A review of No One At The Wheel by Samuel Schwartz

Feb 22, 2019

No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars and the road of the Future

I picked this book up after listening to Schwartz talk on Fresh Air. Schwartz is a traffic engineer, who worked at the chief traffic engineer for NYC. I was interested in this book because it adds a healthy dose of skepticism to all the hype I've heard about self-driving cars. I expected him to say "The future will be perfect, self driving cars will solve all our problems" or "The future is terrible, self driving cars will run over all the babies". Instead, he was in an informed center. He acknowledges a lot of benefits AVs (autonomous vehicles) can bring, refutes some hollow claims from advocates, and points out several pitfalls to avoid.

The book is an easy read and goes by quickly. I mostly listened to it, amusingly enough, from a drive from Montana to California (where I wished I had a self driving car to make the drive easier).

Schwartz refutes some ideas about AVs that I thought were a given. First is that AVs, and AVs alone, will reduce traffic fatalities to nil. It's true that AVs can introduce technology that will reduce traffic fatalities, but it is also true that right now we have that technology that we can incorporate in non self driving vehicles. Technologies like front collision warning (reduces accidents by 7%), automatic front collision braking (reduces accidents by 15%), and lane detection are available today. These technologies are shown to make driving safer, but they are only available on high end luxury vehicles. We have the power today to make the roads vastly safer overnight by passing legislation to make these safety features standard.

The book warns of a dystopia future where everyone ones their own AV. In this world traffic is continually clogged and up to half of the cars in traffic are empty. People drive much more because it is that much easier. They sacrifice the exercise they would have gained in biking or walking by choosing the easier option of watching a movie while waiting in deadlock traffic. In this future, AVs are more like phones. A new model coming out every year or so, and people upgrading just as often. All the new production would have an obvious adverse effect on climate. Likewise the increase in traffic would be terrible for the environment.

The happy future Schwartz talks about is a future where AVs work with traffic engineers to complement existing transit infrastructure. There could be AV buses that could run much more frequently on more routes 24/7 that would extend existing public transit routes. Autonomous mini buses can be used to create a route on demand for the rush hour commuters to bring them to a bigger transit hub (e.g. a subway). Smaller AVs can then be used in the off hours to get people to their nearest transit hub, thus solving the last mile problem.

Schwartz sprinkles his book with parallels from the time cars where first introduced. Roads where first made for cyclist. Cyclist were lobbying for more roads around the time cars were being introduced. As cars became more ubiquitous and faster, bicyclist and pedestrians were kicked off the roads and criminalized. Roads took over and changed our cities into desolate avenues with drivers careening through city centers at 40mph. Schwartz argues, and I'm inclined to agree, we cannot let AVs push everyone else as second class citizens. We are at an inflection point where we can define legislation to prioritize pedestrians and city life.

I would recommend this book.