A Reality Check for the Future of Autonomous Vehicles

can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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With autonomous vehicles we’re into that second stage of dating, where the mad attraction has worn off and the flaws start to show themselves. The idea of autonomous transportation brought stars to everyone’s eyes, offering the promise of less traffic, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and cities turned into lush parkways for pedestrians to stroll. But what looks good on paper doesn’t always hold up to reality.

  • The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released the second edition of its Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism this month, just shy of two years after the first.
  • An association of 81 major North American cities and transit agencies, NACTO was formed to exchange transportation ideas, insights and practices to cooperatively approach national transportation issues.
  • The organization is encouraging cities to do a better job planning for autonomous vehicles than they did when cars were first introduced, and to take advantage of this opportunity to put people back at the forefront of urban planning.

city of the future
In the city of the future, pedestrians get precedence over vehicles. (Image: NACTO)

The best laid plans

Urban planning is tricky. Sometimes even successes have unintended consequences. For instance, Uber and Lyft sold the idea of ridesharing as a solution to take more cars off the road, make travel less of a hassle and reduce pollution. That didn’t work out so well; just look what happened in San Francisco.

As with any emerging technologies, there isn’t a blueprint to shine a guiding light. It’s a bit of the wild west out there as companies such as Waymo, Tesla and GM develop their own proprietary self-driving systems. But if autonomous vehicles are ever to become reality, there are significant hurdles to overcome in how these technologies are implemented within society. That’s where NACTO comes in, to establish more specific recommendations for the transition to autonomy. The NACTO committee is well aware that as we move into this next stage of transportation, cities can’t blow the transition.

“When the automotive age swept the nation a century ago, cities responded not by adapting cars and trucks to the varied uses of the street, but with a relentless clearcutting of obstacles from curb to curb,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, Principal at Bloomberg Associates and NACTO Chair. “As we anticipate the arrival of self-driving vehicles on city streets today, we have a historic opportunity to correct these mistakes, which starts with a new blueprint for cities.”

Focusing on policy

NACTO outlines key areas that include transit, pricing, data and urban freight. For example, it notes that a lot of data is being collected from vehicles, which must be handled and protected properly. Thus, both cities and companies must coordinate an approach that ensures access to crucial planning data while providing privacy protections for individuals. The findings seem rather obvious and yet necessary.

We have reached a pivotal moment where autonomous vehicles could become a part of our future or perhaps even relegated to the ash heap of once-promising ideas if there isn’t enough cooperation. Corinne Kisner, Exectuive Director of NACTO, doesn’t mince words. “City governments must work rapidly to change how street space is designed and allocated before yesterday’s values become enshrined in tomorrow’s concrete,” she said. “Taking proactive steps now means a future where people come first in an autonomous age.”

bus stop of the future

A bus stop in the future will accommodate all types of riders. (Image: NACTO)

Will it even happen?

Despite all the best intentions of the tech and auto industries, there’s no guarantee that autonomous vehicles will actually be accepted in society. In a provocative article on TheStreet, Anton Wahlman write that he thinks autonomous cars won’t or shouldn’t ever be legal. That’s because even if automakers and governments were ever able to agree to standards, neither could prevent autonomous vehicles from being hacked and weaponized.

Wahlman refers to recent reports of a drone attack on a Saudi oil facility. He asks the question, “But what is a driverless car, if not a 5,000-pound, land-based drone?” He uses an extreme example to point out that yes, any computer-based system can be hacked for nefarious purposes; nothing is failsafe. If autonomous vehicles were ever to become fully functional, he would therefore want them immediately banned for security purposes.


Scaremongering aside, it’s pretty safe to say that we can all give up the dream of driverless cars if they don’t arrive with a good implementation plan.

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can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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