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Commentary: The future is closer than we think

Steve Mahan, Nathaniel Fairfield
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman writes on driverless vehicles and a town hall meeting she has planned to discuss them. Above, Steve Mahan, who is blind, gestures for a steering wheel that doesn’t exist inside a Waymo driverless car during a Google event in December 2016.
(Eric Risberg / AP)

You wake up on a Monday morning, press a button on an app, and get ready for work. By the time you are done, there’s a car waiting for you outside. Or, you exit the subway or light rail 3 miles from your final destination. A vehicle is waiting for you. Its electric engine is quiet. The driver’s seat is empty. Perhaps there are other passengers sharing the vehicle with you.

Instead of navigating the roads and fighting traffic, you can check your emails, pay your bills, read social media, watch the news, read a book, or take in the scenery. When you arrive at work there is no need to park; the car drops you near your destination and drives off to pick up another passenger. A different car will be waiting for you when you are done. This is the future of automobile transportation.

The autonomous vehicle will be the next great revolution in transportation. It will alter the way we live our lives — and its arrival is a lot sooner than most of us think. For this reason, on Sept. 21 I will be holding a town hall on autonomous vehicles called “Shifting Gears: How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change the World.”

As a policymaker and a member of the state Assembly Transportation Committee, it is just as much my job to look at issues that will affect my district down the road as it is to look at the challenges we are facing today. Autonomous vehicles are “disruptive technology” that can have huge impacts on everything from land-use planning to employment. It’s important we understand those potential impacts so we can mitigate negative effects while helping magnify positive ones.


According to the National Safety Council, there were over 40,000 vehicle-related fatalities in 2017. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for children. Let those statistics sink in. We know that almost all of those auto-related deaths are due to human error or misuse. By taking humans out of the equation, those numbers will fall dramatically.

Autonomous vehicles bring with them a synchronized traffic flow that will rid us of the clutter and chaos that epitomize the roads today. In addition, autonomous vehicles can help solve the “first mile, last mile” problem facing public transportation by providing an easy and cheap way to get to one’s final destination after taking mass transit. When they are no longer unsure how to traverse those last few miles, more people will be willing to jump on a subway or bus. Of course, increasing transit ridership takes cars off the road, which reduces congestion. The benefits to spending less time in a car are immense. What would life be like if we could use that time for something else?

Also, if fleet-owned autonomous vehicles in constant circulation replace expensive individually owned cars, there will be much less demand for parking, meaning that the cost of building housing will be drastically decreased. We could demolish old parking lots and driveways and replace them with better uses such as parks and green spaces.

However, despite these benefits, there are concerns that need to be addressed. Technologies are not without error — or at least incident. Just last March, a pilot-program driverless car killed a pedestrian who was in a crosswalk. Complex, intuitive decisions that humans can make in seconds don’t make the same kind of sense to a machine. In an age of hacking and terrorism, there are frightening security implications to having fleets of computer-controlled vehicles. We also have entire industries, millions of workers, whose livelihoods depend on operating vehicles. What will happen to them?


All these concerns and possibilities need to be addressed. We need to start planning and deciding how we want to utilize this technology and how we want to limit it — because it truly is just around the corner.

Just last month, the city of Arlington, Texas, became the first municipality in the country to approve a one-year pilot program that will feature three autonomous, all-electric, shuttle-vans that will be open to the public. There are also other pilot programs for select groups and companies that have driverless cars on the streets right now. Most major car companies, particularly GM, are developing or contributing massively to the development of autonomous technology.

Governments are often too late when it comes to planning for emerging technologies. This causes additional problems that are totally unnecessary, and it can be hard for regulations to catch up. How will we need to change our roads? What about our old freeway systems? How many people will these cars hold? How can we best incorporate them into our existing mass transit systems? What about people who still want to operate their own vehicles? There is a seemingly endless list of questions. This is exactly why now is the time for all of us, together, to start to decide how this technology should be used and what the ground rules should be.

I hope you will be able to join me in starting this conversation for our region by attending my town hall. The future is closer than we think.


“Shifting Gears: How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change the World” will take place at the Brand Library, 1601 W. Mountain St., Glendale, at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 21. For more information call Friedman’s district office at (818) 558-3043.

LAURA FRIEDMAN (D-Glendale) represents La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose, Glendale, Burbank and neighboring communities in the the 43rd Assembly District.