Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

How Will Google's Driverless Car Affect Cities of the Future?

Google's driverless car in actionHow will Google's driverless car change city planning? Google is "very actively" pursuing an aggressive policy to get its driverless cars into public use by 2017, a deadline set by co-founder Sergey Brin two years ago.

Its prototype car has now completed 40,000 hours of practice, which Brin reckons equates to 40 years of driver experience that has contributed to improving the algorithms which control it.

Yesterday it gave a demonstration of its self-driving technology at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Chris Urmson, who leads the project, said: "We're now at the point where we're pretty convinced we can crack this and make it work".

Obviously safety is paramount. "We've never had any event where the car has been self-driving and involved in an accident," said Urmson. Google believes that the driverless car will never take risks or make errors like a human driver, and therefore will never cause an accident.

Such a thing, were it to happen, would result in a massive public backlash. Just imagine the headlines: "Robot driver kills human being".

Now consider this scenario: a massive disaster hits the planet. It wipes out 1.4 million people.

The media would be plastered with the story. The public would demand to know who was to blame. There would be outcries for punishment of the culprit(s).

This is not imaginary. This is happening right now. 1.4 million is the number of deaths per year caused by road accidents across the world. That's 3,835 people per day, or almost 3 people every minute of every hour.

We put up with this in the name of personal freedom: the self-ascribed, unspoken right to drive where we want when we want. The killer is always going to be somebody else, not you.

Today the news brings a story of a coach accident in which three pensioners died: the driver was arrested. The media report such accidents because there is more than one death at the same instant. But when the deaths are spaced out by time or geography they go unremarked.

But each individual death is no less remarkable for that. Each person will be missed by their family and friends. Each one also has social and economic value to their community. I have no idea what the financial cost is of all these deaths, but it will be large. What if it were factored into city planning?

A grim-faced environmentalist might argue that every death lightens the burden of humanity upon the planet. But death in an auto accident is an unnecessary, unwanted, deeply unsatisfactory and wasteful way to die.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights Article 3 says that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person".

But Article 13 says that "everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state".

It does not stipulate how we should move about: there are other means of transportation besides self-driving a few tonnes of lethal metal at high speed. Clearly, if there is a conflict between article 13 and article 3, article 3 will trump the other.

This is where the driverless car technology has the power to be truly disruptive and save lives. If Google can prove to everyone's satisfaction that it can dramatically cut the number of deaths per hundred miles driven; if society can manage to amend the legal system and find the right kind of technological fixes; and if Google can win over public opinion, then these vehicles could become ubiquitous.

At the very least I can see logistics companies replacing their truck drivers with this technology. Let's face it, long-distance haulage is an unpleasant occupation for anybody. Those I know who have done it all their lives suffer from arthritis and/or the health complications of being overweight. Their families suffered because they were absent for long periods.

The technology being developed by Google, Volvo, Mercedes and others will put these drivers out of work: hopefully they will find something more productive or pleasant to do.

But what else will the technology make possible?

  • No doubt Google would be using GIS technology to know where every vehicle is at any point in time.
  • As cities become smart, they will develop transportation communication networks that can interface with vehicles' on-board computers.
  • Cities will by then have a picture not only of traffic in real-time, but, because vehicle owners will inform their vehicles' computers, their destinations from the time of departure.
  • Cities will then be able to plan each individual route towards that destination based on their knowledge of the road system, traffic and road works, incidents, etc in real-time and transmit it to the vehicle.
  • You may find your vehicle travelling along a different route than that which you had imagined to get to your destination.

This is no different from trusting a taxi driver. We will become passengers in our own vehicles. The driver will be the city-wide system.

These vehicles of the future will become increasingly electric. They could be silent, or with added noise to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

When commuting they may even join up with other vehicles along highways to form trains, since the distance between one vehicle and another can feasibly be close to zero, enabling more vehicles to travel along the same stretch of highway at a time.

This will all reduce congestion and decrease travel time.

That's what I can see almost inevitably happening as a consequence of driverless car development, mobile technology and the networking of our cities.

Millions of lives will be saved. Journey times could be shortened. Our freedom will only be slightly curtailed.

But are there unforeseen consequences? No doubt.

The technology gives rise to other possibilities:

  • Do we want Google, or the city, to know exactly where we are in our vehicles, whom we are visiting, as well as what we are purchasing?
  • Could cities that wish to minimise their environmental impact impose limits upon the number of vehicle miles that we can travel each week such that we have to obtain permission before a journey might commence?
  • Could a future totalitarian state take over our vehicles and use them for other purposes?
  • Could this lead to a new kind of vehicle theft where our vehicles are stolen by people who are miles away?

All of these possibilities seem like science fiction now. But so did the driverless car, once.

And in this future, we will look back on the time when we tolerated the slow massacre of 1.4 million people per year as a form of barbarism even worse than slavery.