The technology horizon for understanding the path to the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles in the world today typically considers the problem from the standpoint of the ability for autonomous vehicles to be self-contained systems capable of interacting with an external context in no way optimized to their needs and the objectives we have for them.
However, if one instead considers the possibility of autonomous vehicle engineering to extend beyond the engineering of cars alone, and instead to include the engineering of the driving context that surrounds them – the roads, corners, pedestrian markers, and domain in terms of a city grid – the potential for a safe and functional autonomous vehicle experience may be available to human transportation systems far more rapidly.
In other words, if the advantages are great enough, municipalities may begin to invest in autonomous vehicle zones engineered as comprehensive systems of transportation (much like it might invest in a subway system or an elevated train system) to accomplish the satisfaction of commuter needs and improve traffic conditions in major downtown areas.
After all, the bar is much higher for understanding autonomous vehicles in the context of mixed traffic that includes cars with human drivers and driving contexts that include road systems designed from the ground up to accommmodate cars with human drivers.
We would invite you to imagine the downtown area of a major city as a zone where human-driven cars are not allowed, and the road system has been reengineered from the ground up to perfectly accommodate autonomous vehicles, complete with sensors embedded in roadways, and pedestrian areas containing ground-level weight sensors, laser detection systems, and other such engineered systems for identifying the precise location of all pedestrians.
This would completely do away with the need for curbside parking zones, parking meters, parking lots of any kind, traffic police, parking enforcement officers, streetlights, traffic signs, and a host of other infrastructural concerns that exist only for the benefit of human drivers.
Imagine a downtown municipal zone completely free from bumper-to-bumper traffic, where parking lots have been replaced by city parks with fountains and aesthetically pleasing landscaping, and any pedestrian can have access to a ride from an autonomous vehicle roaming the area within 30 seconds of a click on an app on a smartphone.
This vision would include the centralized control of a fleet of electric autonomous vehicles flooding the grid in proportion to demand as determined by a live tracking system according to people requesting rides as well as by big data analysis of daily patterns of behavior in that area. The fleet of vehicles could be augmented by a handful of vertically stacked parking garages, each containing hundreds of parking spots equipped with charging stations that can be accessed algorithmically from the centralized control system.
In this vision, the concept of autonomous electric vehicles participating in a municipal rideshare program would simply be a municipal transportation investment controlled in a manner similar to a subway system, a light rail system, or a bus system.
Such a system would present numerous advantages, including a complete lack of traffic accidents, a 0% instance of drunk driving, and the elimination of a great deal of superfluous infrastructure, increasing safety and convenience, and saving billions of dollars for taxpayers in that area. In addition, the carbon footprint in such a system would be massively reduced given that all driving would be fully electric.
Take a moment to imagine a downtown major city with no gas stations and no parking lots and no curbside parking, no traffic jams or traffic accidents or drunk drivers, no streetlights or traffic signs, and the massive multiplication of beautifully landscaped parks.
While some see the concept of a shift toward autonomous vehicles as being 30, 40, or even 50 years away, if we reframe our notion away from simply engineering cars to autonomously handle mixed traffic in an infrastructural setting designed from the ground up to accommodate human-driven cars, and instead focus on the development of systems that cater perfectly to the deployment of autonomous vehicles, we may have the technological means to accomplish such a vision within the next 5 to 10 years in major cities.
Such a system would massively reduce commuter time, increase productivity, decrease the production of greenhouse gases by an enormous factor, and reduce the maintenance costs of managing a complex municipal setting.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t want a world that worked this way. But, when you ask yourself 10 years from now why such a world doesn’t exist, it is likely that the correct answer will have something to do with the metastasization of hyperpartisanship, and the political paralysis that we increasingly bear as its cost.
Through the construction of our twin echo chambers of malignant partisanship, we have completely lost the ability to strike a rational common ground around obvious problems and toward obvious solutions.