Self-Driving Cars Won’t Save Us

Better solutions are right in front of our eyes

WWhen you read Elon Musk’s blustering declarations about LIDAR, the laser scanning technology most self-driving cars rely on, it’s easy to imagine the words coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

“Anyone relying on LIDAR is doomed. Doomed,” the Tesla CEO said at an event for investors in April. “Expensive sensors that are unnecessary. It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices… you’ll see.”

LIDAR, short for light detection and ranging, is a light beam sensor that, combined with cameras and radar, helps autonomous vehicles “see” their surroundings and avoid collisions. Nearly all of Tesla’s competitors think of LIDAR as an essential pillar to driverless capabilities. Yet Musk claims that advances in artificial intelligence-powered cameras will make LIDAR unnecessary. As the Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins noted from the event this past spring, Musk has a long history of trash-talking the technology. He thinks it’s “lame.” But oftentimes, the most practical solutions are just that — kind of boring.

Driverless cars have been the height of technological aspiration for decades. But flooding roads with fully autonomous vehicles — if that’s even possible — will do little to solve our most pressing transportation problems. The dream of a safer, greener driverless car that reduces traffic and allows you to take a nap is still just that: a dream. When it comes to transportation, the best solutions prioritize accessibility and efficiency, not personalized luxury.

SSelf-driving technology continues to receive billions of dollars in funding and free publicity for one simple and obvious reason: The idea is cool. Still, even the trendiest CEOs and investors know they need more than social cache to sell a product.

Proponents of driverless technologies say that, in theory, cars would use sensors and algorithms to cut out much of the human error that leads to crashes. The vehicles would communicate with one another and incorporate traffic patterns to choose routes that cause less gridlock. Reducing traffic should reduce driving time and emissions. And allowing an algorithm (rather than lead-footed humans) to control acceleration and braking can also decrease fuel usage.

The problem, however, is that even the owner of a top-of-the-line Tesla can’t really put their feet up. The big record-scratch revelation is that we may not have fully autonomous cars for many years.

Musk recently made the audacious claim that Tesla would have 1 million “Level 5” cars — Tesla-speak for totally autonomous vehicles that require absolutely no human input in any circumstance — on the road by the end of 2020. That prediction will almost certainly prove incorrect.

In the book Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms, mathematician Hannah Fry says Tesla’s 2018 self-driving capabilities are closer to Level 2. “It’s currently like a fancy cruise control ,” she wrote. “ [I]t’ll steer and brake and accelerate on the highway, but expects the driver to be alert and attentive and ready to step in at all times.” That’s like being a driver’s ed teacher — the kid behind the wheel can probably manage a spin around the block, but you’d better be ready to take over when they panic.

Other experts question whether full autonomy is even possible. As Hawkins explains, most of the industry is working to perfect self-driving capabilities that are a step below that. We may one day experience cars that don’t require our input, but they will likely be restricted to certain neighborhoods at certain times and under certain conditions. But for most people, even the best of our current autopilot technology is out of reach.

The big record-scratch revelation is that we may not have fully autonomous cars for many years.

The cheapest Tesla is the Model 3, which the company says costs $29,360 “after potential savings.” In reality, the costs are much steeper. That “potential savings” trick factors in tax credits for electric vehicles and estimated savings on gas. But the current baseline price listed on Tesla’s website is $39,900. Jeff Perez of the website Motor1 dug into more pricing details and found that other add-ons, from delivery fees to car color and “full self-driving capability” tack on thousands of dollars more.

The high price point makes the prospect of a driverless future even less attainable for many. But the good news is that we can reduce traffic, emissions, and car crashes another way. You’ll even be able to read a book or scroll through Instagram in the process.

EEverything that driverless cars are supposed to accomplish can be achieved in a more scalable and accessible way by the vast expansion of public transportation.

Instead of creating individual vehicles that drive a little bit more efficiently and cause a little bit less traffic and emissions, we could get tons of single-passenger vehicles off the road by having commuters take advantage of much safer forms of transportation that already exist.

Researcher Todd Litman found that commuter rails, subways, and buses all have a markedly lower risk of death than traveling by car. Another study by researchers from the University of British Columbia and Lund University pointed specifically to living car-free as the most effective action a person can take to mitigate climate change (other than having fewer children).

So why haven’t more American cities invested in and expanded public transportation?

For one thing, transit needs a marketing makeover. People see it as poorly maintained, ineffective, and, in some places, a designation of lower economic class. It may not be accurate, but for many, transit is the exact opposite of a shiny new Tesla. Others complain it’s expensive to build and implement, mostly because America fails at building affordable subways and high-speed trains.

Everything that driverless cars are supposed to accomplish can be achieved in a more scalable and accessible way by the vast expansion of public transportation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Alon Levy writes in CityLab, subways and light rails that reduce traffic, fatalities, and emissions can be affordably built, modeled after the success stories in Western Europe. American cities would first need to prioritize mass transit.

Self-driving cars are a piecemeal solution to our greatest transportation problems. If we truly want to cut down on accidental deaths, traffic, and harmful emissions, expanding public transit is a much more far-reaching and comprehensive solution.

There will always be people willing to pay for the latest technology Musk and his competitors offer, but most of us would be better off voting and advocating for widespread public transportation. Who knows: If the trains are cool enough, Musk might even launch one into space.

Writer, musician, improvisor, recovering pessimist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store