Six Nontechnical Questions on Self-Driving Cars

In his recent article “Self-Driving Cars Will Mean More Traffic”, Joshua Brustein refers to a major downside of autonomous cars. He points out that people tend to travel more whenever traveling gets easier. “Hanging out on a moving couch” would make commuting more convenient and increase the attractiveness of living in suburbs. The result: More traffic! In contrast, he asserts that it will be easier to share cars and thus to reduce the number of privately owned vehicles – this argument is often used by technology enabled transportation companies.

These contradictory scenarios and the controversial discussion about how the future of self-driving cars will look like illustrates that the discussion on autonomous cars has reached a new level. We’ve reached a point where autonomous driving is much more than just a matter of technical feasibility. It’s time to understand and face the societal, economical and ethical challenges that come with autonomy. As a society we have to find answers on the following topics (not ordered by importance, no claim for completeness):

Who sets the rules for autonomous driving in general? Brustein quotes Tylor Folsom, a professor of computer science, who proposes a rather simple solution to control autonomous traffic: The government sets rules for the maximum amount of miles a car is allowed to drive per day, and technology will make it easy to track and enforce those regulation. However, Brustein emphasizes, people are usually not big fans of tight governmental control and extensive regulations. But what is the alternative? Not restricting autonomous traffic at all? Clearly, defining adequate regulations will be a major challenge, especially if the solution is thought to be fair for users, and non-users as well as for the environment.

Where do we want to use autonomous cars? Brustein emphasizes that autonomous cars not only cause more traffic they also become more attractive compared to public transportation. So, autonomous cars could be used everywhere, or exclusively in cities or rural areas. They could either be used as a replacement for public transportation or as a complement and its use it only permitted when public transportation is not available.

Who is able and allowed to use autonomous cars? Autonomous cars will improve access to mobility for people that are currently not able or allowed to use cars, e.g. handicapped people or children. However, at the same time the new technology will come with a premium so at least some people with lower income will most likely be excluded from the service. If autonomous cars are replacing public transportation, these people might be excluded from mobility at all.

Who owns the autonomous cars?  Currently most of the cars are owned privately. It is often proposed that autonomy can serve as a catalyst for car sharing because cars can travel on their own from one user to another making car sharing much more convenient. This would lead to a lower number of cars on the roads and a higher utilization of these vehicles. Therefore less parking in valuable urban real estate would be required. However, if car-based mobility demand remained stable sharing of vehicles could lead to more traffic as cars will have to move on to the next user.

How are the autonomous cars powered? Autonomy is per se not dependent on a specific power train, i.e. autonomous cars can be powered by combustion or electric engines. It might make sense to link autonomy to electrification in order to reduce emissions. This is especially true as autonomy might cause more traffic. New business models are needed as battery technology is still expensive and electrification also requires new technologies and new infrastructure. 

How do we measure the performance of autonomy? By talking about limitations of miles and prices, Brustein also addresses the measurability of autonomy. These measures can also include numbers of accidents, vehicle miles travelled, emissions, noise, land consumption, energy consumption or social factors. The relationship between these variables is only partially known. Some of the measures are even contradictory.

The advent of self-driving cars gives us the opportunity to question the status quo and to renegotiate how we build our cities and how we want to live. We can decide if we want to spend even more time travelling in “moving bubbles” with very limited interaction to the outside world. Or if we prefer to be in contact with other people and our environment and maybe sometimes run into other people accidently - which, by the way, not only fosters well-being but also innovativeness.