Nautilus

The Self-Driving Car Is a Red Herring

Ten years ago this fall, Google gave us a glimpse of a new device unlike any it had ever built before—a computer-controlled car. It seemed such a strange thing for an Internet company to spend its time and energy on, a “moonshot” as the company’s engineers called such massive efforts. But with a single blog post, the search giant promised to reinvent our cars, and our communities, too.

It was a big vision for a single invention to carry. And the details were scant. But we quickly filled in the blanks. Software was going to replace our dangerous, congested, sprawling roads with something utterly safe, seamless and organized. Humans would take the back seat in a new network of “ghost roads,” as I call them. Ghost roads didn’t demand a massive mobilization of government. The technology of autonomous driving would roll onto existing highways, invisibly weaving a new transportation system. Only this one would be modeled on the Internet. Computers would outnumber people. Code would call all the shots.

Google almost succeeded. The company’s bold move spurred an arms race, drawing in the rest of Silicon Valley and automakers the world over. Hundreds of billions of dollars flowed into the quest to develop autonomous vehicles (AVs). Still in the lead, Google sister company Waymo now operates a limited self-driving ride-hail service in the Phoenix metro area.

FLEXIBLE DENSITY: The COVID-19 pandemic has offered us a vision of how cities can weather existential shocks by adapting to them. Already we see roads surrendered to delivery vehicles and people converting apartments to creative workspaces.Dash Marshall

But the future has a way of veering off the road. A generation in, fully automated driving has proven far more challenging than many thought. Some 15 years after university researchers aced the Defense Department’s

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