solve. (And it’s seldom “storage site to storage site” anyway; most trucks are loaded with cargo that requires frequent handling and load swapping, so it’s virtually never going to be as simple as just dumping them somewhere.)

      I feel like logistics, at the rubber-meets-the-road level, is something you have to experience to understand the true demands of. You’d also have to deal with the fact that road conditions in and out of a lot of these places are not even paved–or god forbid you need to send them to a mine or bush camp, which is more common than you’d imagine. Cargo transport is not a problem you can solve by looking at the urban environment and extrapolating. The urban environment is not your typical use case, it’s your best of all possible worlds use case.

  3. Caleb says :

    I do not think this is a concept that many individuals in our society will welcome. The fact that their would be no actual human operating the vehicle would be difficult for many to accept.

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