Will Self-Driving Cars Take Us to Utopia or Urban Hell?

Despite public trepidation, self-driving cars are now debuting in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona. These robot taxis are required to have human backup drivers for now, but “autonomous vehicle” technology is quickly improving as major corporations such as Uber, Google, Apple and Tesla continue to invest.

RehtinkX, an independent tech think tank, estimates that 95 percent of passenger miles traveled in the United States will be served by automated taxi services by 2030. Analysts and transportation advocates are no longer questioning whether self-driving cars, buses and delivery vehicles are going to a viable part of our transportation future. Instead, they are debating what that future should look like.

Environmental equity researcher Hana Creger has two distinct visions of a future where self-driving vehicles are part of everyday life. She warns that if policy makers allow the market to make decisions without regulation, taxation and community input, we could be headed toward “transportation hell.” In this scenario, self-driving cars are used mainly by those wealthy enough to afford a luxury replacement to personal vehicles, leaving everyone else with congested streets, heavy traffic, longer commutes in sprawling cities and a deteriorating, underfunded public transportation system. Meanwhile, opportunities to cut climate-disrupting carbon emissions would be lost.

On the other hand, Creger also envisions a modern landscape where self-driving cars are part of a cleaner transportation system built for everyone. In this scenario, fleets of electric automated vehicles are shared by commuters, reducing traffic and air pollution, and providing mobility that everyone can afford — including working people who currently use public transportation rather than personal cars and may not have immediate access to the latest smartphone or digital gadget. Self-driving taxis compliment walking, biking, and traditional bus and train routes rather than encourage urban sprawl and crowded highways.

This is Creger’s “transportation heaven” scenario, where energy is conserved, transportation workers still have jobs, and lower-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities have better options for getting around. Precious urban space formerly used for parking is freed up, and city streets encourage biking and walking — thanks to predictable traffic patterns and the advanced computerized sensors installed in self-driving cars.

“In transportation heaven, autonomous vehicles are designed to meet [people’s needs] and move as many people as possible,” Creger told Truthout. Such vehicles could include “self-driving trains and buses in city centers, self-driving shuttles to connect suburbs to transit hubs, and a self-driving personal vehicle for someone in a rural area who needs their own car.”

Creger is the author of a new report on self-driving vehicles released this week by the Greenlining Institute, a California-based think tank focused on racial and economic justice. “Greenlining” is a response to “redlining” — the practice of denying services and economic opportunity to specific neighborhoods, particularly low-income communities of color. The report received input from a number experts working at the intersection of transportation, environmental sustainability, racial justice and disability rights. Self-driving cars and freight vehicles, the report states, have the potential to address inequality or further widen the economic gap between the privileged and the underserved.

“Self-driving cars are just kind of seen as this new, cool technology, but in reality we need to also be thinking about how to make bus stops better, and how to make our cities less polluted, and how to provide safe, affordable mobility to everyone,” Creger said. “It’s not just about revolutionizing vehicles, it’s about revolutionizing the transportation system they are operating in.”

Automated Injustice?

The United States has a long history of redlining and unfair housing practices that have pushed people of color into undesirable areas with low levels of environmental quality. Highways connecting cities to the suburbs were built right through urban communities of color, displacing residents and shuttering local businesses.

Today, full-time workers of color make 23 percent less than their white counterparts, and the poorest Americans spend up to 40 percent of their income on transportation compared to the 13 percent spent by the wealthy, according to the Greenlining Institute’s report. Now, urban gentrification is pushing lower-income people into the suburbs and farther from workplaces, social services and public transit. Self-driving cars could be used to remedy these problems, but they could easily make them worse.

Creger lives in works in the Bay Area, where the tech industry has dramatically reshaped San Francisco and Oakland with an influx of white-collar workers, skyrocketing housing prices and other signs of intense gentrification. Creger said self-driving cars are “everywhere” in the Bay Area nowadays, and she has taken a test drive herself. Despite a few high-profile accidents, Creger said it’s easy to see how, once fully developed, self-driving technology could make life safer for pedestrians and cyclists who share the road with automobiles. It’s also easy to see how self-driving cars could exacerbate inequality in cities dominated by the tech industry.

