How We Will Drive: reshaping cities – and terrorism – with autonomous vehicles

Self-driving cars have the potential of reshaping our urban landscapes - but only if we can manage the associated risks.

Alex Rubalcava has written a long, and very in-depth look at how the rise of self-driving cars – autonomous vehicles or AVs – will reshape our lives, that’s well worth spending the time to read.

On one hand, some of the predictions he makes are truly terrifying:

A future Timothy McVeigh will not need to drive a truck full of fertilizer to the place he intends to detonate it. A burner email account, a prepaid debit card purchased with cash, and an account, tied to that burner email, with an AV car service will get him a long way to being able to place explosives near crowds, without ever being there himself. How will law enforcement solve physical, violent crimes committed by people who were never at the scene of the crime?

The long-distance autonomous commuter

But others open up whole new possibilities for the way we live, and the way we inhabit this world:

This possibility has led many people to predict that AVs could enable further suburban sprawl as the costs of transportation fall. A person who moves to a more distant exurb but commutes via a PSAV will pay less money for transportation, have more time for entertainment, and will also pay lower, exurban prices for their housing. It will be an irresistible combination, and it will be just one of many ways that VMT will ratchet upwards once each marginal mile loses its cost in dollars and attention.

Essentially, his argument boils down to:

  • We’ll have more space (as AVs free up parking and road space)
  • We’ll have more time (attention dedicated to driving will be freed up)
  • We’ll be able to travel more – and more cheaply

The societal benefits of these changes will outweigh the problems that will arise – but there will be some roadblocks along the way.

The autonomous terrorist

He suggests that the first major incident that occurs with an AV will lead to a temporary halt in their production and sale:

The reaction to the first car bombing using an AV is going to be massive, and it’s going to be stupid. CNN will go into “missing airplane” mode. There will be calls for the government to issue a stop to all AV operations, much in the same way that the FAA ordered a ground stop after 9/11. But unlike 9/11, which involved a decades-old transportation infrastructure, the first AV bombing will use an infrastructure in its infancy, one that will be much easier to shut down. That shutdown could stretch from temporary to quasi-permanent with ease, as security professionals grapple with the technical challenge of distinguishing between safe, legitimate payloads and payloads that are intended to harm.

The significant issue here is – clearly – using AVs without a human passenger, which brings a whole set of societal issues – but then, so does the use of drones, which are capable of achieving many of the same sorts of criminal acts.

As with so much technology, is the benefits outweigh the risks, we’ll find technical, social and legislative ways to minimise the risks – and then open the deeply profound changes this technology could have on the way we live.

Image by Jason Wesley Upton and used under a Creative Commons licence