When You Wish Upon a Driverless Car

Ah, the driverless car, that jewel in the crown of wishes that technology will save us from ecological collapse. The driverless car promises the convenience of car ownership, that is, door-to-door service at the click of an app, without any of the associated nuisance. The rider in an autonomous vehicle is freed from so many of the downsides of car use: finding parking, refueling, insuring, cleaning or even learning to drive. The advent of Autonomous Vehicles promises to put us all in a state of perpetual toddlerhood, sitting in the back seat playing Candy Crush, while imaginary Mom and Dad sit up front doing the navigating.

"I used to think there was no better way of insulating oneself from neighbourhood life than to travel around in a car. Yet somehow with the AV we have gone even further in our potential to block out the presence of other humans."

Among that fraction of the population that worries about the overabundance of automobiles in our cities, many are placing their faith in driverless cars. The more overt aspirations for AVs are that they will reduce both overall car ownership and overall space devoted to parking, as AVs would be perpetually in service on the roads, and not sitting in driveways and parkades. Other aspirations for AVs are vaguer but grander - maybe they can be dispatched to pick up our grocery order, fetch Grandma for Sunday dinner, drive Junior to soccer practice and watch him play, or attend Book Club for us when we haven’t read the book.

"The advent of Autonomous Vehicles promises to put us all in a state of perpetual toddlerhood, sitting in the back seat playing Candy Crush, while imaginary Mom and Dad sit up front doing the navigating."

Among the detractors of the driverless car dream, are those who wonder about liability in the event of a collision, and whether we should pour our remaining mineral and fossil fuel wealth into paving and manufacturing for a new Golden Age of Motoring. I’d like to propose a third concern to ponder as we ask where to put our civic resources in an age of shrinking budgets.

"The prospect of engaging in that great ballet of neighbourhood life, already so greatly diminished by motor vehicles, has now been crushed altogether by the promise of the AV."

I used to think there was no better way of insulating oneself from neighbourhood life than to travel around in a car. Yet somehow with the AV we have gone even further in our potential to block out the presence of other humans. We’re now proposing to use motor vehicles without even the need to look up to see if anyone else is using the road. The prospect of engaging in that great ballet of neighbourhood life, already so greatly diminished by motor vehicles, has now been crushed altogether by the promise of the AV. No need to share the vehicle with other bus or train passengers, nor any need to look up to see whose neighbourhood peace and quiet you are compromising from your perch inside the vehicle. The AV is an invitation to the highest level of disengagement from our community. I suggest we decline it.


JANET MARK WALLACE is a returning blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa.

Read Janet's first post: "Vision for a Walkable Alta Vista"