2018/11/15: There was little question in the reporting on autonomous vehicles that they were safer than human drivers, despite the complete lack of evidence. The tech visionaries had spoken, and as is too often the case, the media fell in line.
However, around the turn of the new year, criticism of the previous optimism was emerging. In January, I was among those pointing to the delayed timelines, growing number of collisions, and the slowing progress in reducing the number of times that human test drivers had to take over from the computers. As the year has played out, critics have been proven right, and a much more inspiring vision for the future of transportation has emerged.
However, even Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, now admits that the self-driving car that can drive in any condition, on any road, without ever needing a human to take control — what’s usually called a “level 5” autonomous vehicle — will never exist. At the Wall Street Journal’s D.Live conference on November 13, Krafcik said that “autonomy will always have constraints.” It will take decades for self-driving cars to become common on roads, and even then they will not be able to drive in certain conditions, at certain times of the year, or in any weather. In short, sensors on autonomous vehicles don’t work well in snow or rain — and that may never change.
It’s still surprising to hear such a statement by someone leading a self-driving vehicle company, but given what has happened throughout 2017, it shouldn’t be.
In urban planning, there’s a concept called induced demand which says that when the supply of a good increases, so will its demand. This is typically applied to roads and explains why even when highways are widened, congestion rarely improves: the additional lanes simply attract more drivers. However, the same is happening with micromobility. As dockless bikes and scooters are added to cities, they’re creating demand that didn’t previously exist. New cyclists and scooter users then create pressure for better parking and bike lanes, which results in a positive feedback loop by attracting more users, who create more pressure for infrastructure, and on and on.
The self-driving car was a reflection of the future imagined by car-loving boomers, but micromobility is the future that millennials want — and the one that has the best chance of succeeding.