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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

Book Review: With “No One at the Wheel”, the rich can steal the roads from us — if we let them

Autonomous vehi­cles, or AVs, will be the most dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy to hit soci­ety world­wide since the advent of the motor­car.

This pro­nounce­ment by the team of jour­nal­ist Karen Kel­ly and for­mer New York City traf­fic com­mis­sion­er Sam Schwartz is the sort of boil­er­plate futur­ism you’ll find writ­ten about any new tech­nol­o­gy. Like­wise, the very next state­ment could almost be chalked up to typ­i­cal hyper­bole: “Some futur­ists and pol­i­cy experts even talk about dri­ving being banned on some or all roads.”

What sets No One At The Wheel: Dri­ver­less Cars and the Road of the Future apart from that sort of replace­ment-lev­el schlock isn’t where it looks for­ward, then, but for how it looks back­ward to show how a sim­i­lar process already hap­pened.

A cen­tu­ry ago, the orig­i­nal grand theft auto was let­ting the car indus­try steal the roads from pedes­tri­ans and non-motor­ized traf­fic. Soon, dri­ver­less indus­tries will be in a posi­tion to take the roads from the pub­lic entire­ly.

But only if we let them.

Many peo­ple like to make com­par­isons between horséd car­riages and how they irrev­o­ca­bly gave way to the horse­less ones, but this is the first book I’ve come across to make that com­par­i­son direct and exam­ined in detail.

In a dif­fer­ent book review, I argued that for all of the breath­less ado­ra­tion about the future of autonomous vehi­cles, we could achieve huge reduc­tions in traf­fic fatal­i­ties by uti­liz­ing proven tech­nol­o­gy, which coin­ci­den­tal­ly has proven cost-ben­e­fit analy­ses already per­formed for it.

Although not the main tar­get of that review, apartheid-era white South African and “rough-upbring­ing” sur­vivor Elon Musk is as close to the pla­ton­ic ide­al of that posi­tion as you could ask for. Argu­ing that AVs would save many more lives than they’d kill, Musk has called jour­nal­ists writ­ing crit­i­cal cov­er­age of AV tech­nol­o­gy akin to mur­der­ers.

“[When] you write an arti­cle that effec­tive­ly dis­suades peo­ple from using an autonomous car, you’re killing peo­ple,” Musk said in 2016.

Yet, Schwartz and Kel­ly point out that Musk is not near­ly inter­est­ed in push­ing mass (pub­lic) tran­sit options or even installing more round­abouts.

Roundabouts

Round­about dri­ving | WSDOT

“Round­abouts, or traf­fic cir­cles, reduce fatal crash­es by 70 to 90 per­cent com­pared to stan­dard inter­sec­tions, and injuries in crash­es by 75 per­cent, accord­ing to the Insur­ance Insti­tute for High­way Safe­ty.”

But Musk does­n’t own a round­about-instal­la­tion com­pa­ny, so this method of sav­ing lives is not as moral­ly com­pelling to him.

Per­haps just as impor­tant­ly, we actu­al­ly have some idea just how much it costs to install a round­about, what it can accom­plish, and can’t.

The civ­il engi­neer Justin Rocz­ni­ak, known on YouTube as donoteat01, applied this crit­i­cism to Musk’s pro­posed under­ground Loop under the com­mon engi­neer­ing dis­tinc­tion between AM/FM, that is “actu­al machines” and, well, “fan­ci­ful mag­ic”.

No One At The Wheel gives exam­ples of oth­er ways that so many promis­es of Autonomous Vehi­cles are already achiev­able if we changed our approach to road trav­el to some­thing akin to air trav­el.

And for air trav­el, no fail­ure lead­ing to a loss of life is accept­able. The rea­son we don’t lose 35,000 peo­ple per year fly­ing is that we know humans are fal­li­ble crea­tures and the sys­tem is designed around folks mess­ing up with­out the result being dead­ly.

Roundabouts—boringly—don’t involve engag­ing in elab­o­rate philo­soph­i­cal con­struc­tions about which peo­ple tied to rail­road tracks you’d have to kill in the case of a run­away trol­ley.

