FROM KEITH B. JONES | June 20, 2019

What time is your flight again?

Traffic on the freeway… Parking-N-Ride apparently doing more parking than riding… TSA lines nearly out the door… not enough agents at the X-Ray. All the obstacles seem to come together sadistically to try to make you miss your flight. You grab your bag and dash from the security line, check your gate—of course, it’s the last in the terminal.

You race time.

Nearly jogging past the souvenir shops and kiosks, you line yourself up to the moving walkway to for a few extra MPHs.

Blocked.

Moving walkways, intended to zip you swiftly between gates are more often than not cluttered right and left with inert on-timers, bent-necked and hypnotized by their phones. Moving, but barely. And not on their own accord.

It takes no time at all to weigh out your options. Instead of struggling politely through the obstacles (“s’cuse me, pardon me…”), you go the old-fashioned way: speed-walking alongside, breezing past the automated traffic and up to your gate. Just in time.

I’ve been traveling a lot recently and, despite my planning and best efforts, have found myself in just this situation more often than I would prefer. Each time, it makes me realize that such experiences aren’t that dissimilar to the potential state of “drivers” in a driver-less future.

In the past half-decade, Level 5 AV concepts have been powered by the fuel of promise: the promise of fixing our mobility woes. Everything from congestion to car accidents.

And, yet, just as I would have ended up losing time (and potentially my seat) riding on the moving walkways, I can’t help but be certain there will be inevitable losses with Level 5 autonomy. Perhaps not human life, but maybe some of what it means to be human.

The freedom to roam for instance.

During the rapid transition to our automotive society, early-century pedestrians were suddenly restricted from the streets they used to walk along freely. Jaywalking became a term and the act became illegal.

“If history warns us about anything,” Samuel Schwartz alerts us in his book No One At The Wheel, “it’s that pedestrians and cyclists have to be better organized, more vocal and more vigilant if they are going to ensure that AVs will not completely eliminate walking on many streets, except in fenced-in locations or at different levels from the roadway.”

Other losses may be more intrinsic in nature. Woven into the fabric of American culture is a sense of self-reliance. We take assurance, if not pride, in doing things ourselves. Autonomy is the antithesis of this.

Perceptively, we could also lose our sense of control. One of the reasons people feel safer in cars than in airplanes is control. We like being in it. We like knowing that if something happens, we can turn the wheel, hit the brakes. I believe this will always be a back-of-mind emotion.

That’s not to say that the software and sonar driving us will necessarily be unsafe. But after so many recent accidents with early autonomous vehicles, leaders of the AV industry have pulled on the reigns quite a bit. (Incidentally, we may lose such idioms as “pull on the reigns.”) Waymo CEO, John Krafic, famously stated last year that Level 5 autonomous private vehicles will never be a complete reality. As of today, perhaps the only force in AV innovation who doesn’t believe humans will periodically have to take over in certain driving conditions and situations is Elon Musk.

I guess there’s something to be said for that.

But it brings up the question of performance expectation… In the future of Level 5 autonomy with ancillary, occasion-based human takeover, will humans actually have the wherewithal to take the wheel? I mean, if you very rarely drive, you very likely won’t be very good at it.

My skepticism isn’t with the technology itself, nor those developing it. If anything, it has more to do with Schultz’s caution about history repeating itself. When cars became feasible for average Americans, city planners literally paved over trolley tracks and other systems of public transportation. Nowhere is more famous for this than Los Angeles, where today it’s almost impossible to not be stuck in traffic, dreaming of hopping a trolley en route across town.

Now, LA is trying to make up for (a ton) of lost time by redesigning the city’s mobility ecosystem, street by street, bus by bus, parking spot by parking spot.

Without question, we have a lot to gain from autonomous vehicles. And even though I feel we should be focusing on mid-level AVs for the foreseeable future, I also believe in never saying never. Especially when it comes to tech.

But in the same way that Schultz recognizes the folly of our enthusiasm for cars at the turn of the century, we need to likewise use history to our advantage to avoid problems in the future. By this I mean, ensuring private and public sectors don’t put AVs before public transit and personal mobility. Instead, we should put it alongside them for a mobility ecosystem that’s as integrated in systems as it is in software. Of these systems, intelligent infrastructure is key. To move forward with any form of personal-use AV on a small scale, we need infrastructure that’s every bit as progressive as the vehicles themselves.

In the high of tech development, it’s easy to forget to look back at history. But in the case of driver-less cars, we simply have to. It’s imperative that we design our cars around our mobility systems, instead of repeating the mistake of designing our mobility systems around cars. Even driver-less ones.

There’s too much to lose.

“Ace Mobility Solutions isn’t just a business. It’s the Mobility Revolution in action.”

Keith B. Jones
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