Here’s an axiom for our times: If it appears in a Super Bowl commercial it has entered the popular culture.
During last week’s Super Bowl 51, Ford aired a spot in which it touted itself as a mobility company providing not just cars, but other transportation products, including bike sharing and self-driving cars. A short clip near the end of the ad showed a stylish couple cruising down the highway in a car without a visible steering wheel.
In the fierce competition for Super ad attention the Ford spot didn’t get much, but for those of us closely watching the automated car phenomenon it was significant. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that a fully self-driving car was depicted in a car (sorry, mobility) commercial.
This image, which appeared on screen for all of a couple of seconds, is important for what wasn’t depicted. It did not show the driver engaged with piloting the vehicle in any way. And that’s important because there is an interesting debate just getting started about how far and how fast driverless technology should be introduced.
An interesting thinker on all this is Robin Chase, a founder of Zipcar and other startups. She presents utopian and dystopian visions of a driverless future and her message is that cities need to use their policy-making skills to create the positive outcome. She has summarized the big questions related to the technology in a video.
But probably her most challenging idea is that a transitional period in which elements of automation are dribbled out one by one is actually a dangerous scenario. Her argument is that slow, muddled human interventions will only make things more dangerous. Instead, she believes that manufacturers should skip the middle stages altogether and build totally self-driving vehicles. No steering wheels. The Ford commercial tends to depict that kind of future.
Now that automated vehicles have broken through to Super Bowl advertising it’s only a matter of time before they start appearing on our streets.
Local communities may want to try to get ahead of the curve here. Questions that need consideration include the impact on city revenues from parking lots and ramps and from parking and other kinds of traffic tickets, impacts on public transportation, interactions with people while walking or biking, changes in traffic control devices, and potential for redevelopment of parking lots and structures. And that’s just for starters.
Recently we got a taste of what happens when we don’t get ahead of the curve. The Bicycle Coalition of San Francisco was right to raise concerns about Uber’s self-driving car test in that city. Those vehicles had several close calls with cyclists and the technology in its present state seems to have a hard time recognizing when cyclists are present.
The self-driving vehicle is such a profoundly disruptive technology with so many implications that it deserves thoughtful consideration from a lot of different perspectives. Even more importantly, communities need to figure out where the decision points are so that the utopian promise of a driverless future is realized instead of the dystopian nightmare.
Cars can already drive themselves, but when it comes to how they might shape our communities we should not give up control of the steering wheel.
A version of this blog first appeared on Madison’s Isthmus website.