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Street Smarts

Bad news: with all due respect to Terrafugia, unless you’re a fan of Futurama it’s probably going to be awhile before you see a flying car. But cars that drive themselves are coming, probably within most of our lifetimes and possibly sooner than you might think. They will drastically cut traffic congestion, improve safety, and be a terrific boon to those like the young and the old who are deprived of mobility. The ability to take our hands off the wheel will also undoubtedly send sales of Big Macs and mascara skyrocketing. But do we have the drive to make robot cars a reality?
Technologically, we’re closer than you might think. All of the elements needed to make driverless cars – radar, automatic pilot software, computing power, wireless communications and, of course, navigation systems that know where you’re going (okay, usually know where you’re going) — are technologically feasible, and in many cases are even available commercially.
Way back in 1997, California’s Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) ran a platoon of self-driving autos, separated by mere single car lengths, down a highway at 60 mph.
In the 2007 DARPA challenge, several computer-controlled vehicles successfully navigated a simulated urban course that included moving cars, traffic signs, buildings, and pedestrians, this time without any direct aid from a smart street system.
And all this progress has come without any overarching entity directing the development of the technology. But if we’re going to make driverless cars a reality, that may soon have to change.
First, the cars in a driverless system will ideally be able to talk to each other. This may not be totally necessary; after all, the current system basically works with very little explicit communication between drivers except for the occasional horn honk or gesture whose meaning cannot be reproduced here. But assuming technical hurdles (like stopping hurdles) can be surmounted, it would be nice if cars could communicate and cooperate with each other, to improve reaction times and smooth maneuvers like lane changes.
Just as importantly, cars may need to talk to the road itself. Technology which keeps you from veering out of your lane will probably (at least at first) require a string of magnets or transmitters in or next to the road (as in the PATH experiment), or at the very least very clear lane marker stripes (which may be as hard to maintain as the magnets).
It might also be more efficient and safer to coordinate the actions of cars from a central computing system, rather than simply letting the cars act as free agents or negotiate with each other (though central control would also bring problems, like the complexity involved in managing thousands and even millions of vehicles).
Thus we face a chicken-and-the-egg problem: why should the public go to the expense of building smart roads when there are few smart cars, and why should people buy smart cars when there are no smart roads?
How to get past this problem? Option one: we could choose inaction, which has the advantage of being a policy course which our leadership has often shown itself to be quite skilled at implementing. Fortunately, this path is not as hopeless as it sounds.
Even without collective action, driverless technology will advance. The reason is that decades of experience have shown that we will pay for car safety. Technologies like adaptive cruise control (which slows you down when an object in front of you is getting too close for comfort) and lane keep assist (which keeps you from drifting on the road) are already being installed in cars, though as a backup for drivers, not a replacement for them. But it is not hard to envision a gradual evolution as computers stealthily take on more and more of the driving chores.
One major issue is that technical standards will need to be set. If we’re going to have the roads talking to the cars and the cars talking to each other, they’ll need a common language.
But this need not be a major impediment, even without central planning. Standards often grow up organically because they aid both consumers (who can buy from a wide range of manufacturers) and producers (because each company doesn’t have to undertake the expense of building a platform from the ground up).
For example, the computer and electronics industries have, without government direction, developed numerous standards through active cooperation between consortia of firms (e.g. the standardized configuration of the USB port), or cooperation combined with bare knuckled survival of the fittest (VHS and the DVD).
However, in many cases a government role in setting standards is required. This is especially true when a publically-owned resource is involved. For example, the FCC was a motive force behind HDTV, because TV involves the use of precious public broadcasting spectrum.
The public obviously owns the vast majority of the roads in the country, so at some point we will probably need government involvement, particularly if we are considering having a central intelligence directing the traffic.
Also, even when the technological hurdles are surmounted there are serious legal and regulatory issues. At what point should you actually be allowed to take your hands off the wheel? Who will have the liability in crashes, the car maker, the owner, or the public entity which runs the road system? Should computer driving be made mandatory (more efficient), or should those who indulge in “Fahrvergnügen” always have their love of driving somehow accommodated? All of these issues will eventually fall in government’s lap.
Will we get the kind of leadership we need? Past experience shows that government involvement in the promotion of technology can be maddening; for example, thanks to politics, lobbying, and bureaucracy, HDTV was far longer in gestation (the FCC started pushing for it in 1987) and rockier in implementation (seven years behind schedule) than was originally planned. As economists often point out, government may not have any stellar expertise in picking winning technologies.
Yet we have also seen that colossal government action in transportation is possible; witness the Interstate system, which, for all its many imperfections, was a stunning achievement and the world’s biggest public works project. (FYI, along with professors Brian D. Taylor and Jeffrey Brown, I’m working on a book on Interstate history.)
Driverless cars have the potential to match and indeed surpass that accomplishment. Thus one would think this issue would loom large on the public radar screen. Instead, at the moment government seems more interested in a 19th century transportation technology than a 21st century one. More on that next time.
HAT TIP: Randal O’Toole, whose recent provocative book Gridlock nicely lays out the argument summarized here. More on O’Toole, the archnemesis of many transportation planners, coming up.