Autonomous Cars-Rewritten



Getting Autonomous Cars  to market may require some non-conventional reviewers. Today’s car reviews and videos are peppered with a Motown/macho sensibility.  Flashy stories and pictures shout performance and peak power… and drill down on automotive features that can be measured like torque, acceleration, or braking time.

Car reviews are fun to read, but they support the normative. When a new technology is being introduced that challenges the mainstream, the established regime will set up roadblocks. Think of the headlines you read today about the autonomous car, “Who will be liable in the case of the inevitable accident?… Should the car be programmed to save its ‘driver’, or an assembly of pedestrians?… Can the autonomous car pull a boat out of the water and tow it?”

There are many questions about the autonomous car…they all should all rise to the top, but so should the interests of people who want and need to use these vehicles. Here is the disconnect: The people who are likely to be the first users, and those who will immediately benefit are not the same demographic as the writers, or the readers, of car reviews.


The autonomous car will be favored by people with visibility issues; that was a remark made by Google’s Chris Urmson at a recent Volpe labs talk.  Seniors are likely to be in this group of supporters, since 21 percent over age 65 do not drive. Unfortunately, the visually impaired and those over 65 do not play a large role in the car industry and its reviews. There are an estimated 7,237,000 Americans that have a visual disability; About half are seniors over age 65.  (National Institute for the Blind, 2013).

A second group that will benefit from autonomous cars are the people stuck in traffic- Most likely they are commuters, spending an average of 50 minutes per work-day in their car. They have limited flexibility to travel at off-peak hours when the roads are clearer.  Although many of these commuters are the fans of automotive reviews, they are aware of other issues. They might be worried about the gas fumes, their health, and spending so much time in the car. And, if they could predict traffic and get home in time to see their kid’s softball game, that might be a game-changer.

Today, 76 percent of commuter’s drive-alone, about 106.7 million solo-vehicles. The numbers who are frustrated with their car commute is less…but,  say a guesstimate of one-third, there is still significant support for autonomous vehicles.


A third group of potential users are urban residents. Urban residents are seldom found strapholding and reading a car magazine. Most likely, they do not own a car, and if they do- wish they did not. It would simplify their daily routines and bring relief if there was an alternative way to get around without recalculating stops, distance, and time of day. The US Census (2010) cites 132 areas, plus the Manhattan boroughs, that have a population density of more than 10,000 people per square mile. These cities range from Honolulu on the West to Sweetwater/Miami in the East.

There are many other collectives that are needy and will clamor to use autonomous cars- think adults who have received a DUI and cannot get to work easily; people who have been dropped by insurance companies or cannot afford to keep their automobile insurance; teens without licenses…..Each collective represents a substantial number of fans for the autonomous car.


In fairness, we note that many car reviewers do seem to “get” the autonomous car and they marvel at the engineering feats. But they write that the rollout will take a decade or longer, and then some. More problematically, some of these writers often frame it as a collision of values: the self-driving car is in conflict with American independence, free choice, our national freedom to roam. They see this conflict, despite the fact that we all take trips on driverless trains in airports (Atlanta), have a few driverless buses on the road (Gizmodo), and sanction drone planes (without passengers).

There are large, user-ready, self-made markets for the autonomous vehicle. They just happen to be quieter ones- and they don’t write or read car reviews.

(Editorial note: Not to single out the over-worked, underpaid  auto reviewers and video makers – a forthcoming blog will consider the role of advertising. Automotive spending exceeds $35.5 billion for just TV and digital media).


Synergy to Walk: Try Uber and Lyft

“Lyft red wagon pink mustache” Jeff Koterba April 29, 2014

Walk is a four letter word, as are Uber and Lyft….they all have synergy…helping people complete their journeys.

Although Uber and Lyft arrive in the same package as your household vehicle, on four wheels that is, they function differently in the transportation mix. They provide pedestrians with a back-up plan and a safety net, since phone apps show these carriers in geographical reach, circling about. Pedestrians no longer have to travel off-the-grid. This is as much a cultural change as a transportation one.  

But, walking trips are hard to measure- they often slip under or through the mode  count. That is because trips taken on foot are too short, or too hard to remember, or just too hard to enumerate. No matter- whether counted or not, walking trips are the critical ones. They keep people healthy and mobile, without needing to enroll in a gym membership. Walking trips are literally the foundation for a connected, citizen-responsive community. They are, literally, the “feet on the ground.” And walking is also the most inexpensive form of travel- it requires no cost, except a comfortable pair of shoes.

Part One:

Of Packages and Doctors

Sometimes walking is a one-way option…but the round-trip is not. The most likely scenario here is that the destination, say a food-store, is a reasonable distance away. But, on the return trip walking is not feasible. On the return, the pedestrian may have acquired a bag of groceries. Or, it might start to rain.  So, they need a backup plan.

Alternatively, if the trip involved a visit to a medical office or doctor, the pedestrian might be light-headed and needs to return home quickly. The point is that lots of one-way trips on foot make sense, but we often travel by car instead in both directions because we are not sure about the feasibility of the return trip.

Again, taxis make sense for the return- but since taxis tend to cluster around airports,  concert venues, and big office buildings- it requires some planning and wait time for them to show up. In low density areas, the waiting time can be considerable. But, in addition to time, there is simply the inconvenience and cost. No one who walks to Trader Joes and gets two or three bags of groceries wants to pay a cab fare that matches their grocery bill.  

There is tangible data, at least for Los Angeles, that Uber and Lyft drivers accommodate short, local trips, with more agility and cheaper fares than conventional taxi companies. These TNC (transportation network company) drivers are on-the-road part-time and seem to fill in the transportation gaps left by the bigger medallion firms.


Part Two:

Safety after Dark, Comfort in New Places

There is another reason that Uber and Lyft encourage people to take more walking trips, but it is less obvious than the heavy bag of groceries. It has to do with safety and security; somewhat like the fear people experience at bus shelters, due to the uncertainty of the wait time or worry about crime.

For people who do not regularly take a stroll, getting outside their immediate boundaries  can be “scary”- in the sense that it is unknown. They are not really sure what the sidewalk conditions are, perhaps a mile or two up the street, and whether they will feel “safe” in   new neighborhoods they encounter on foot….particularly if it is getting late, and there are not many other people around. In the past, summoning a taxi to such places could be somewhat of an ordeal. The taxi might be out-of-range, and then slow to show up. Taxis  don’t frequently circle places people walk…like hiking trails, bike/ped walkways, and scenic overlooks.

With a TNC, like Uber or Lyft, there are likely to be more accessible vehicles in the neighborhood, and the walker- straying afar- is more likely to be picked up. More mundanely, the college student who walks into campus in the morning but stays all day and into the evening to study at the library, now has a safe way to journey home after dark.  When taxis were the only option, people felt compelled to drive, even if they only need one-half the ride. With a TNC, they can be more secure that there is a ride back home.

Sum Up:

Until now, there has been a lot of dialogue by planners about Lyft and Uber taking transit share, competing with transit providers, and perhaps putting them out of business. The bigger picture is that Lyft and Uber are complements of many different transportation modes, and that includes pedestrian trips. It is simplistic to expect that people substitute one transportation mode for another. In real life, real people recombine, and remix…and that entirely reinvents transportation. The TNCs, Lyft and Uber, may bring ignite entirely new ideas “underfoot.”