Self-driving cars are expected to revolutionize the entire automotive industry. Exactly how this is going to happen has always been a matter for debate. Some pundits think we’ll stop owning cars at all, in favor of robot vehicles that arrive seamlessly if and when we need them. Others have predicted smaller (though still important) changes around issues like senior transportation, where self-driving cars could help give older people mobility options some currently lack. Uber, Lyft, and several other firms critically involved in self-driving cars have their own ideas about how to improve personal transport — and one of the biggest involves you not being allowed to drive your car at all.
In a new statement of “Shared Mobility Principles,” companies like Didi, Lyft, Uber, and Zipcar have drafted nine intelligent (if vague) proposals for developing urban plans to incorporate self-driving cars and one whopper that’s guaranteed to dominate the conversation. Numbers one through nine are well-meaning, if vague. Declaring that cities and mobility should be considered together, that cities should be designed to prioritize the needs of people, calling for efficient use of shared spaces, and calling for fair user fees are all smart ideas. But check out number 10 (emphasis original):
We support that autonomous vehicles (AVs) in dense urban areas should be operated only in shared fleets.
Due to the transformational potential of autonomous vehicle technology, it is critical that all AVs are part of shared fleets, well-regulated, and zero emission. Shared fleets can provide more affordable access to all, maximize public safety and emissions benefits, ensure that maintenance and software upgrades are managed by professionals, and actualize the promise of reductions in vehicles, parking, and congestion, in line with broader policy trends to reduce the use of personal cars in dense urban areas.
This is merely a proposal for a set of common principles, not a government standard, bill, or law. Traffic congestion inside cities is, to be sure, a real problem, and there have been various proposals to address it, including increased reliance on mass transit and the use of congestion pricing in cities. But attempting to artificially segregate self-driving technology and turning it into the sole providence of fleet providers would effectively kill it in the individual market.
How would such a requirement be practically enforced? Are we going to distribute software updates that only allow self-driving mode to be enabled if a vehicle is owned by Uber, Lyft, or another self-driving car manufacturer? What about when someone isn’t safe to drive, or has an emergency behind the wheel? Self-driving cars have been sold to the public on the promise that the technology could save lives in these instances; tearing it away is grotesque.
Of course, one response to this is that the proposal is nothing but a non-binding idea between various companies and NGOs. It’s certainly not worth getting excited about, given that self-driving cars are nowhere near ready for general deployment, and may not be for years. Fair points. But it’s not too early to think about what kind of market we want to create and how we want to incentivize it. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard rumors of companies locking down or otherwise limiting self-driving car technology on the individual market; back in October 2016, Tesla declared that you couldn’t drive for any other ride-sharing service but its own while using self-driving car technology.
Vehicle manufacturers and self-driving car companies, in other words, are absolutely thinking about how you should — or shouldn’t — be allowed to use their hardware. And this is new effort is as blatantly self-serving a pitch as you can get, dressed up in some feel-good language about accessibility, human-centric transport grids, and fair fee practices.
Building green, sustainable cities with upgraded traffic networks and higher efficiency use of limited available space is an admirable, necessary goal. But the idea that self-driving car technology should be deployed a cudgel to force people into relying on paying a network of third-party providers if they want to travel into an urban area via self-driving car is ridiculous. It’d make more sense to ban cars from urban centers altogether than to force people to choose between paying Lyft, Uber, and other fleet operators or driving themselves the old-fashioned way.
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