Here’s an axiom for our times: If it appears in a Super Bowl commercial, it has entered the popular culture.
During last week’s Super Bowl 51, Ford aired a spot touting itself as a mobility company providing not just cars but other transportation products and services, including bike sharing and self-driving cars. A short clip near the end of the ad showed a stylish couple cruising down the highway in a car without a visible steering wheel. (Note to Tom Brady: The car’s tires appeared to be fully inflated.)
In the fierce competition for Super Bowl ad attention, the Ford spot didn’t get much, but for those of us closely watching the automated car phenomenon, it was significant. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that a fully self-driving car was depicted in a car (sorry, mobility) commercial.
This image, which appeared on screen for all of a couple of seconds, is important for what wasn’t depicted. It did not show the driver engaged with piloting the vehicle in any way. And that’s important because there is an interesting debate just getting started about how far and how fast driverless technology should go.
At the Mayor’s Innovation Project winter meeting in January, I heard a presentation from Robin Chase, a founder of Zipcar and other startups. She presented utopian and dystopian visions of a driverless future, and her message was that cities needed to use their policy-making skills to create the positive outcome. She has summarized the big questions related to the technology in a video.
But probably her most challenging idea was that a transitional period, in which elements of automation are dribbled out one by one, is actually a dangerous scenario. Her argument is that slow, muddled human interventions will only make things more dangerous. Instead, she believes that manufacturers should skip the middle stages altogether and build totally self-driving vehicles. No steering wheels. The Ford commercial tends to depict that kind of future.
Now that automated vehicles have broken through to Super Bowl advertising it’s only a matter of time before they start appearing on our streets. As a matter of fact, the UW-Madison engineering department will soon be acquiring some automated shuttles with plans to test them, eventually, on campus and on certain city streets.
The city of Madison may want to try to get ahead of the curve here. Questions that need consideration include the impact on city revenues from parking lots and ramps and from parking tickets and other kinds of traffic citations; impacts on public transportation; interactions with people while walking or biking; changes in traffic control devices; and potential for redevelopment of parking lots and structures. And that’s just for starters.
Madison’s answer to most thorny questions is to form a committee. Committees are what we do. They are who we are. Sometimes, I think we go a little too far in our proliferation of committees, but not in this case.
The self-driving vehicle is such a profoundly disruptive technology with so many implications that it deserves thoughtful consideration from a lot of different perspectives. Even more importantly, the city needs to figure out where the decision points are so that the utopian promise of a driverless future is realized instead of the dystopian nightmare.
Cars can already drive themselves, but when it comes to how they might shape our city we should not give up control of the steering wheel.