Self-driving vehicles move closer toward reality every day, but most of us will likely live through a few more presidential elections before driverless travel is routinely within reach through personal purchase (although availability through ride-hailing providers like Uber and Lyft could be here sooner). Even so, you’re more likely to encounter such vehicles in your daily travel, because many states and cities are now serving as testing grounds for these rapidly advancing technologies, and the list of locations is growing steadily.
Legislators in 29 states have passed laws related to autonomous vehicles (AV), and governors in 11 more states have issued AV-related executive orders.
But regardless of where they’re happening, there are two things to remember about these experiments: They are inescapably disruptive, and they are entirely necessary.
Slightly more than half of U.S. adults are apprehensive about riding in a self-driving vehicle, citing safety concerns and a general lack of trust in the technology, according to a Pew survey in 2017.
Naturally, everyday commuters might be at least mildly bewildered by happening upon a car or mini-bus that steers itself. But the absence of a steering wheel isn’t the only idiosyncrasy. Driverless shuttles shaped like breadboxes, big enough for only a few riders, are emerging as an entirely new form of public transit. Along with apps for ride-hailing and e-scooters, technology is reshaping how we move about.
This isn’t the first time technology has disrupted our daily mobility in the name of progress. That distinction was earned by the now-ubiquitous traffic light more than a century ago.
The first electric traffic signal was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914. That was the year after Model Ts started rolling off the assembly line. But horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, bicycles and pedestrians were also on the streets in great numbers then, all jockeying for space and primacy.
For a society accustomed to the routine free-for-all at street crossings, traffic signals may have seemed to be an affront to a traveler’s sense of independence. Their purpose was to enhance safety, which they did. Even so, adapting to the alien presence and prescriptive nature of the traffic lights was an incessant bother to many drivers. After all, what could be more intrusive than some invisible master trying to control one of your most fundamental human tendencies — whether you would move or sit still?
Today’s traffic lights are a central component of our daily travel. To reach their indispensable status, though, they had to evolve; they had to go through testing. Starting with no illumination at all, then using red and green colored lights, adding yellow, and incorporating automatic timers; these were all features that shaped signal development over many years. A certain amount of trial-and-error experience was involved, ultimately leading to more refined iterations of traffic control devices, and ultimately, to reduced rates of crash deaths and injuries.
The same is true today for self-driving vehicles. Autonomous travel holds the transformative potential to make our mobility far more safe and efficient. Real-world testing is essential to realizing that promise, which is why we’re seeing it in an increasing number of places. AV testing is active in nearly a dozen U.S. cities today. It wouldn’t be surprising to see another 30 or more in the coming year. We’d best get accustomed to it.
Testing in an actual travel environment allows us to take a great idea and make it better, refining the technology and making it perform more precisely. You can only go so far in that regard if you’re limited to working in a simulated environment.
Adequate testing can also help to ensure safety, and help a skeptical public better understand how driverless technology may benefit them on a personal level (whether they use it or not). This is about more than just advancing technology — it’s about increased safety and mobility for all age groups.
As we work toward that goal, we’ll need to get used to coexisting with more driverless test vehicles in more American cities. Still, we can rest assured that the testing will become progressively less disruptive to us as the technology advances.
A century ago, it was drivers and pedestrians who needed to learn how to respond to and comply with the machines. Today, it’s the machines that bear the burden of learning — yes, even driverless vehicles need driver education. But here’s the really great thing about machine learning: Once they learn, the machines (unlike human drivers) never forget.
Gregory Winfree, J.D., is the agency director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of transportation.
This article was originally published in the The Hill, May 14, 2019.