Friday, 13 October 2017

Walkable urbanism vs. the Robocar

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.” - Gustavo Petro
"Planning for the automobile city focuses on saving time. Planning for the accessible city focuses on time well spent." - Robert Cervero
‏ "In the walkable city, people gather in a piazza, plaza, or square. In the automobile city, they're called...intersections." - Taras Grescoe
 Motocracy (noun, plural-cies) “Government by the motorists; a form of self-governance in which authority/powers of agency is vested in individual motorists and exercised directly by them or by their co-drivers/riders in order to uphold law and liberty on the road.”
"This bill is one of the biggest assaults on 1966 federal safety act that’s ever occurred."- Former NHTSA chief @JoanClaybrook on the AV bill.


For a technology without an obvious customer or regulator pull, robocars are seen as big business. Because of the lack of pull, this is not a sure thing, and indeed we may be seriously past 'peak car'. The temptation to Volkswagenize (cheat) may be  irresistible to the motor industry/ SV combo driving the robocar narrative. The cheat will be to control the environment to make it easier for robocars to operate. The controls on streets and pavements will make towns and cities much less friendly to humans. The controls will be sold as a 'moral imperative' to reduce deaths. Such claims lack any convincing evidence.

Robocars as autogamous technology

 "Autogamous technology; self-pollinating and self-fertilizing, responding more and more to an inner logic of development than the needs and desires of the user community". Gene I Rochlin
Robocars are mostly about money, not technology; keep the share price up in the face of Google and Tesla. "If the driverless economy is imminent, and the endgame is fleets of fully utilized robot vehicles that create radical reductions in personal vehicle ownership, why would a car company be complicit in undermining its own market? The answer is that it wouldn’t. No car company actually expects the futuristic, crash-free utopia of streets packed with Level 5 driverless vehicles to trans­pire anytime soon, nor for decades. But they do want to be taken seriously by Wall Street as well as stir up the imaginations of a public increasingly disinterested in driving. And in the meantime, they hope to sell lots of vehicles with the latest sophisticated driver-assistance technology."
Pew research has shown the lack of customer pull for robocars: "In the case of driverless vehicles, 75% of the public anticipates that this development will help the elderly and disabled live more independent lives. But a slightly larger share (81%) expects that many people who drive for a living will suffer job losses as a result. And although a plurality (39%) expects that the number of people killed or injured in traffic accidents will decrease if driverless vehicles become widespread, another 30% thinks that autonomous vehicles will make the roads less safe for humans...Nearly six-in-ten Americans say they would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle ."
MIT research has found that people don't really want robocars: "The 2017 data suggest a proportional shift away from comfort with full automation. Across all age ranges, a lower proportion of respondents were interested in full automation when compared to 2016. This trend was particularly notable for younger adults aged 16-44. A higher proportion of respondents indicated comfort with systems that actively help the driver, without requiring the driver to relinquish control." Follow the money
Big motor has its eyes on some high value income: "The worldwide auto industry took in $2.3 trillion in revenue in 2016, but revenues associated with mobility services—a term the covers everything from Uber to traditional taxis and buses—totaled $5.4 trillion."

GM has said the autonomous vehicle and mobility business could be a potential $7 trillion global market.
The "Passenger Economy" is likewise reported to be a $7 trillion market  " A recent study conducted by Strategy Analytics for Intel estimates that the "Passenger Economy" created by the advent of autonomous vehicles will swell from $800 billion in 2035 to a whopping to $7 trillion by 2050, driven by services such as robo-taxis, automated delivery of everything from pizzas to prescription drugs, and captive marketing to idle car occupants."
  There is a 'billion dollar war on maps'  where the emphasis on robocars may be to our collective detriment.

