Could autonomous vehicles be good for our children?


As a strong walking and cycling advocate, as well as someone who wants to see our children outdoors and with exponentially more amounts of independent mobility, could I really have a good thing to say about autonomous vehicles?

I’ve just been reading an article from the New York Times, which gives some unique perspectives on the future for autonomous vehicles (AVs). And it’s started to depress me a bit (probably a lot). Of course, the usual points on shift in control are mentioned, how traffic might be smoother, and it covers all the fancy fan dangled things that you might be able to do in one of these AVs. But in spite of all this, and as Wiener notes within the article, ‘as technologists imagine a driverless world, they seem to be doing so with a distinct lack of imagination.’ They forgot something. They forgot that our City streets aren’t really working as they are. They forgot that people need to use these streets too, not just cars.

The article raises many issues that point to a world that is ‘virtual’ in nearly every sense, when we are more detached from reality than we are now and where we are completely reliant and technology for our every day lives. When we use vehicles more to get around, because of their increased convenience and where we really don’t care about interacting with other real people. These are all the things that I dislike about the message that AVs sends out.

I dislike that they risk people walking and using public transport a lot less, because of their ability to move around the city more efficiently and quicker and without any effort on the passenger’s part.

I dislike the fact that they begin to further detach us from the natural world, with suggestions that windows will be large tablet screens, to distract us from what is going on outside in the real world.

I dislike the fact that they still all need to park somewhere.

But I’ve also begun to wonder if there are some positives to the whole AV thing, for people and children in particular. What I do like is the fact that we can trust their actions and that they follow the rules, and this gives us potential as real humans to take advantage of this and start to take back our streets. Unlike most drivers, autonomous vehicles will be programmed to stay within the speed limit. Assuming that the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign continues to grow across our cities, this is most likely to 20mph, a relatively safe stopping distance. They will also be programmed to stop if a real human is in their path. I tested this out recently, when Keolis trialled one of their autonomous vehicles in the London Olympic park. Sitting inside the AV, it was annoying having people walk into its path every few seconds and it having to bang on the breaks. I remember thinking it would have been quicker to walk and, of course, if I hadn’t taken a trip in it for the novelty value, I would have done.

Now imagine a street where you can pretty much walk in front of any vehicle and it is guaranteed to stop for you. With the current power struggle on our streets between cars and people, we appear to be in a position where a robot is more likely to stop than a human. We currently can’t trust that a human driver will have seen us or will stop. So we are forced to either wait until there is no traffic coming or use a dedicated crossing out of our way. However, a robot should be guaranteed to see you. It will stop, no? Could this change the status quo of our streets? Would you be more likely to let your children out to play on the street, if you knew that cars would see them and stop for them, and that there was no risk of them driving at 40mph down a 20mph street? An additional benefit is that it is likely to be very annoying sitting in a driverless vehicle stopping every few seconds, so maybe those people will choose to walk instead?

This is all still a long way off. But if those of us who want to use our feet (people power and all that), then perhaps we can start to shift the mindsets of all road users and help them to realise that people are part of the street scene too. Of course, this is just one potential positive in what appear to be a long list of negatives right now. The thought that a parent could have the ability to tell their child to get into an AV and then programme it to drive them to their after-school club because it’s ‘safer’, all whilst the parent is at work, is pretty scary. I really hope we will have learnt by then that real people and real experiences are important too - not just efficiency.