Unintended consequences of autonomous vehicles

Unintended consequences of autonomous vehicles

A lot of recent coverage makes autonomous vehicles sound like the solution to all transportation issues. The safety of autonomous control is supposed to eliminate all accidents. In a recent video with futurist Dr. Jennifer Healey, she makes the statement, "You could let your children play on the streets of New York."

I find a deep problem in her statement. Google's driver-less cars are known to be very polite and cautious, avoiding other vehicles and pedestrians. When all vehicles behave with such predictability, pedestrians will have no compunction about walking anywhere anytime. Today, Darwinism tends to minimize pedestrian traffic on public streets. In the autonomous future, vehicle traffic in cities will be untenable because vehicles will always yield to pedestrians.

Does anyone agree/disagree, or see other flaws in the "automation will fix everything" theory?

See the link if you want to view the full video with Dr. Healey:

Brian H | 11. november 2014

Automate the pedestrians.

divinehuman888 | 11. november 2014

I don't think it's that simple. Automation can indeed become a systematic way to get people to do things when needed, but it's not like it can be compared to Darwinism, imo -- because birds or schools of fished are synchronized by biorhythms, something other than a heavily regimented set of mathematical rules...


Spoiler: It's Magic

Dramsey | 11. november 2014

By the same logic, increasing safety features in automobiles would make people worse drivers.

If you really want people to be safe drivers, replace the driver's side airbag with a powered sword. Have an accident, get speared like a cocktail olive.

Homebrook | 11. november 2014

I do think there is a point to considering the liklihood of unintended consequences resulting from autonomous vehicles.

Somewhat related to this is the work of a traffic engineer named Hans Monderman who asserts that traffic signs and the lines on streets actually make roads less safe, not more safe. So the idea that something that is intended to make driving safer (autonomous vehicles) could actually make them more dangerous is not an unreasonable thought.

Read about Hans Monderman's radical view of road safety at:
He actually designs intersections where there are no "signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it's unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous - and that's the point."
You can actually walk backward into the intersection without getting hit because drivers are paying attention and are driving at an appropriate speed.

So if increasing a driver's personal responsibility by removing "safety" signs, lights and lines make an intersection safer, not more dangerous it just may be that removing a driver's responsibility altogether with autonomous vehicles may not give us the safe results we imagine.

Red Sage ca us | 12. november 2014

Some years ago, I was surprised to learn one of my younger Cousins, who was an 'Oops! Child' (the youngest of his older brothers is fourteen years older), was only able to read digital clocks, and had never been taught to look both ways before crossing the street.

I'm pretty sure it is still possible to teach people to look both ways before crossing the street.

Anemometer | 12. november 2014

The one thing that would happen is commuting distances would go up.

I'd be happy to commute anywhere in a 3 hour radius if I can sleep on the way. Especially if the cost of ev miles is 1/10 that of gas.

Any more than 3 hours i wouldn't see my family.

Scrith | 12. november 2014

I think autonomous vehicles (which, I believe, will begin taking over the roadways in 5-10 years) will have another significant effect: less vehicle ownership. We'll probably see automated taxis (which park in areas near expected demand while not in use) that will quickly arrive at your doorstep in response to you hitting a button on your cell phone. The cost will be lower than current taxis (due to lack of a driver, and no need to tip, plus convenient billing via a pre-arranged account), and the response time will make people wonder why it is worthwhile to purchase, maintain, and insure a personal vehicle.

DonS | 12. november 2014

My point with pedestrians is not they they won't be safe. I think pedestrians will be safe, in fact so safe autonomous cars may not move at all in a congested environment. If pedestrians routinely wander down the streets because they know they will never get hit, I can foresee the 3 hour commute in New York city getting you about three blocks from home.

I cannot think of any big issues for interstate highways, except for construction zones that don't really have a single set of clear lines on the roadway.

Brian H | 12. november 2014

Yes, pedestrians must be subject to a certain minimum level of danger to behave themselves in traffic. Otherwise, random walk chaos results.

Timo | 13. november 2014

I'm not sure if that was supposed to be humorous comment, but I agree with it nevertheless. Pedestrians that have no danger from cars don't pay attention to them.

JeffreyR | 13. november 2014

Thank goodness for motorcycles and bikes then. They'll keep those nasty ped's in check ;^)

LetsGoFast | 13. november 2014

It would create significant unpredictable effects on housing prices. Today, the main reason that you can buy more land and larger houses the further you get away from city centers is because of the undesirability of long commutes. Autonomous cars will have a significant effect on that trend and encourage people to buy more house at a greater distance away as mentioned by Anemometer above. This will have dramatic effects on property valuations, commercial development and will tend to increase energy consumption.

Red Sage ca us | 13. november 2014

I hope that TicketMaster isn't in charge of billing for automated taxis.


alanwwebb | 14. november 2014

In Colorado we have nasty blinking light crosswalks. Hurried pedestrians his the button and get in the crosswalk before the flashers even come on. We are expected to screech to a halt, without getting rear-ended. If autonomous cars stop faster rear-enders from non-autonomous cars will be more frequent.

SamO | 15. november 2014


Then in your example with human driver, the first car runs over the pedestrian, which allows the second car not to ram the car from behind? ;-)

carlk | 15. november 2014

@LetsGoFast I agree but the gridlock will still be there, and will be even worse when people start to move out of the cites. By that time there will be toll road system implemented for people who prefer to live far away. The toll will not, and should not, be cheap.

carlk | 15. november 2014

Internet taxi services now like Uber and Lyft are very convenient already. The only difference is they will all be self driven in the future.

Brian H | 15. november 2014

For a fee, you might be able to reserve a car for exclusive use for a period of your choice.

hennalund | 29. november 2014

i like the idea of shared space. maybe it helps us all to become more considerate and cautious in commuting ? hans monderman had quite a few pro's to mention about shared space:
i guess populated cities such as New York might be not the perfect place to create shared reoads/spaces but if you think of smaller communities I do not see any reason why it should not work !

jordanrichard | 29. november 2014

DonS +1000. Google's driverless pods on their campus work great, because it's a controlled environment.

There are way too many variables in the real world for a autonomous car to function like a regular car. We all have developed an instinct from driving, learning to read the "body language" of other cars, seeing where the other driver is looking, etc. A computer can not develop a hunch.

We have all been driving down the road and there is say a small card board box in the road and it moves around due to the wind. This tells you, the human, that it's empty and safety to run over. What will the computer due, slam on the brakes and you just sit there? Will you have to get out of the car, move the object, get back in the car and press on?

I really think the whole autonomous driving thing is just to create something new, to give you another reason to buy a new car.

Grinnin'.VA | 29. november 2014

@ jordanrichard | November 29, 2014

There are way too many variables in the real world for a autonomous car to function like a regular car. We all have developed an instinct from driving, learning to read the "body language" of other cars, seeing where the other driver is looking, etc. A computer can not develop a hunch.

IMO, when there are many variables involved, computers will eventually be more successful than human drivers. But of course, we aren't close to that point yet.

I really think the whole autonomous driving thing is just to create something new, to give you another reason to buy a new car.

I bought my MS at age 75. I'm still quite capable of driving normally, but I don't know how many more years my eyes and physical skills will be up to the task of driving safely. I'm quite pleased by Google's autonomous driving project. I look forward to the day when I no longer need to rely on my own declining physical abilities to drive to where I want to go. A few years from now I expect to 'need' an autonomous vehicle to get me there. Of course, I'd like that to be a Tesla.

Go Tesla!

Brian H | 29. november 2014

You can't get to heaven on roller skates. It takes a Tesla!