The Street of the Future: No Humans Necessary

This 45-second simulation of cute miniature jelly beans multi-ton driverless vehicles navigating the intersection of twin 12-lane monstrosities was featured on Atlantic Cities yesterday, and it’s been making the rounds via Twitter. With Google engineers tooling around in vehicles that drive themselves, it looks like the 1950’s-era dream of cars on autopilot zooming about on massive elevated highways has morphed into a thoroughly modern vision of cars on autopilot zooming about on street-level highways.

Ian Lockwood, a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, wrote in with his take on the driverless car fantasy:

Just think, five-year-olds will finally have their own cars to take them to birthday parties, play-dates, and kindergarten. Elementary schools could be the size of regional high schools (think of the economies of scale) and have the big parking lots too. Commutes could be four hours long because car occupants could recline their seats and go to sleep. Think of the new sprawl opportunities. Designated drivers would be obsolete; so, let’s everyone get drunk!  If there is no parking spot at the restaurant, then no problem; just have your car drive around the block a few hundred times while you eat supper. People in cars could text all they want, yak on the phone continuously, or surf the internet on their computers; think of the productivity gains. Taxi drivers would not exist anymore which begs the question, “Would the driverless taxis take you the long way too?”

Trucks could be driverless too; which would make Wal-Mart even more profitable. Their 80,000 pound steel boxes could drive around town automatically 24 hours a day. Why put people in all the cars, anyway? Some cars could evolve into highly mobile robots. Without the huge passenger volume, new designs of mobile robots would exist; sleek ones, tall ones, small ones, fun ones, etc. Robots could deliver pizzas, run errands, display moving billboards, and be used to bomb sensitive targets without the need of someone to commit suicide. However, all of this might be worth it for a particular household on a street in Brookline because cars would no longer have horns. Even Mumbai’s streets might be quiet. After a few generations, literary scholars would write papers and have long debates about, “What was the real purpose of Honku?”

Mr. Lockwood, as it happens, is an accomplished amateur cartoonist. We’ll be featuring his work on Tuesdays, reviving an old Streetsblog tradition.

  • Glenn

    Wow, that idea of a driverless car just being a highly functional robot is really going to stick with me. Like in my nightmares!

  • Anonymous

    Ok, I get that PRT is a total non-starter within parts of the safe streets movement, but I think robotic vehicles are A) inevitable and B) could be beneficial if used in a constructive way.  Obviously many of the hypotheticals in the tirade above are funny but completely absurd.  If automation is combined with car-share so taxis aren’t literally driving around burning up gas looking for fares and car ownership becomes pointless, a smart system can optimize routes and operating hours for moving goods around to maximize energy efficiency, they’re programmed not to double park in the bike lane or speed, or they largely eliminate the weakest links of operator error, fatigue, and distraction from mechanized transport, they could be a boon to society and the environment.

    I think superimposing a new technology on the current way of doing things is a common pitfall, because the new technology will inevitably change the way people do things.

    If you wan to be alarmed about highly mobile robots, get upset about the flying surveillance drones the Obama administration just gave the thumbs up to.

    http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2012/03/robots-swarm-the-stage-at-ted.ars

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2012/02/president-obama-last-week-signed.ars

  • Eric McClure

    Ben, I count a total of 12 lanes of traffic on each road.

    The silver lining: no free curbside parking!  The dark cloud: the cars will just keep circling!

  • Anonymous

    Cars continually circling assumes two things: energy is free, and the system is too dumb to know where a car can park.  My dishwasher washes dishes automatically, but it doesn’t run all the time.

  • @EricMcClure:disqus Fixed. Damned robocar lanes.

  • fj

    Not so much driverless cars but driverless net zero vehicles as we’re rapidly heading into climate change crunch time where we’ll have to bring greenhouse gas emissions as low as possible as we start restoring the environment.

    Net zero vehicles will likely be scaled to what can easily be powered by human power.  Small fractional horsepower vehicles are essentially very near net zero where build-out emissions of these small light vehicles are also very low. 

    Fossil fuel industry propaganda against personal rapid transit is not any different that its propaganda against efficiency, essentially claiming that more efficiency is less efficiency which is totally absurd and widely debunked but the kind of confusion that the fossil fuel industry promotes since efficiency is one the best tools mitigating climate change and incidentally, also greatly reduces the need for fossil fuels.

  • Joe R.

