David Michael Miller
Imagine a future with no car crashes. No horrible injuries and no deaths. No grieving families. No more high school students killed in bunches just before graduation at about this time of year.
Imagine a world without road rage and all the tension that comes with driving, no honking horns, no traffic congestion.
Or imagine a city without ugly parking lots and without parked cars lining the streets. Think about the green spaces and the shops that could take their place.
All of those things are possible with self-driving vehicles. The technology is teed-up and ready to go, with every major vehicle manufacturer promising a fully automated model to be available within just a few years.
But that utopian future still depends on some pretty significant cultural changes that technology alone cannot force. This vision supposes a world (at least in cities) in which car ownership and single-occupancy riding would be a thing of the past.
Instead, we’d all just call up a car on our smart phone. It would arrive in minutes, just as a car-sharing service would today, except without the driver. That electric car would probably contain a few other people sharing the ride. The vehicle would take us to our destination and keep moving. In quiet hours over night it might drive itself to a parking space at the edge of the city.
For people like me that sounds pretty great, but I also like to watch football and golf on television.
Tune in any Packers game and you’re likely to see an ad for America’s hottest-selling vehicle, the massive Ford F-150 pickup truck. In the ads a deep-voiced man is essentially telling you that real guys own trucks and super-real guys own F-150s. They drive through mud. They can tow airliners. They save the day and the night. Yee-hah!
Or tune in the Masters golf tournament and see sophisticated men and elegant women in finely tailored suits pulling up at sleek, glass-sheathed buildings in their black Cadillacs. Different vibe from the F-150, but the same message: Your vehicle is an extension and expression of who you are. You drive what you feel, and you certainly drive alone.
The visionaries who see the utopian driverless future are all of a certain type: educated urbanites from big metro areas. They already use car sharing, mass transit, bikes and the like. But what application does the driverless future have to the Midwest? To smaller cities and to rural America? And even in big cities, won’t there be some who still cling to the idea of the personally owned vehicle driven alone?
For cyclists and pedestrians, can the technology react quickly enough to account for their maneuverability? And what about cyber-hacking? Could we see rows of cars commandeered to drive off cliffs?
We’ll explore the questions — if not provide the answers — at a conference sponsored by the Wisconsin Bike Fed (of which I am the executive director), AAA of Wisconsin, UW-Madison’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission.
The conference, at Music Hall at the foot of Bascom Hill this Thursday, April 20, starts with registration at 12:30 p.m. We’ll get underway at 1 p.m. with presentations and panels of local commentators. Keynote presenters will include Peter Rafferty of the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Lab, Debs Schrimmer, transportation partnerships aAnalyst for Lyft in San Francisco, and David Wang, who runs the national AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The conference is free and open to the public. Just register in advance with the Bike Fed.