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Our Headlong Rush toward Driverless Mobility

Measured caution rather than feverish competition would be a much saner approach to introducing driverless technology to America's transportation realm. Yet today we have auto manufacturers, high-tech companies, and car services racing to see who can be first to deploy autonomous vehicles on our city streets and inter-urban highways. In an article that ran last week in Cognoscenti, Boston Public Radio WBUR's online forum, I reflect on some of the more troubling aspects of our rush to embrace this utterly transformative technology. 

What was seen as remote fantasy just a few years ago is now widely accepted as our inexorable future, yet fundamental questions remain about the appropriate uses and ethical limitations of driverless transportation. A friend and environmental law colleague, when he read my Cognoscenti article, credited my concerns but shared his own conclusion: "The toothpaste is already out of the tube," he told me.  The best we can do, he maintains, is to call for appropriate regulation of driverless vehicles, prioritizing safety as well as energy conservation.

Some say driverless cars will make cities more livable by controlling traffic flows and reducing the number of vehicles on now-crowded urban roads. Others predict that the ease of driverless mobility will perpetuate sprawl and drive up fuel use by providing comfortable travel in larger vehicles over greater distances. The verdict is out on that one, but our very limited success in increasing fuel economy under the federal CAFE standards should certainly give us pause.