    What is being totally missed here is the very low utilization rate of private automobiles.  Basically, most are parked at least 23 hours out of 24. If we move to driverless cars which are used only on a for hire basis, the total number of cars on the streets could drop by a factor of 20.

    Another thing being overlooked is much higher utilization of existing streets.  Cars could be safely run literally bumper to bumber (unlike the animation in that graphic). Therefore one lane could do the work of 3 or 4. This in turn frees up more street space for everyone else.

    I’m not seeing how any of this is incompatible with pedestrians or cyclists, either. There should be no need for more than one traffic lane in each direction on any street. Moreover, unlike today, the cars will strictly stay in their designated lane. Very easy then when pedestrians or cyclists cross to either just stop the cars, or leave enough of a gap between platoons of cars, for them to get through. In fact, peds and cyclists could be part of the system by carrying their own transponders, enabling motor vehicles to adjust their flow around them. I think this would be great for walking or cycling. No more waiting at intersections, ever! Just ride or walk, and motor traffic will adapt around you.

    Oh, and never mind burning gas. These types of driverless for hire vehicles lend themselves to electric operation. When a vehicle needs a charge, it’s taken out of the pool.  If a person is taking a trip longer than the vehicle’s range, they switch vehicles at some point. Or you can even load a bunch of these autonomous vehicles onto a high-speed rail car for intercity transport. These car carriers could have facilities where the passengers leave the cars to eat or use the bathroom.

    Really, I’m not seeing any downsides to this at all if implemented properly. It’s long past time we removed human drivers from the equation. It’s blatantly obvious as a whole most are simply not up to the task. 

  • fj

    And, why does a 5-year old require a one-ton 200 horsepower vehicle that goes 120-miles per hour to tool around the neighborhood when one that weighs less than 100 pounds, requires less than one-quarter horsepower and goes 10 miles an hour would be not only just fine but, much more practical, much lower cost, and very low emissions.

    Cars are really awful designs without even considering the huge amount of destruction they cause.

  • Mattyciii

    Robocars need to be regulated, and TAXED, differently than cars of today (until tax codes catch up!):  Tax these cars per pound per mile at a rate that 
    1) Fully pays direct costs of driving, 
    2) Also pays for “externalities”, like asthma, congestion, carbon footprint, etc.,
    3) is adjusted for inflation at a liberal rate.

    Otherwise we will see such stupidity as people putting their infant in a car & setting it to drive to Cleveland and back, just to get a good night’s sleep.

  • Mattyciii

    Also, we need to require that Robocars require a smart-card enabled license, plus number pin,   in order to start.  This will enforce that only licensed drivers (presumably with insurance) are billed for the trip, including any damages caused if the robot goes haywire. 

  • Andy Chow

    We have computer driven trains for decades now but most rail systems still need a human operator. I don’t see automated vehicles to substitute human supervision, which means that if you aren’t fit to drive, you can’t supervise an automated vehicle. Automated vehicles however could be useful when trying to park a vehicle in tight spaces, or to override human control to avoid accidents.

  • Energy, energy, energy. Much of it is required to move large masses, even driverless ones. I wish someone would hurry up and invent dilithium crystals (or some other cheap, infinite source of energy that doesn’t threaten to the destroy the planet.) Until then, if we’re going to pretend we have infinite energy, why not pretend we have warp drive, colonization of other planets, and wars with the Klingons and Vulcans? Star Trek is much more fun than twelve lane freeways.

  • Anonymous

    This is ridiculous and inappropriate. As both @KarenLynnAllen:disqus and @fg:disqus have pointed out, this fantasy is horribly inefficient. And as I was reading Lockwood’s blurb, I was thinking, “We already have the ability to do all that — it’s called public transit!” The only difference here is that cars are horribly inefficient (and dehumanizing) … and sure, it gets you *exactly* where you need to go instead of maybe a couple of blocks like with public transit (which, by the way, could easily be the case if we prioritized public transit and built our cities around it (and walking and cycling) instead of cars, driverless or not), but god knows we all should be walking a bit more and getting to know our city and neighbors instead of walking only through the garage from the car to the house. This is such a waste of energy and totally degrading towards the movement of taking our cities back from cars. Kinda makes me sick to think that people really have this image as a desirable world.

  • Joe R.


    We have computer driven trains for decades now but most rail systems still need a human operator.”

