No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future

Image of No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future
Release Date: 
November 12, 2018
Reviewed by: 

It seems as if you can hardly go a day without reading about self-driving vehicles. Indeed, the technology to enable vehicles to travel safely without someone at the wheel, while not here yet, is improving rapidly and is likely to become a reality in the next several decades.

Picking up Sam Schwartz’ No One at the Wheel one expects to learn how autonomous vehicles (AVs) actually work, what companies were developing them, and when we are likely to see them. Unfortunately, this is not the case, because No One at the Wheel is not so much a book about AVs but a critique of them, particularly how they will purportedly degrade urban living—at least the kind of urban living Schwartz values. 

Schwartz, a long-time and noted transportation planner from New York City, decries AVs for the sin of making it cheaper and easier to drive, rather than take public transit, a complaint leveled by transit supporters since the development of the internal combustion engine.

To start with, Schwartz can’t seem to make up his mind about the impacts of AV, regularly contradicting himself. Early on we are told that he fears “that an AV-dominated society [will] direct transportation toward those with means. The lowest income individuals will be shackled to low-performing, infrequent, unreliable, and overly odious transit options.” But he later writes that “when AV technology becomes ubiquitous and cheap, you can bet that people who never dreamed of affording a human-driven car will want an AV.” Which is it: only for “those with means” or “cheap”?  

He writes that with AVs there may be an even more rapid period of infrastructure deterioration. But a few pages later he writes that with AVs there will be less wear and tear on roads. Which is it? He writes that “I am not convinced that AVs will have as much success in reducing these fatalities” (pedestrians). Two pages later writes that “Pedestrians and cyclists could be safer alongside” AVs. Now the reader is really confused.

Schwartz also seems to have limited understanding of the actual technology. The dramatic price declines he predicts have nothing to do with AVs, but rather with a hoped for vehicle industry increased productivity, whether the car is an AV or not. In fact, adding AV capability to vehicle will add, not subtract, cost because all the costly needed software, sensors, lidar, and other systems.

The main focus of the book is how AVs will change travel and living patterns. This is an important question, but one that should be approached with at least some respect for the fact that tens of millions of Americans seem to prefer to live in the suburbs and drive cars. Schwartz worries that with very cheap AVs even more people will drive and live even farther from crowded downtowns. After all, if you can check your email or watch a movie while your vehicle drives you to work, you might not mind living in the exurbs and commuting an extra hour a day or giving up transit for your self-driving car.

For Schwartz this would be a disaster. He writes “any negative aspects of mass transit can be minimized, and in some cases avoided, if we act in the right ways.” For Schwartz and other urban advocates, any technology making it easier to drive and enjoy suburban living should be opposed. For them, making it harder and more expensive to drive should be the goal, for only then will people supposedly live the way they “should”: in congested urban cores like New York City, mostly taking mass transit or walking to neighborhood bodegas.

But AVs will supposedly make that harder. AVs “will be designed to be used anywhere and everywhere, eliminating the need to walk more than a few feet.” Really? Will someone call up by AV Uber to drive 20 feet? 

He even bemoans AVs because since they will make cars so safe they won’t need airbags, and that workers producing airbags will lose their jobs. One assumes that if Schwartz were writing about Henry Ford’s internal combustion engine in the 1910s he would have worried about workers growing hay and those shoeing horses.

Surprisingly Swartz gives almost no attention to the vast safety benefits of AVs. Equating the pain a few thousand workers making airbags might have as they transition to other work, with the likely decline in the current rate of 40,000 auto deaths and 4.6 million injuries every year from traffic accidents seems odd, to say the least. His chapter on this issue is dubiously titled “Saving Lives: Are AVs Good for Our Health and Safety?” While he admits that AVs will save lives from accidents, he, with no evidence, makes the bizarre claim that they may kill more people because “AV-related inactivity, by making people less healthy, could wipe out these gains.”

He goes on to warn that hotel workers will be put out of work because for some unexplained reason AVs will become so big they will be like recreational vehicles, and we will sleep in our vehicles at night. AVs will also “overturn the job market for the one in seven Americans who work in the trucking industry.” 

In fact, only around 1 in 110 Americans work as truck drivers and only about half of them drive long-haul trucks, the kind of jobs that AVs could eliminate. AVs are unlikely to eliminate short haul truck driving jobs because much of the job involves helping to load and unload trucks, something the truck won’t do by itself.

It’s too bad that Schwartz used this book largely for an ideologically based jihad against auto innovation, because it dismisses the important questions society needs to face as AVs emerge. Questions such as how to assign liability; how to ensure AV cybersecurity; how to regulate AV safety and others are ones society needs to get right, and likely will, if through no other process than trial and error.  But No One at the Wheel is not the book that serves as the guide to this promising and challenging future.