“It’s not really the technology that scares me, it’s more how humans will utilize it,” Creger said.

Creger explained that there are already two distinct transportation systems in San Francisco, where Google and Apple buses delivering employees to the companies’ offices along established bus routes have enraged just about everyone else. Chariot, a luxury commuter service operating in cities like San Francisco, Austin and New York, often duplicates existing public transportation routes, allowing those who can pay to commute with each other (and enjoy high speed wi-fi) instead of finding a seat on the train or bus. When more commuters turn to private services, revenue and investment for public transit suffers.

“If we’re not careful, this will outcompete public transit ridership and lead to the deterioration of service,” Creger said.

Then there’s Uber and Lyft, the two major “ride sourcing” services under fire for unfair labor practices and the bane of traditional taxi drivers everywhere. Both companies perpetuate the “gig economy,” where stable employment is replaced by temporary jobs with few benefits. Despite a fatal accident in Arizona, Uber is pushing ahead with plans for self-driving fleets. The company has already disrupted the transportation labor market, so what will happen to Uber drivers replaced by automation? Could public transit workers lose their jobs when self-driving vehicles become the next big thing?

Creger’s report argues for robust training programs and strong unions to help workers transition into the new transit economy, and she is not alone. Last year, delegations of urban planning and transportation experts from cities in the US and the European Union gathered for a symposium on the socioeconomic impacts of “automated and connected vehicles.” Susan Shaheen, co-director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Transportation Research and Sustainability Center and a member of the US delegation, is studying employment and other “social equity” concerns closely.

“There are a lot of people who are drivers. … What happens to those jobs?” Shaheen said. “What happens to public transportation if these vehicles are no longer driven by human beings? How are we going to train the next workforce?”

The Pathway to an Automated World

Shaheen said the conversation around self-driving cars has been dominated by utopian and dystopian visions of the future, much like Creger’s “heaven” and “hell” scenarios, which draw from a vision first laid out in 2014 by transportation expert Robin Chase. However, the experts at the symposium were reluctant to look at the issue in such stark terms as they built a framework for studying the automated future. Instead, they predict a slow and steady transition toward automated transport, shaped by a mix of regulatory and market forces, depending on where you are in the world.

“It’s not going to be like waving a magic wand, and everything will be automated,” Shaheen said.

Experts still have more questions than answers. Will self-driving taxis make people feel more isolated, and will a credit card and a smartphone be required to hail a ride? Will passengers want to board a taxi without a driver and sit next to someone they do not know in the middle of the night? Shaheen pointed to elevators, a mode of transport that had human operators for several decades before we began pushing the buttons ourselves.

“There is a lot discussion about how quickly this is going to happen, but a lot of experts believe that it will be a long transition, and one that is not as simple as utopia or dystopia,” Shaheen said. “To get to utopia, you have travel through something. It’s the pathway to the fully evolved, automated world, right?”

Creger argues that it’s crucial that social justice advocates use this transition period to ask serious questions about how autonomous vehicles will impact low-income people, communities of color, people with disabilities and the elderly. For now, self-driving cars appear to be moving in the right direction; the first self-driving permits issued to companies like Waymo and Zoox are for robot taxi services that pool riders, not for personalized vehicles for the wealthy.

The tech entrepreneurs at RethinkX argue the market will continue to push the industry in this direction, but urban planners and community advocates must pay attention and work to sustain affordable public transit and prevent future transportation injustice. The time to act is now, as dozens of states have already introduced legislation to regulate autonomous vehicles.

“Is it integrating with public transit? Is it connecting biking and walking?” Creger said. “For me, it’s not enough that a car can drive itself; it should be making our entire transportation system better.”