Options for the way ahead

Consider two competing narratives for the future of urban mobility.
1. Networked urbanism (see) where cities are driven by big data analytics and networks controlled in part by machines. The 'smart city' as technological solutionism, with everything connected, automated, and lots of big data. You might expect the car makers to be happy with this as a future, but the bad news is,  even here, car ownership and use may fall. Ouellette on the reinvention of urban space: "If, for example, your existing urban space reality is Rob Fordian—one where cars rule while pedestrians and cyclists serve—then that model is about to be turned on its head. Car culture as the macro force of cities is on the way out. Waiting in the wings are an ever-increasing number of smart, digital technologies working synergistically to make the auto-centric urban model obsolete."Networked urbanism can be dressed up as faster, smarter, greener, but it is still pushing the corporate panopticon into our streets and lives. Big business likes AVs but needs to make long-busted claims about V2V to assemble a case.
The life in such a world sounds like that of the 'insiders' in A Very Private Life by Michael Frayne. A life tended by the kindness of corporate automata.
2.On the smart citizen side of the street, there is walkable urbanism - the "Life Sized City". This is gaining in popularity round the world. Paris for example “journee sans voiture” . "The car-free day fits within a comprehensive strategy to improve mobility while reducing motorized traffic. Hidalgo and her predecessor, Bertrand Delanoe, have enacted bold policies to prioritize transit, bicycling, and walking on city streets, resulting in a 30 percent drop in traffic over 10 years." Change is coming to the streets of Motown - alternatives to cars are going to be right in the face of the good ol' boys, and Copenhagenize Design Co has designed the bike infra network for City of Detroit.  Cities are starting to end the dominance of the traditional car, and word of the success of Copenhagen and the Netherlands is spreading. Resources for walkable urbanism are being supplemented by resources for cyclable urbanism e.g. Velotopia.The real disruption is the bicycle not the robocar.
The benefits of urban bike infrastructure are being recognised for business here  for traffic flow here, and for health here and here. A summary of ten reasons for reducing car dependency is here. Progress down this route is non-linear: "Getting from 0 to 5% bike mode share is really hard. Getting from 5 to 15% is a piece of cake." - @copenhagenize. "There are 3 million pedelec bikes in use in Germany. 3.7% of population. Adoption about to enter hockey stick...3.3 million Ebike units will sell in 2023, Europe. (2 million in 2016, 100k in 2006).." Horace Dediu‏ @asymco.
So far, progress has been largely out of the public eye; reaching 2 million EVs met with huge publicity, but 200 million eBikes in China alone is invisible. In India,  "Today, India has over 25 million four-wheeled cars, jeeps and trucks registered to private owners, escalating by about 2 million new vehicles every year. The same data registry of 2013 by the Ministry of Road Transport also recorded more than 130 million two-wheelers plying on Indian roads. A staggering number by any measure, and greater than the number of four-wheelers by a factor of five."
 Dockless bike hire has real potential, and big money behind it.  "For all the talk of autonomous cars transforming cities it’s entirely possible that another high-tech form of transport – free-floating rental bicycles – could get there first. ...  In China, a dockless bike-share boom is reducing car use in cities and even leading to forecasts that less fossil fuel will be burned in the future. "
Walkable, cyclable urbanism might look unstoppable, but its threat to the motor industry and the big data corporates is likely to bring a response.

People are messy, and difficult for robocars to deal with

"The randomness of the environment such as children or wildlife cannot be dealt with by today’s technology" - Markus Rothoff, Director of Autonomous Driving, Volvo
Apart from Volvo's trouble with kangaroos, there are many aspects of robocar / people interaction that are difficult, see here. Robocars need to interact with e.g. pedestrians. This is difficult, expensive, and culturally alien to the nerds building the cars (Cefkin at Nissan is a rare anthropologist in the business).  In robocarland, nobody can hear you scream: It’s No Use Honking. The Robot at the Wheel Can’t Hear You "If the cars drive in a way that’s really distinct from the way that every other motorist on the road is driving, there will be in the worst case accidents and in the best case frustration," he said. "What that’s going to lead to is a lower likelihood that the public is going to accept the technology."
The cheat is: Just get rid of the people around cars, so you don't need to solve these problems. 

