Future Automobile Technology – When it comes to envisioning the future of driverless cars, there isn’t much of a consensus on what the final illustration should look like. In contrast, the arguments surrounding the issue have been established almost to the point of scripted predictability: proponents and critics have clashed for years on whether such cars can drive safely, the role that human “passengers” play in overseeing an AI “driver” and whether humans are even ready to share the road with autonomous vehicles.
But, I don’t want to rehash all that.
Instead, I want to pose a different question: in a world where AI navigation technology has been perfected and accepted, what role would autonomous cars play in our daily lives? Would our vehicle use be mostly unchanged, with the cars we have today being slowly cycled out and replaced one-for-one by AI-supported models? Or, will the change mark a turning point — one that irreversibly alters how we view and use cars in the day-to-day?
Vehicle-maker Volvo is working towards the latter. In the fall of 2018, the Swedish auto manufacturer presented their plan for the Volvo 360c, a luxury self-driving car that offers AI-moderated travel as an experience, rather than a chore. The vehicle has a bed, a table and plenty of space for storage. In function, it’s a multi-use room on wheels; it can be a bedroom, an office or a lounge space on wheels. In design, it looks like a sleek — if over-the-top in the way that hyper-luxury vehicles tend to be — hybrid of a Bladerunner hovercar and the First-Class cabin on an Emirates flight. Someone who owns the 360c could relax during long morning commutes, use the time on the highway to get an early start on a workday morning, or even go out for a no-effort drive and enjoy the ride.
But, here’s the most intriguing aspect of the 360c: it’s not meant to replace day-to-day driving, not quite. Instead, Volvo is positioning its autonomous car as an alternative to flying.
To quote the company in a press release:
“Imagine a world in which you travel long distances without the need for airports. A world in which you can avoid airport security, hours of queuing and waiting, and noisy, cramped airliners. What if, instead, you could take your own first-class private cabin that picks you up at home and takes you from door to door?”
The vision the company paints takes the hassle out of driving and makes commuting seem a dream — but, in truth, it’s the worst answer a self-driving car could offer to America’s travel needs.
One-for-One Replacement Is a Short-Term Fix and a Long-Term Problem
Today, one only has to step out onto a New York street or fly over LA’s tangled highways to see the problems: auto-clogged roads, low-lying vehicle-fume smog and barely-moving lines of single drivers sitting in multi-passenger cars. Volvo’s 360c’s solution to long car rides and inconvenient flights is to combat the traffic frustrations by facilitating more comfortable car rides. But, is the luxury band-aid they seem to offer a solution or a fix that may only increase traffic congestion in the long run?
You can probably guess the answer. If we replace human-driven cars with AI-powered ones — or, as Volvo suggests, leave our planes and trains for autonomous vehicles — our current problems with transportation will only remain or worsen. The issue with the 360c isn’t that its design seems pulled directly from a sci-fi set designer’s notes for a villain’s expensive car — it’s that it presents autonomous cars as a way that allows drivers to embrace a transport philosophy that made us driving-dependent and traffic-beleaguered in the first place. It positions driving as preferential and cars as tools that every person should own and use individually.
Driving Dependence: A Historical Perspective and Implications for Autonomous Driving
Let’s put this issue into context.
Consider Los Angeles, one of the most driving-dependent cities in the country, as an example. In the early to mid-20th century, frustration with public transit, outward-expanding city limits and the financial power of a rising middle class combined, thereby compelling many Angelinos to buy their own vehicles. Nearby oil fields gave easy access to cheap gas, and infrastructure efforts that centered on facilitating car travel rather than public transport encouraged driving dependence.
To summarize: Residents could afford cars, so they bought them. Then, the city expanded to suit them, adding more lanes and more roads as needed. This, in turn, made vehicular usage necessary, compelling even more people to buy their own cars so that they could travel freely. Of course, the plethora of cars and subpar public transit options led to the issues we now face today: clogged roadways, long wait times and travel frustrations.
It’s a self-fulfilling cycle, and, while the free time and relaxation that Volvo’s vision for self-driving cars offers may make the problems posed by driving dependence more palatable, it won’t solve the underlying issue. In fact, if those who might have otherwise flown or taken the train choose to use an autonomous vehicle and add even more cars to the roadway instead, it may make the situation worse — much worse.
AI-Driven Cars can Break Driving Dependence, but we Need a Different Mindset
The one-car, one-person mindset that Americans have today isn’t productive, and merely shifting driving responsibility onto an AI won’t make it any more so. A truly effective self-driving car scenario will be one that allows for fewer cars and less traffic; it will orient autonomous cars as a means of public transportation, rather than lounges on wheels.
In an article for National Geographic, architect Peter Calthorpe outlines such a vision with writer Robert Kunzig:
“Down the center of El Camino, on dedicated, tree-lined lanes, [would be] autonomous shuttle vans. They’d arrive every few minutes, pass each other at will and rarely stop, because an app would group passengers by destination. On their protected lanes […] the little robots wouldn’t run over people—and the technology wouldn’t run over our world with its unintended consequences.”
Autonomous cars offer the potential for safety, convenience and sustainability but only if we engineer a mindset and urban design plan that allows them to do so. Cities like LA, which are already so dependent on cars, might struggle to adapt at first, but change is possible provided people stop seeing cars as one-person possessions and start viewing them as community infrastructure.
Volvo’s vision for the 360c makes for a nice render and a cool idea, but it’s the antithesis of what we need from self-driving cars. We don’t have to own luxury apartments on wheels to amuse us as we wait on traffic-clogged roads; we need the clear streets that autonomous shuttles and data-driven urban design empowers. We don’t need a car that appeals to the individual, but one that serves and supports communities of the future.