Driverless cars and trucks—or autonomous vehicles (AV)—offer a tantalizing promise of safer and unclogged roadways. In 2017, 37,150 people died in accidents on America’s roads, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, up sharply from 32,479 in 2011, and far worse per capita than anywhere else in the Western world. And the United States has ten of the 25 most congested cities globally, according to the Inrix transportation intelligence group. Cars that drive themselves could reduce crashes to a small fraction of today’s totals, while moving people about more efficiently, in larger groups and at faster speeds.
For now, though, these positive outcomes remain speculative. Even as companies start deploying driverless cars on America’s streets, no data exist yet on whether the vehicles are consistently safer than those with human drivers and, if so, under what circumstances. The safety of driverless cars will depend in part on policies adopted by federal, state, and local officials—just as speed limits help keep human drivers from inflicting carnage.
Autonomous vehicles pose a particular challenge for dense cities like New York, which have always had an uneasy relationship with the automobile. But if cities handle the introduction of this new technology right, the potential payoff won’t just be improved street safety; it will be an improved quality of life for everyone—by car, on foot, or on bikes.
As it has done with many recent technological advances, America’s military ignited the autonomous-vehicle revolution. Back in 2000, Congress directed the Defense Department to set a goal that “by 2015, one-third of the operational ground-combat vehicles” would be unmanned. Following the directive, the Pentagon’s Defense Research Projects Agency, DARPA, began holding contests for driverless vehicles, which would be raced by their private-sector and academic sponsors across the Nevada desert for prize money.
The technology advanced so quickly that, in 2007, […]