Cruise co-founder and CEO Kyle Vogt posed a controversial question at TechCrunch Disrupt 2023: At what point does it still make sense to have human-driven cars in cities?
“If you extrapolate forward and you see that [autonomous vehicles] decrease in cost, they continue to improve their safety performance, they get much better at adapting in ways that cities find agreeable and preferable, and you see more pooled rides, the question will be: Do we want as many human-driven cars on our roads?” said Vogt. “Like at what point does it still make sense?”
Vogt sketched out a future in which city residents and community members one day stand up to oppose the presence of human-driven vehicles, particularly in urban centers with high pedestrian density. Referencing Cruise’s 1 million driverless miles study, Vogt said Cruise vehicles get into 75% fewer collisions that could cause injuries, a statistic that will only improve over the years.
Cruise robotaxis have been involved in collisions, including recently with a fire truck, but haven’t killed anyone, yet. The company has, however, angered city residents and agencies when its AVs malfunction and stop in the middle of the road, disrupting the flow of public transit, traffic and first responders.
“You see this in European and other cities where they don’t allow cars in certain street areas and things like that,” said Vogt. “We’re going to have to do something like that if we want to keep up and if we want to hold the bar high for safety, so it’s really a question of how much are we going to tolerate in our cities before we demand something better?”
When asked if Cruise would lobby local governments to eliminate human-driven vehicles in urban centers, Vogt said the company “would be honored to join the fight and help in some way.” But he doesn’t think Cruise will “have to do a thing” because city residents would be the ones leading the charge after metabolizing the safety records of AVs versus human drivers.
“If I told you five years from now AVs are gonna be 100 times safer, and you have regions of your city that have high pedestrian and cyclist traffic, it would almost seem reckless as a city planner to allow one version of transportation that’s 100 times less safe than the other to coexist in that space,” said Vogt.
Banning human drivers in favor of cars that are driven by a computer misses the point of why so many European cities — like Paris, Oslo, Ghent and Pontevedra — are removing cars in the first place, says David Zipper, visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Safety is certainly one part of the equation, but it’s also about promoting walkable, pedestrian-friendly spaces and easing traffic congestion.
“I have to say I just came back from several weeks in Europe, and I didn’t hear anybody there clamoring for AVs in their cities,” Zipper told TechCrunch. “I met a lot of people trying to get rid of cars, not only because they are concerned about the safety issues of human-driven cars, but they’re also worried about the air pollution caused by any car, whether it’s driven by computers or by humans, which can come from brakes and from tires and from road dust. They also were worried about the geometric space that cars require to move around in a dense environment compared to bikes and just people walking or taking transit.”
Cruise’s vision is to scale its robotaxi service via a fleet of Origins, a custom vehicle that’s built without a steering wheel or pedals, and with six seats that face each other to make pooled rides easier. Vogt says by pooling rides, cities can actually decrease the number of vehicles on roads, thus helping to alleviate traffic.
Let’s put aside the fact that pooled rides aren’t very popular — who wants to be stuck in close quarters with a stranger who is possibly smelly, rude, creepy or just generally unpleasant? Zipper says that if AVs end up doing what they are meant to do, which is to make taking car trips easier, it’ll actually result in more people looking to ride in cars, which could create more gridlock.
“Can anyone think of a city they visited and said, ‘God, what a wonderful place. I want to come back or even live here because it’s so easy to get around in a car?'” said Zipper. “There’s no reason to think that removing drivers and inserting technology in their place is going to change that. I don’t think AVs are going to be enhancers of city life.”