Dear Quartz members—
This week we dive into the future of autonomous vehicles.
In 1956, US taxpayers gave General Motors, Ford, and the American car industry one of the world’s most expensive gifts: a $26 billion interstate highway system (eventually rising to $129 billion) and transportation policy designed around the car. It’s a gift that has kept on giving, says Peter Norton, an associate professor at the University of Virginia.
“The effort served utopian vision of cities in which anyone could drive anywhere, anytime, and park at the destination,” he writes. But “it destroyed much of the urban America it was meant to serve.”
Today, the bulk of American’s transportation expenditures go to fueling, parking, and moving their cars around. That former sense of freedom has proved to be a prison for commuters trying to get to and from their jobs. Cities once had walkable layouts, mixed zoning, and efficient mass transit. Public transit, which now represents just 1% of passenger miles in the US, is starved for funds and inaccessible for many. Each working day, the average American driver spends almost an hour going between work and home, up 20% since 1980, and spends $8,800 per vehicle per year, about one fifth of the household budget.
Autonomy is America’s chance for a transportation “do-over.” The country has two paths in front of it: Utopian or dystopian. Which it will be is a matter of policy as much as technology or economics.
“If we rebuild the landscape for autonomous vehicles we may make it unsuitable for anything else—including walking,” says Norton. “Before we make autonomous cars the solution, we must formulate the problem correctly. Until we do, we risk accelerating a journey to the wrong destination.”
You can find our field guide to this riveting topic here, including a survey of the current state of play in the industry, a QZ&A with a Chinese AV entrepreneur who believes government regulation will be key to China’s success, a timeline tracing the evolution of self-driving cars, and a thoughtful essay by Michael Coren, the field guide’s co-author, laying out what’s at stake in the decisions we make about AVs today.
Here are a few conversation starters from our guide:
TO DISCUSS WITH FRIENDS OVER DINNER…
- In their first go around, self-driving car companies thought they simply had to process massive amounts of data to make their cars safe for the open road. Wrong. An Israeli company estimates it would take roughly 30 billion miles of real-world testing to guarantee an acceptable likelihood of traffic fatalities.
- Now, the Silicon Valley and Detroit companies developing AVs are adopting the aviation playbook and designing in safety from the start by identifying every possible point of failure.
- What will be the first AVs we’re likely to see on roads? Truck platooning, where driverless trucks closely follow one driven by a human, along with slow-moving transit shuttles and robo-taxis running on specific, highly-limited routes.
…OR WITH US, ON THURSDAY, ON THIS CALL
Join us for a discussion on Thursday at 11am EDT/4pm BST with Michael Coren and editor Michael Murphy, during which they’ll take stock of the different players in the AV market, assess the various strategies they’re adopting, and tally what’s left to be done before AVs hit the road. We’ll be taking questions and comments live on the video conference call, accessible at the usual location.
If you’d like to dial in, use the following numbers: UK 0800-014 8469, USA 866-226 4650. For both numbers, the access code is 722 994 440.