I was at an event recently that screened a 1956 short film -- Key to the Future -- in which GM envisions what self-driving cars would look like in 1976. The footage -- with a uniformed guy in a control tower directing a singing family along a highway for autonomous vehicles -- inspired chuckles from the audience.
One aspect of the video that did become a reality is the interstate highway system, a major milestone in vehicle transportation that better connected rural communities and big cities and cut travel time. But they also displaced entire urban neighborhoods when they were constructed and divided others once the work was complete. They enabled mass migration to suburbs for the more affluent, who could now easily commute by car into cities for work. But this sapped the tax base of large cities, setting up prolonged urban decay during the 60s and 70s.
Sixty years since the GM film, we're now are on the cusp of another major transformation in transportation with self-driving cars, and some are concerned they will have similarly negative unintended consequences.
Freed from the Drudgery of Driving
Experts think we'll first see fully autonomous cars in urban areas, with city dwellers and commuters alike buzzing around in autonomous pods, freed from the drudgery of driving.
Ford, for example, has promised to mass produce fully self-driving cars for ride-sharing purposes by 2021. Uber is already testing autonomous vehicles, while the self-driving tech start-up Nutonomy currently offers robo-taxis rides in Singapore.
Urban designer Peter Calthorpe, one of the top minds who spoke at the TED conference earlier this week, has a more pessimistic view of autonomous vehicles and how they could affect cities. While autonomous vehicles offer myriad benefits, such as increased mobility for the disabled and others, Calthorpe is concerned about further isolating people already detached by compulsive interaction with portable devices.
"Putting people in their private bubbles, whether they have a steering wheel or not, is the wrong direction," Calthorpe told TED head curator Chris Anderson following his talk. He worries about people using self-driving cars as solitary electronic chauffeurs or butlers that run errands and don't require their owners to ever leave the home.
Calthorpe's other concern is that autonomous vehicle "will revitalize sprawl" as society becomes more urbanized. Others are also questioning whether self-driving cars could lead to longer commutes if people can be productive while in the car, making traffic worse in urban areas.
Hesham Rakha, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who studies traffic flow, told NPR in February that it's difficult to predict whether self-driving cars will improve traffic congestion. "I don't know the answer," he admitted. "If the road is less congested, more people are going to be attracted to that road, and so basically it will become congested because it's supply and demand."
And all those utopian visions of driverless cars making traffic and accidents a thing of the past could look just like as silly as GM's Key to the Future film from 60 years ago.