Self-Driving Pledge Skirmish Opens a Debate

Reporting on self-driving cars gives journalists a chance to rise above the ideological bickering that defines most of the national debate today.

The operating standards of sensor configurations or specs on a software stack don’t exactly appeal to partisan fodder. But on Thursday, the announcement that 15 mobility companies — including banner names such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar and smaller upstarts such as Via and Ola — have signed on to a pledge to adhere to core principles for ethical deployment of self-driving vehicles set off a small skirmish online between progressive advocates of shared mobility and free market-types skeptical of heavy-handed control of development of this new technology. It foreshadows the debate to come, when self-driving cars hit the streets en masse and cities and states across the nation have to make tough decisions on what is and is not allowable in their jurisdictions.

The “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” pledge comes off as benign (People over vehicles! Promote equity!) but masks a deeper philosophical debate that goes back a century to the beginning of urban planning. Namely, how active a role should coordination and regulation play in our transportation, and what do services that get some degree of public support via roads or licensed monopolies owe their customers?

Viewed in that light, some of the principles actually do come off as fairly radical. For instance, the 10th and final principle advocates that autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas only be operated in shared fleets, eschewing personal ownership of self-driving cars in cities.

“All this is doing is supporting a political ideology,” said Grayson Brulte, an autonomous vehicle consultant who advises Beverly Hills, Calif. “I consider myself for the free market, but I think there will be shared and there will be private. What this coalition is proposing is anti-competitive; it’s eliminating choice.”

Some are skeptical, to put it mildly, of the names behind the pledge: The National Resources Defense Council, Transportation for America and Rocky Mountain Institute are all notable for their progressive politics. Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar and primary advocate behind the pledge, has sounded the alarm over self-driving cars and climate change for years.

But it wasn’t so long ago that when urban and transit advocates would meet, cars as transport would be completely off the table in favor of biking or light rail. That’s changed with the advent of autonomous cars, yet it doesn’t seem like the companies behind this technology have caught wind.

For instance, it’s significant that the initial signatories on this pledge include just two companies, Uber and Lyft, that are seriously developing autonomous technology. They’re the only ones on a notable list including Waymo, General Motors and Aptiv that have had to seriously engage in city politics.

Rather than some sort of left-wing conspiracy that these principles are being painted as, they should be viewed as an entry point into a debate that will run for years after these cars hit the streets. While the focus is on developing the product now, the conversation is quickly shifting to the rules and regulations that will govern how autonomous cars are used. Moreover, there are legitimate arguments companies could make for and against shared mobility absent of the ideological rancor. For instance, shared fleets make a lot more sense if autonomous cars are too expensive for regular consumers to purchase.

Companies that may want to stay above the fray in the urban debates should rethink. They have a voice — and they should use it.

As featured in Automotive News on February 2, 2018.