Self-driving cars, or more broadly, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are really cool. I’m excited to see them become a reality. Nevertheless, there is a lot of hype around this topic. It seems like most of what I read about the subject comes from someone connected to the tech industry or the auto industry (or both), and that always makes me suspicious. No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future is a tonic to that. This eARC was provided by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for a review, and here it is: Samuel I. Schwartz seems like a smart dude who gets it.
The main draw of this book, for me, is hands down simply this: it is written by a transportation engineer, not an autonomous vehicle evangelist. Schwartz knows what he’s talking about, but he knows it from the perspective of pavement and traffic flow, not AI algorithms or engine efficiency tweaks. He is enthusiastic about the benefits of AVs, and he discusses those at length—but he also has a lot of questions and apprehension, which he lays out in a systematic and thoughtful way as well. In short, No One at the Wheel is a nuanced look at what the future of traffic might be like in a society that uses AVs.
Schwartz opens with a history lesson. I was fascinated by this, and this is why I love reading non-fiction. We are so used to “the way things are” that it’s easy to forget that there was always a transitional period. There was a time when automobiles were new, and people needed radio jingles to be educated not to jaywalk and get hit by a car … wow. More importantly, Schwartz points out how many early traffic laws (and regulations concerning pedestrians) ended up shaped by the automotive industry lobby. Also, he notes that interest in self-driving vehicles started almost as soon as we had automotive vehicles in general.
After the history lesson, Schwartz examines why AVs might be desirable. He notes the mobility and accessibility benefits. As a transportation engineer, though, his main question concerns whether AVs will improve traffic flow, reduce congestion, and generally be better for roads. The evangelists want the answer to be a resounding yes, but Schwartz demonstrates that this is actually a difficult question to answer. For example, AVs should be better drivers, so they can drive in more tightly confined lanes (narrower roads are a win), more closely together—thereby reducing congestion, right? Except that maybe more people will use AVs, which could increase congestion and road deterioration. Or maybe AVs will be so busy stopping and starting for pedestrians who, knowing the AV has to stop for them, step into the middle of the road that the AVs will actually be slower than a human-driven vehicle. So many possibilities to consider.
Schwartz also gets into the ethical ramifications of AVs and collisions, etc. He covers the Trolley Problem. Whatever. That stuff isn’t as interesting to me now—it’s interesting in general, but it’s not what I’m for; I’ve read it before.
The book really picks up whenever Schwartz considers how AVs affect city planning. Drawing again on history, he examines how we went from cities with no cars to cities built around cars and where we might go in the future. I loved his commentary on the differences between cities with “walkable” downtowns and cities without. For example, he points out that while people with cars tend to spend more per visit, pedestrians and cyclists tend to go to more stores because parking is less of an issue. This totally resonates with me: although I have a vehicle, I like to walk to the downtown as much as possible, because I hate finding parking. I’d rather walk down there and walk to each store, even if it takes a little more effort. Except now, it’s winter, so … yeah, no.
Many books in this vein are also relentlessly focused on the United States to the point of tunnel vision. This shouldn’t be notable, but it is: No One at the Wheel takes a more global perspective. Schwartz discusses American traffic, but he also talks about European, Australian, Indian, etc. traffic. He’s very careful to point out that AVs are not going to be adopted at the same pace or in the same way all over the world, and different jurisdictions with different cultures and histories are going to react differently. I appreciate this attention to detail from an American book by an American author.
At the end of the day, Schwartz’s thesis and biases are fairly clear. It isn’t so much about being pro- or anti-AV. Rather, he wants good transportation options for people. He wants AVs to be part of a larger, more holistic traffic strategy, rather than the be-all, end-all strategy, or something thought of as distinct or disjoint from the rest of traffic. Every example he brings up, every anecdote he shares from his experiences as an engineer and traffic commissioner, every point he makes, drives this home (pun intended): if we are to make the most of what AVs can do for us, we must consider how we can use AVs to make transit overall accessible, mobile, and affordable, instead of just letting AVs “happen” to us.
No One at the Wheel is an interesting, dynamic, thoughtful, and compassionate book by someone who knows what they’re talking about. It took my casual interest in autonomous vehicles and educated me, gave me lots to think about, and in some cases actually caused me to rethink a few of my opinions (I have largely been very pro-AV, but Schwartz has helped explain some of the possible negative side-effects of AVs that until now I kind of brushed aside). If this is a topic that you want to learn more about, then this book will help you achieve that goal.