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No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future by Samuel I. Schwartz

Published in November of 2018.

What technology that is likely to mature in your lifetime are you most excited?

  • Lightweight and immersive virtual reality glasses? (Or contact lenses?)
  • Low-cost solar panels paired with batteries for home-based renewable energy?
  • Conference A/V systems that presenters can rely on to work?
  • A learning management system (LMS) that sucks a little bit less.

I’m excited about all these things, but more than any other technology I’m passionate about driverless cars. The transition from human operated to autonomous vehicles is the advance that I’d most like to come quickly.

Why? I’ll give you 40,100 reasons.  That is the number of people who died in the US last year of motor vehicle-related deaths. Think about that.

Just today, if today is an average day, over 100 Americans will be killed in or by a car or truck.  If 100 people were killed by terrorists each day, then nobody would ever leave their homes. If 100 people were killed in airplanes a day, then nobody would ever fly.

Those ~40,000 automobile related deaths are only in the US.  Do you have a guess of how many people throughout the world die each year as a result of trucks and cars?  Would you believe over 1.25 million?

Many of us are equally excited about our autonomous vehicle future.  It is our enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles, however, that makes Sam Schwartz’s new book No One at the Wheel so indispensable.

Schwartz is also a fan of self-driving cars. As the former NYC Traffic Commissioner, Schwartz has spent a lifetime trying to reduce traffic fatalities and improve transportation systems.

What Schwartz also brings to the table is enough experience to understand that autonomous vehicles alone will not create transportation nirvana.  The main point in this deeply knowledgeable and closely argued book is that we need to pair self-driving cars with sensible design choices, thoughtful regulations, and robust investments in public transportation.

With the emergence of self-driving cars, which Schwartz expects to become fully viable in the 2030s (with more limited usage in the next ten years), we have the opportunity to undo much of the damage that our car-centric policies created in the last century.

Our mistake has been to design mobility around automobiles. To assume that the best outcome is if everyone owns their own car and if every short and medium distance journey is undertaken by driving. This choice has led both the federal government and states to under-invest in trains, buses, bike paths, and sidewalks.

The coming wave of autonomous vehicle technologies should be managed as part of an overall mobility plan.  Self-driving cars on their own can solve some problems.  They will be safer than people-driven cars. But without investment and smart policy, self-driving vehicles could exacerbate social inequalities and result in less livable cities and towns.

It is always good to have your views challenged. I’ve been so focused on the technology of autonomous vehicles - of following every advance by Tesla and Waymo (Google’s self-driving spinoff), that I have not given much thought to where self-driving cars fit into our transportation system.

It is tempting to get carried away by the technology of autonomous vehicles. Particularly for those of us who think about educational technologies all day long.

Can you recommend any good books that take a systems approach to transportation?

Are you obsessed with electric and self-driving vehicles?

What technological advances do you dream about?

What are you reading?

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