Self-Driving Cars Will Be a Disaster for Our Environment, Our Health, and Our Privacy

A transportation revolution doesn’t have to include autonomous vehicles

Credit: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

IfIf you’ve listened to the musings of some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent visionaries, you might believe we’re headed toward a future with ubiquitous autonomous vehicles to shuttle us wherever we want to go.

No longer would we have to risk getting stuck in traffic, caught in the rain on our bikes, or running into serial killers on the subway — we’d all be closed off in our own pods that guide us to our destination as we sleep, watch a video, or get up to something steamy in the back.

I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but that future has always been an illusion. If self-driving cars ever become a reality — and that’s a big “if” — they won’t be the magic transport cure-all that tech billionaires pretend they’ll be. Sure, they would likely provide benefits for Silicon Valley CEOs, but a lot of people would be made worse off — and we would hardly ever hear about it.

The real transportation revolution doesn’t involve two-ton death machines or hyperintelligent computers, but more common technologies like buses, bicycles, and our own legs. You won’t hear that from Elon Musk or Sergey Brin because rebuilding cities to focus on people won’t necessarily generate big, ongoing profits for their firms. But that’s exactly what we need to do.

False promises

Back in January 2018, when self-driving cars were still a topic of great excitement, I wrote that they were much further away than tech companies were leading us to believe.

Then, on the night of March 18, 2018, an Uber self-driving vehicle was doing a test run when it struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she crossed the road on her bicycle. At the time, people were quick to blame the safety driver who wasn’t looking at the road, but then leaks began to show Uber’s self-driving team was under immense pressure to deliver. It wasn’t until recently that we found out that Uber’s self-driving team didn’t program the system to consider that people might cross the street outside designated crosswalks. As a result, the car couldn’t figure out what it was picking up when it detected Herzberg, and thus didn’t know how to react. Humans weren’t supposed to be there.

No one has been charged over Herzberg’s death, just as tech companies are rarely prosecuted for the harm caused by their actions. But Herzberg’s death did burst the self-driving bubble: Leaders in the field went from saying self-driving cars would be everywhere in a matter of years to admitting they were actually several decades away, and may never reach the vaunted “level five” status where they’d be able to drive with no intervention from humans.

People without mobility options today will still face those problems in a self-driving future.

High cost of automobility

The timelines have been extended, but that hasn’t stopped people like Elon Musk from keeping the self-driving dream alive — even as he hedges on what “full self-driving” really means — and continuing to ignore the broader consequences of a transportation system reliant on automobiles: tens of thousands of deaths every year in the United States alone, an obesity epidemic that our sprawled communities played a role in creating, and a loneliness crisis created, in part, because so many people live in car-enabled suburbs, where we’re far from our friends, our family, and the vibrant places where we might go to meet them.

Tech companies promised that the self-driving car would solve many of our transport problems: serving the underserved, eliminating parking, reducing congestion, and eliminating car ownership. But we need to be real; it’s all a fantasy. The claim that self-driving cars will be cheaper to use has proven to be questionable, and even if they did reduce the cost marginally, they still wouldn’t be free. That means the people without mobility options today will still face those problems in a self-driving future. And the benefits of reduced parking would actually increase congestion, as the vehicles would keep moving until being hailed. Autonomous vehicles will only cement our sprawled, suburban landscapes and the health crisis that comes with it, along with the high cost of service delivery to low-density areas and the climate cost of living in such inefficient environments.

And what goes into these vehicles to make them work? We never seem to consider that. If autonomous vehicles are electric, as the tech titans promise, they won’t have the tailpipe emissions produced by the internal combustion engines, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be clean, green driving machines. In fact, the electric vehicle revolution will simply swap an extractivism of fossil fuels for one reliant on metals and minerals, requiring a massive surge in mining activities in Asia, Africa, and South America that will devastate communities, environments, and the lives of workers in the process. For example, the massive lithium reserves in Bolivia shouldn’t be ignored as a factor in the recent military coup.

But self-driving cars wouldn’t just require the extraction of minerals and metals from the earth. A self-driving future would also require the extraction of data from us and our surroundings. These companies wouldn’t just have us pay for a ride; they would also track our movements, the locations we visit, who we travel with, and combine that information with all the other valuable data they already store about us. Tech companies, in partnership with the state, are building an extensive system of surveillance and control. At what point do we say “enough?”

People, not cars

Think hard about the state of our cities and our broken transportation networks, and ask how technology will suddenly solve the problems created by decades of underfunding and the prioritization of cars. Tech isn’t going to save us. That will require structural change.

We’re facing a climate crisis, an urban crisis, a health crisis, a loneliness crisis, and so many more. The Band-Aid solutions of self-driving cars — if they ever appear — won’t solve them. And either way, we don’t have decades to wait. We need action today.

That means we need to stop designing cities and transportation systems around what’s most profitable for real estate, finance, and car companies. Instead we need to put people first. Many Americans claim to love their cars, but spending hours idling in traffic and yet more trapped in a metal box breathing in toxic fumes to get where you need to go serves no one.

We need cities that make it easy for people to walk or bike to get their groceries, go to the doctor, and bring their kids to school. We need transit systems that make it easy for people to get where they need to go on efficient, well-maintained bus routes. We need streets that don’t pose a mortal threat to the life that surrounds them, but are open to everyone and lined with spaces where life can flourish.

This will require us to rethink how cities work and who they work for, and a massive redirection of funding and subsidies from highways to subways, cars to buses, parking spots to bike lanes, sprawl to density — all while putting the lives of everyday people ahead of traffic speed. It can be hard to imagine an alternative to our current, auto-dominated system, but it’s the only way to address the crises we face.

Self-driving cars will keep us atomized in sprawled suburbs, but walkable dense communities with ubiquitous transit will connect us in ways we can scarcely imagine. The future isn’t found in the false promises of tech billionaires who are only concerned with their power and fortunes, but in reconnecting with the fundamentals of mobility and ensuring the system prioritizes the marginalized over the powerful.

Critic of tech futures and host of Tech Won’t Save Us:

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