I was catching up on some podcasts on a recent roadtrip and listened to an interesting two-part series on vehicle automation from 99% Invisible: Episode 170: Children of the Magenta which looks at the effect of fly-by-wire and airplane flight automation on flight safety and Episode 171: Johnnycab on automotive automation.
Overall, the two episodes focus on the “automation paradox”, roughly the idea that as we automate more, we reduce our capability to deal with problems when automation fails. So, if automated cars become the norm, for the first stretch of time, essentially all drivers will still have experience driving without automation. But, after a generation of automated cars being the norm, the average driver will no longer have experience in taking control of a car if the automation fails. Within the airline industry, one proposed practice to counteract the paradox is to have pilots regularly turn off automation to maintain their manual flight skills. However, in the case of cars, that would require automated cars that still have the necessary components, like steering wheels and pedals, to enable manual driving, which is not everybody’s vision of automated cars. It’s an interesting discussion of how to design for safety and what safety goals one even has for automated vehicles.
As part of the second episode, another assumption behind automated cars was discussed which I’ve seen elsewhere, that in a world of automated cars, people would no longer own their vehicles but would simply call for and use cars on an as-needed basis: a world of robot-taxis. Various objections or resistances to this idea are discussed, but one I’ve not seen mentioned is how poorly this model would work for many families. I think about my friends with three children all of car-seat age – would they have to put in and remove car seats every time they went somewhere? Request and only be served by vehicles with three car-seats (of exactly the right combination of sizes) pre-installed? And what about all of the “stuff” that you travel with when you have children? Most parents I know have not only their diaper bag they carry with them, but a stash of backup supplies in their car – does that now get carried with you every place you go?
If your primary model of car-usage is commuting, and particularly if you live in a setting where your daily commute is more than 10-15 minutes, I can see robot-taxis replacing traditional car ownership. There are already car-share programs out there that seem fairly successful. But when automated car discussions start moving towards plans where only automated cars are on the road (so as to, say, enable narrower highway lanes to increase capacity), there are a lot more complicated barriers that would have to be overcome.