    Note the operative words here-“for decades”, meaning these systems are implemented with decades old technology. And much of the reason they still need a human operator has nothing to do with the technology being inadequate. Rather, it’s to supervise an evacuation in the event of some emergency and/or to move the train if the automated system breaks down. That’s really not applicable to robocars. You’re not evacuating hundreds of people. If the automation system breaks down another robocar can be sent to pick up the stranded passenger.

  • Heck, why own a home at all? I can sleep in the car, use the gym shower, etc. The future is turning into Judge Dredd, where millions live in mobile homes tooling around the mega city at 120 miles an hour 24/7. Can’t wait!

  • Joe R.

    @jd_x:disqus Obviously a decent system of public transit is preferable by far to robocars. Unfortunately, far too much of the American public is conditioned to the idea that any transport which doesn’t go door to door is inadequate. Certainly this idea is changing with the younger generations. And in a future where energy is more expensive, the entire idea of multiton personal transport vehicles, automated or not, might be moot regardless. What robocars can do in the near future is to lessen the annual carnage. My guess is the worst predictions here, such as people sticking their infant and setting it to drive all night, won’t come to pass in the more distant future.
    As for the comments regarding energy use, barring the invention of antimatter reactors or some other cheap, near infinite energy source, the public sooner or later is going to have to accept that the future isn’t going to be more and more unlimited goods, travel, etc. I think we’ve already reached a plateau in goods and mobility for the average person. And maybe that’s a good thing. How much mobility does a person really need? Must everyone be Magellan where they travel to a few distant places every year, often for little more reason than to say they’ve been there?

  • Andy Chow

    “That’s really not applicable to robocars. You’re not evacuating hundreds
    of people. If the automation system breaks down another robocar can be
    sent to pick up the stranded passenger.”

    You still need someone who could drive if there’s some incident on board the vehicle or if the system breaks down. That person would retain control quickly to avoid making the situation worse (either cause an accident or stuck in the middle of the road creating congestion).

  • Joe R.

    @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus My understanding of all this is that robocars will be running so close together that by the time a human operator might even realize something broke down, the crash will have already occurred. Even if robocars ran at normal following distances and speeds, by the time a potential operator, who will most likely be engaged in something else, finally takes control, a crash will have already happened. Indeed, I could argue that a human operator taking control might well make things worse, perhaps changing a 2-car crash at low relative speeds into a high-speed multicar pileup. With automated trains the operator has many seconds to take control if something goes wrong.  Also, they’re not allowed to be engaged in anything else except monitoring the train.

  • Joe R.

    Another possible scenario if a robocar breaks down is that the cars nearby will detect this, and gently guide it off the road. With multiple redundant critical systems, the possibility of breakdown could be greatly mitigated. Let’s not forget if this idea resulted solely in cars for hire, rather than owned by individual households, a much greater cost per car for redundant systems can be tolerated because the car would be utilized for much of the day. 

  • Driverless cars are the inevitable future of automobiles. 12 lane roads are not. Also, I that simulation makes no sense in the context of that article. While a purely driverless system could function like that CORSIM style simulation, in this country adding the human element would require a signal system with much larger gaps for reaction times–basically back to what we have now. The human element, would, of course, include pedestrians, bicyclists, and old fashioned motorists. None of that present in the simulation. The way the Atlantic Cities article touted it, the yellow cars were supposed to be the human operated vehicles, but no American driver could handle that kind of intersection that well. (There’s a reason we install protected left turn signals on roads carrying that much traffic–too many accidents.) Notice that the cars also switch colors. It appears more like yellow means driving without being affected by the intersection, white means navigating through the intersection and communicating with the other vehicles and any signal controllers. The Atlantic Cities provided a poor description of the simulation. I would like a link to the actual paper and CORSIM files, not just a link to some misinformed reporting.

  • Andy Chow

    The scenario of automated cars running very close together assumes that all the vehicles are automated, have similar operating characteristics, and are all properly maintained. The reality is that most vehicles won’t be automated (it can take 20 years or more to transition most vehicles if automation were to be a standard feature), and that not all cars are built and maintained equally.

    Part of the reason why someone want to buy a sports car is that they want to drive faster than the average traffic, so they most likely wouldn’t accept automation if that performs like a car with a small engine, or a truck. A computer system may detect different traffic patterns and make proper adjustments to avoid accidents, but it means that it would need more room.

