Stories

Self-driving cars' forgotten humanity

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Global automakers are pouring billions of dollars into autonomous vehicles and governments are scrambling to figure out how to manage them. Often overlooked, it seems, are the people who will use them.

Why it matters: People, not robots, will ultimately determine whether AVs succeed. Aside from learning to trust the technology, people have to decide whether self-driving cars are useful, accessible and affordable.

Driving the news: At an event I moderated yesterday at Ford's City of Tomorrow Symposium in L.A., all 3 panelists said not enough attention is being paid to how self-driving cars could change our lives and communities.

What they're saying: The panelists pointed out more discussions are needed on: AVs' impact on building owners, how people will connect to public transit systems, and the unique challenges of improving mobility for people with disabilities.

"Important conversations are happening among government and industry on what these changes mean for the future, but residents have largely been left from the table. Without their input, we risk designing cities for new kinds of cars, rather than for people."
— Lilian Coral, director for national strategy and technology innovation, Knight Foundation
"People with different types of disabilities have different needs. ... Pickup and drop-off spots are different for a person who is blind vs. someone who uses a wheelchair."
— Rebecca Grier, human factors specialist, Ford
"It's a scary proposition if you’re buying a building that has $5 million a year in parking income that's going to go away because the city all of a sudden says, 'We're not going to allow cars downtown anymore.'"
— Christopher Rising, prominent real estate developer in LA

What they're saying:

“Important conversations are happening among government and industry on what these changes mean for the future, but residents have largely been left from the table. Without their input, we risk designing cities for new kinds of cars, rather than for people.”
— Lilian Coral, Knight Foundation director for national strategy and technology innovation.

My thought bubble: AV tech is proving to be more difficult to develop than many predicted, but a lot of smart engineers are working on it, and I'm confident they'll figure it out.

  • To me, the bigger challenge is how self-driving cars will ripple through society, touching everything from jobs to urban planning and public transit.

ICYMI: Last fall, the Knight Foundation pledged $5.25 million to fund pilot projects in 5 cities — Detroit, Long Beach, Miami, San Jose and Pittsburgh — that are designed to engage local residents about how self-driving cars should be deployed in their communities.

The bottom line: Bill Ford, the automaker's executive chairman, said at a separate panel yesterday...

"We have to continuously ask ourselves, 'Are we making people’s lives better?' It sounds simplistic, but it's easy to get sidetracked. You may fall in love with a particular technology ... but if it's not making people's lives easier, you need to think about something else."

Go deeper: How human bias seeps into autonomous vehicles' AI