But they do make it much more dif­fi­cult for any “trol­leys” to go out of con­trol, which seems the bet­ter invest­ment, all-in-all.

So Schwartz and Kel­ly lay out a con­vinc­ing case for why tech­nol­o­gy will con­tin­ue to devel­op to put AVs on the road but that this is a smoke­screen for how the real ben­e­fits will accrue and who for.

Algo­rithms can’t union­ize, and new, pri­va­tized projects are by def­i­n­i­tion more prof­itable than main­tain­ing or improv­ing exist­ing pub­lic sys­tems.

Whether or not AV trac­tor-trail­ers actu­al­ly make soci­ety safer is a moot ques­tion. They’ll get rid of a major fixed cost and point of fric­tion for busi­ness own­ers, and with enough mon­ey spent on the right cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions and good lob­by­ing, any­one killed by the vehi­cle’s bad pro­gram­ming will be the ones blamed for putting them­selves in dan­ger.

Or, it won’t be the fault of the com­pa­ny for releas­ing a vehi­cle that can be eas­i­ly hacked and dri­ven into a crowd; it will be the fault of the hack­er, sole­ly.

Again, the book real­ly shines because it looks at the past and how all of this already hap­pened as auto­mo­biles became legal­ly priv­i­leged over pedes­tri­ans and oth­er modes of trans­porta­tion in city streets.

It was not nat­ur­al, it was not easy, but as the viral­ly share­able illus­tra­tion by Swedish artist Karl Jilg evokes, we sur­ren­dered a lot of valu­able real estate to dan­ger­ous, pol­lu­tion-belch­ing machines that aren’t there most of the time, and don’t actu­al­ly get peo­ple places any quick­er once rush hour hits.

But it was what the auto­mo­bile com­pa­nies and asso­ci­at­ed indus­tries want­ed, and they pushed for it method­i­cal­ly with lots of resources behind them.

In the name of progress, car­riages no longer had to avoid peo­ple: peo­ple had to avoid the car­riages.

I don’t think Schwartz and Kel­ly are being inher­ent­ly alarmist or imag­in­ing a wild dystopia; the super­hero film Logan did a fine job show­ing the plau­si­ble ter­ror of shar­ing the road with AV trac­tor-trail­ers when it’s your fault for not hav­ing a new enough vehi­cle to dri­ve you bet­ter.

They also log­i­cal­ly extend the present into a future where the inevitable Uber­Lyft merg­er and its AV fleet are per­ma­nent zom­bie traf­fic because it’s cheap­er to leave them dri­ving aim­less­ly, avail­able to pick up folks, than it is to ever pay for park­ing. In all like­li­hood, the cars won’t even solve Sudokus as they do it.

Tech­nol­o­gy is nev­er just tech­nol­o­gy, and what seems inevitable with ben­e­fit of ret­ro­spect took tremen­dous cost and effort in the moment to be made just so and not dif­fer­ent.

And yet, the authors pro­vide you some cause for opti­mism. The Unit­ed States is not a democ­ra­cy, we know: we were set up to be a repub­lic, like the Romans.

Our pol­i­tics are not incapa­ble of pro­duc­ing pos­i­tive change, in any case, and we could real­ly see huge improve­ments in the qual­i­ty of life for every­day peo­ple if those are the goals we choose to actu­al­ly and con­sis­tent­ly advance.

Schwartz and Kel­ly argue that if the Autonomous Vehi­cles are pub­licly owned, inte­grat­ed into mass tran­sit, and uti­lized only in sit­u­a­tions where they make sense like long dis­tance trips and last-mile for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, then it could be a boon to peo­ple’s time and com­fort.

But we have to be vig­i­lant to see that solu­tions pro­posed based on new tech­nol­o­gy actu­al­ly can do what they promise and with­out un-men­tioned, exter­nal­ized costs.

If you were an ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry city dweller, get­ting rid of the dan­ger fatal kicks in the head by a horse and the smelly pol­lu­tion of manure on the streets no doubt would have made horse­less car­riages appear an attrac­tive, safe improve­ment.

Which is the dif­fer­ence between Actu­al Machines and, well, Mag­ic.​

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