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Promise of autonomous vehicles has been oversold, Pittsburgh advocates say

Written by Margaret J. Krauss/WESA | Jul 19, 2019 5:15 PM
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At a public meeting in Hazelwood, attendees discussed the implications of AV on pedestrian safety, jobs and data privacy, among other concerns. (Photo: Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)

The benefits driverless technology could create for cities are murkier than they seem, according to a new report released by Pittsburghers for Public Transit at a meeting in Hazelwood Thursday.

While many companies say autonomous vehicles will expand transit access and decrease environmental harm from vehicle emissions, the report's authors found research often didn't back up those claims.

Based on "an extensive review of [autonomous vehicle] literature, we remain deeply skeptical about the role that AV will play in advancing social good," Rahul Amruthapuri and Sinjon Bartel wrote in the introduction to "Wait, Who's Driving This Thing?"

Five companies test autonomous vehicles on Pittsburgh streets. As they become more common, transportation advocates say the public must help shape the role the technology plays both now and in the future. But they need information to do so, said Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.   

"We all need to know about the whole spectrum of impacts of autonomous vehicles."

Roughly 30 percent of Americans do some driving for a living, people such as taxi drivers, delivery drivers and bus drivers. Researchers expect AV to dramatically impact that work. In addition, some argue that self-driving vehicles will allow more people to connect to existing transit systems. But in various pilots, a high cost-per-ride made it difficult for many people to establish a sustainable commute. In other cases, researchers saw that personal transportation decreased public transit ridership. Lower fare revenue could mean more cuts to service, which would harm people who rely on transit the most.

Without careful consideration, the result of widespread use of driverless technology means fewer jobs, less access to transit, and more sprawl, said Wiens.

"Companies have been leading the discussion about autonomous vehicles, but they are guided by profit, not equity," she said. "Our public money might be better spent elsewhere, on building things that we know work."

A world of self-driving cars has been presented as synonymous with progress, but it's important to remain critical of what progress means, said Bartel.

"We need to have an honest conversation with our representatives and those responsible for spending shared resources as to the sort of future we want to have," he said, noting that fully autonomous transit is likely decades in the future, not years. "Do you want to take a gamble on a technology that's not sufficiently proven its maturity yet, for a future decades from now?"

Many people at the meeting said they are concerned about the Mon-Oakland Mobility project, a plan to build a transportation route between Oakland, the lower part of Greenfield, and Hazelwood.

One iteration of the proposed link included a system of self-driving shuttles, which city officials argued were needed to improve mobility options for residents in the affected neighborhoods. While the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure has said nothing is yet decided, that plan continues to worry some.

During roundtable discussions, people said the city should instead spend money on building sidewalks, bike lanes, and expanded bus service to truly bolster mobility within the city.

The city's support of autonomous vehicles will mean massive job loss here and elsewhere, said Al Hart, a retired member of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

"Where are these people going to go? And don't tell me retraining because I've heard that for 45 years," he said, referencing the response to the collapse of manufacturing. "You retrain people that lose their manufacturing job, they get a job as a truck driver. Guess what they're gonna do now? They're going to get rid of truck drivers."

Pittsburgh City Council will hold a public discussion on autonomous vehicles on Tuesday, July 23 at 1:30 p.m. in chambers.

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