When robots take the wheel

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An appalling statistic appears toward the end of No One at the Wheel, Samuel Schwartz’s valuable primer on self-driving cars: In the century since the automobile arrived on the scene, 70 million people have been killed by it, and four billion injured.

Mr Schwartz, who served as New York City’s traffic commissioner in the 1980s, was nicknamed “Gridlock Sam” for his devotion to the conundrum of traffic (and for coining the loathsome term). He knows everything about how cars and people don’t get along, having been on the front lines.

This book — written in an earnest, conversational style — is his attempt to grapple with a fresh threat that’s appeared after decades of progress.

Futurists may have promised us flying cars, but what we’re going to get instead are driverless ones, and Mr Schwartz’s is the first comprehensive analysis of what that will mean on the ground. Most likely, there will be far fewer fatalities. With nearly 40,000 people killed in 2017 in the United States alone, that’s a huge benefit. But cars that can drive themselves will bring with them other knotty societal problems.

By next year, both General Motors’ self-driving unit, Cruise, and Alphabet’s Waymo (formerly the Google Car) aim to have available for ride-hailing services in major American cities. And that’s just the beginning. Mr Schwartz figures that autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will arrive in huge numbers in the decades ahead, bringing cheaper mobility options, improved safety, reduced pollution thanks to the electric motors they will favour, but also profound ethical dilemmas — namely, the restaging of the conflict between walking and driving.

Mr Schwartz is in it for pedestrians (and bicyclists). For centuries, shocking as it might seem now, people could walk pretty much wherever they pleased. Sure, they had to dodge the occasional mule cart or arriving stagecoach, but for the most part, they ruled the crude paths and humble cobblestones, from ancient Rome to Belle Époque Europe.

The automobile constrained them. Jaywalking became a crime. Cars mowed them down. Mr Schwartz and fellow urban enthusiasts successfully fought to reclaim space for the basic human act of walking. And now the AVs have appeared.

“If history warns us about anything,” Mr Schwartz notes, “it’s that pedestrians and cyclists have to be better organised, more vocal and more vigilant if they are going to ensure that A.V.s will not completely eliminate walking on many streets, except in fenced-in locations or at different levels from the roadway.”

The advent of smartphone-enabled businesses like Uber and Lyft has accelerated this disruption, as Mr Schwartz points out.

The riches are plainly in sight: Cruise was valued at over $14 billion, and one Wall Street bank thinks Waymo could be worth $175 billion. These players want to launch autonomous mobility services quickly to gain market share, leaving until later the debugging of the ensuing mayhem.

Will pedestrian deaths go down in an AV future? Almost certainly. But there are other factors to consider even before the robots take over, like congestion pricing, which Mr Schwartz forcefully supports for both human-driven cars and AVs.

I’m someone who enthusiastically drives cars for a living and who, without reservation, admits that the automobile has brought menace and avoidable carnage right along with the freedom to set out on the open road. We should have better thought it through the last time around.

If we heed Gridlock Sam and this valuable, humane book as we move toward a future in which we largely surrender the wheel, we can avoid messing up again. From his perspective, we don’t have a choice.

and the Road of the Future

Samuel I. Schwartz

PublicAffairs

272 pages
$30

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