  • Dudeguy

    Needs more asshole driving bots.

  • It scares me that people in my office are developing these things… :-/  I try to pretend they don’t exist.

  • Stan

    Great. No provisions at all for pedestrians. Patriotic Americans travel by fossil-fuel powered personal transportation. As soon as we can find a way to amputate the population’s legs and replace them with bionic segways, the walking menace will finally be defeated.

  • Gilla

    This seems rather a one sided article.  What about the benefits, the main one being increased road safety?  Also, car share programs will be more efficient increasing the likelihood that less people will own cars.

  • Anonymous

    Cars are not going away anytime soon, and if we are going to have them, minimizing or eliminating the human operator’s role is good for everyone.
    Imagine a city where every motor vehicle was traveling at the speed limit, obeying traffic signals, and there was no double parking or blocking bike lanes.  That sounds like a huge improvement for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as drivers.

    Also, to whatever extent energy may be a limiting factor in the future, robotic cars have the potential for far greater fuel efficiency.

  • Larry T.

    Yeah, they’ll be considered “safer”, even after glitches in their systems kill a few thousand people a month (peds, cyclists, kids, dogs, etc.). After all, those people should have been driving! Walking is only a thing you do between your front door and your car, or between your car and the front door of wherever it is you’re going. All hail our robocar masters, who have come to take the street from the pedestrian once and for all!!!

  • Anonymous

    Calm down, man …
    Cars, by themselves, don’t kill people.  They are just transportation machines.  Human operators make errors or violate laws and reguations, and end up killing people with their cars.  A computer controlled “robocar” will not get tired or drunk or distracted, won’t speed or run lights, and generally will operate in a far safer manner than a human controlled car.

  • Joe R.

    Regardless of how you feel about cars, I too feel they’re not going away anytime soon. Sure, we absolutely can and must undertake steps to greatly reduce our reliance on them, but they’re not going to disappear, much as many of us here wish they would. In light of this fact, the two best things we can do to make cars more tolerable are to automate them, and to electrify them. If anyone had to ask most liveable streets advocates which things they hate most about cars, I’ll guess the annual carnage would top the list. After that, I’ll bet pollution would be a close second. Robocars can even help with the third problem-overuse of land for roads and parking lots by utilizing both of these things much more efficiently.

  • Andrew

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus I think you’re being exceptionally idealistic in your predictions of extensive car sharing. There will still need to be enough cars to handle the peak periods, such as rush hours; many of those cars will be idle the rest of the day.

    Your assumptions of perfection are also highly idealistic.

  • Joe R.

    @Andrew_J_C:disqus For a bunch of reasons, I really think we need to take steps to eliminate “rush hour” by staggering work hours and/or having as many people work at home as possible. This isn’t just to reduce the number of cars. The same problems exist on mass transit systems-namely that they must be overbuilt to accommodate peak periods, but are underutilized the remainder of the day. At this stage, we as a society can no longer afford to do build in this extra capacity. And it’s very inefficient from the worker’s standpoint as well when they’re taking 2 or 3 times as long to commute compared to free-flowing conditions. This isn’t a hard problem to solve. In fact, it’s a very easy problem to solve which requires no new infrastructure. We basically need to incentivize employers to either let their employees work at home where possible, or stagger their hours. We could do this via tax breaks. In many cases, the benefits are enough such that employers should need no incentives. If enough employees telecommute, you can rent less office space. Same thing if you stagger hours so fewer employees are at work simultaneously. In both cases there may well be secondary benefits from a less tired, less stressed out workforce. Many people say the rush hour commute is the single worst aspect of working.

    I’m not assuming robocar systems will be perfect, only that they will be much, much better than what we have now. If we go from something like 40,000 deaths annually, and several times that from pollution-induced illnesses, to several hundred deaths in each category, that to me is a huge step up. Let’s not let perfection be the enemy of “good enough” here. Some people would be unwilling to switch to a robocar system unless it was infallible. In the long run that will kill far more people. We’re probably only a few years away from a system which is “good enough”. Once such a system exists, we could have a gradual phaseout of human-driven vehicles over perhaps a decade. In my opinion the hardest part of the transition will be when you have human and automated cars on the same roads. Unfortunately, this is inevitable because we can’t convert the entire fleet overnight. We’ll probably need to run robocars at “normal” following distances and speeds until all cars are automated. Once that’s done, we can run them much faster and much closer together.

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