So now is the time to ask, even if it feels a bit late: How, exactly do we feel about unleashing this tech on public streets, inflicting it on people without their consent or even knowledge? What responsibilities does a government have to protect me and you and everyone we know as we live inside this science experiment? Sure, autonomous vehicles need to test and collect data from the real world, where they’ll encounter the strange and very human things lab simulators couldn’t imagine. But how did I get roped into this?
A sleek minibus cruises the streets of National Harbor, Maryland, stopping for walkways and making clean turns. The black-and-white vehicle rolls up to street curbs where riders who have summoned it with an app stand waiting, all the while avoiding obstacles and pedestrians. A set of sliding doors open to reveal wrap-around benches where 12 passengers can ride. But there is no driver’s seat, no steering wheel. And most importantly, no driver.
Navigation app Waze just rolled out a new feature in Washington State: Waze Carpool, which matches single-occupancy-vehicle commuters with people who need a ride to work. This basic concept might sound familiar. But unlike a ride-hailing app like Lyft or Uber—drivers earn money for rides, riders pay—it’s more like actual ride-sharing, encouraging people to carpool instead of driving a single-occupancy vehicle. Drivers pick people up along their daily commutes instead of as part of their job descriptions.
Using an Uber-style app, customers would locate the nearest vehicle, get a designated code to open the door and use the key inside the glove compartment to drive anywhere they want to go. When they’re done, there would be no need to return the vehicle to a designated garage or drop-off point. All the customer would need to do is park the car in any legal space on the street. Customers could choose to pay by the minute, by the hour or by the day. Gas and insurance would be part of the overall cost.
Urban curbsides have traditionally been allocated based on real estate: parking meters in front of shops, loading zones near supermarkets, no-parking areas at warehouses, unmetered parking in residential areas, and so on. But with the explosion of new mobility options like ride-hailing, car-sharing, and bike-sharing, and the looming specter of self-driving vehicles on the horizon, cities are starting to rethink how they allocate curb space. They are beginning to realize that if they don’t get ahead of the technology, it could lead to chaos on the curb.
Autonomous vehicles could be a blessing for society if they are electric and shared, a disaster if gasoline-powered and individually owned. In the blessing scenario, carbon emissions plummet, traffic lightens, accidents and fatalities disappear, and vast expanses of roadway and parking space open to reuse. In the disaster scenario, emissions increase, gridlock strangles cities, people become more obese and diseased as their robot cars do everything for them.
Lyft is testing monthly subscription plans for high-frequency users, a sign that the company is shifting toward a Netflix or Spotify model for transportation. The terms of the subscription models seem to vary, but appear targeted at users who spend up to $450 on ride-hailing a month.
Automaker General Motors is said to be planning a new peer-to-peer car rental service, similar to existing offerings by Daimler -backed Turo and startup Getaround, to debut as early as this summer according to Bloomberg. The service will debut in a test pilot set to begin this summer, under GM’s Maven mobility sub-brand, per the report, and will allow GM car owners to list their vehicles on the platform for short-term rental by other users when not in use.
It’s funny how quickly innovative technology becomes commonplace. One minute you’re anxiously awaiting your chance to become one of the first humans on Earth to ride inside a driverless car. The next minute, you’re yawning (literally) and falling asleep. Waymo — formerly Google’s self-driving car project — has released a video documenting exactly that. The video shows early riders in the company’s pilot program in Phoenix as they adapt to their first self-driving car experience, moving from anxious excitement to giddiness to anti-climactic sleepiness in the space of a single ride.
In the wait for self-driving technology, cell-phone toting tech bros may have to cede their spot in line to pizzas, Craigslist couches and the mounting ephemera of e-commerce. The future—at least in the near-term—will not only be driverless, but sans passenger as well.