The cheat is coming - they are after our infrastructure

"If you doubt self-driving cars are coming, you haven’t paid attention to the rate of human ingenuity and technological progress. Conversely, if you believe more than 1% of the statements coming out of Detroit, Germany, Japan and Silicon Valley about when they’re getting here, you’re as deluded as their investors. The question isn’t when, it’s how and where." Alex Roy
"There are fourteen major car companies in the world. No one believes they can all survive, and Morgan Stanley believes only five or six will. The big ones are hedged against any delay in the adoption of self-driving cars." Alex Roy

An example of the 'moral imperative' being used to destroy walkable urbanism (and much more) is here. The slippery slope starts with 'modest changes' of course. "In summary, safe autonomous cars will require modest infrastructure changes, designs that make them easily recognized and predictable, and that pedestrians and human drivers understand how computer driven cars behave." All for benefits that are vapourware.
There are reports of dedicated infrastructure already. "In the new report, the group says this transformation will occur in three stages. First, AVs will be allowed to share HOV lanes. The study’s authors say that this phase could be implemented today and note that California law already allows self-driving cars to use carpool lanes. Step two would involve creating a lane dedicated to AVs. Step three: converting all I-5 lanes to be used exclusively by self-driving cars."
The vision of a people-free dedicated robocar environment is being set out  "For example, when all riders are focused inward and the driving is handled by a sensor network, indicators like road signs, brake lights, and lane separators become unnecessary. If there are no human drivers, we won’t have a need for these visual guides... With awareness of approaching vehicles and traffic, intersection traffic lights become less necessary. Night sensor driving reduces the need for streetlights on highways. Road signs and lanes disappear, with roadway intelligence built into vehicles. Highway lanes expand and contract automatically for high-traffic times. Autonomous-only highways allow for much higher rates of speed.."
Completely unfounded expectations of AV performance and safety being used to influence infrastructure. For example   "Currently the average safe driver leaves ‘one car length per 10 miles per hour’ between vehicles (at least they have been taught to do so) but the automated (and autonomous) systems can react much faster than humans and can therefore safely travel much closer together. As a larger and larger percentage of the vehicle fleet becomes capable of safe travel in less space, the real capacity of the roadway increases. As the demand for highway infrastructure is predicated on the safe traveling distance under human control and traffic and revenue predictions are based on these assumptions, highway capacity manual assumptions will be increasingly inadequate as autonomous features are introduced. " This article combines unfounded claims with moral blackmail "Every day that goes by without driverless cars, people die. The truth is that humans are bad drivers, and driverless cars are safer. To ensure that we reach mass adoption as soon as possible, we need to sort out these issues of trust," Since we don't have driverless cars yet (or even safety requirements for them) this claim is unfounded and is being used to sell big business and technology. Also, he hasn't got the Alex Roy message on 'trolley problem' nonsense, saying "In other words, manufacturers must choose whether to make morally utilitarian cars, or preferentially self-protective ones."

The pavements / sidewalks will not be free, either.

Do watch this video testimony about a delivery robot on a railway platform.
This Guardian article is good on delivery robots:“If there really were hundreds of little robots,” Ehrenfeucht said, “they would stop functioning as sidewalks and start functioning more as bike lanes. They would stop being spaces that are available for playing games or sitting down.” Ehrenfeucht pointed out that 130 years ago, streets were not yet divided into lanes for traffic, parked cars, pedestrians and bikes, and that the introduction of robots to the streetscape might require a reimagining of the available space, possibly with a designated lane for robots....Sidewalks are often a hotly disputed space, and conflicts are bound to arise as new uses are proposed. Many cities across the US have adopted sit/lie ordinances, which criminalize resting or sleeping on the sidewalk and are generally considered to be targeted specifically at homeless people. At the same time, urbanists have tried to promote new uses of sidewalk space with features like “parklets”. ..“We really see this as a privatization of the public right of way,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco, who wants to ban robots from the sidewalk. Ferrara argued that walking has social, health and economic benefits, while robots could pose a hazard to senior citizens and people with disabilities....“We’re not excited about the idea of engineering walking out of our lives,” she said. “People live in urban centers not because they want to sit at home in their house and have their toothbrush delivered to their door, but because they have a pharmacy around the corner that they can walk to.”
A welcome (and rare) sight was an article pointing out the risks of robocars...."there has been very little public discussion of whether selfdriving vehicles will coexist or collide with long-standing principles of accountability, transparency, and consumer protection that collectively constitute the Personal Responsibility System."
Further reading on the moves underway to rid the streets of people are here and here. A tinfoil hat may be required, but the arguments are highly plausible.


 Robocars are part of the tech utopia nobody wants, but there is money and momentum behind them. The solutionism is at work co-opting good causes to make robocars critical to their lives.
If we want walkable urbanism (and we should), we will have to make a stand.