Anthony Townsend Interview: the implications of autonomous vehicles for thriving communities
Dr. Anthony Townsend is President and Founder of Star City Group, where he works around the world with industry, government and philanthropy on urban tech foresight, policy, and planning studies. He is Urbanist in Residence at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute. As part of the founding team of the university’s Urban Tech Hub, located on Roosevelt Island in New York City, he directs applied research and teaches smart city engineering courses.
Dr. Townsend’s most recent book is Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car (2020). It is a deep and far-ranging consideration of autonomous vehicles (AVs) implications for our societal future. We reached out to ask Dr. Townsend how technology and social leaders (like our AI and Faith community) can better engage these considerations and influence the outcomes. Plus, we wonder whether and how the vast changes in online commerce, delivery, and work wrought by the pandemic have sped up the timetable for AVs, dramatically changing our lives.
Q1: Your book Ghost Road raises many questions about how autonomous vehicles (AVs) will influence our lives far beyond just whether we will drive cars ourselves or have them driven for us. Perhaps that reflects your profession as an urban planner. Could you please describe the approach you bring to bear in tracing out the broad implications of the coming era of AVs that allows for creativity, imagination, and nuance in your writing?
I’m fascinated by the potential of technology. But I also appreciate that technology is a human creation. So I am always asking, “Who invented this? Why did they invent it? And what are others going to try to do with it now that it exists?” Almost always, it’s a story about power. Some company, or government agency, or industry, creates something to advance their agenda—nothing new there. My view of these things is very much influenced by dialectical materialism, that these are simply the newest episodes of a long-running struggle over wealth and resources.
It’s a bleak perspective, but it also raises an important possibility—what if the tables were reversed, and these new technologies became tools of empowerment for more people? That’s what excites me – ferreting out how the details of deploying sophisticated new technologies play out in the varied geography of cities. The sheer complexity of the interactions there means there are almost limitless possibilities. Many of those are desirable, and my goal is to identify them and help people see that our choices today can make them more likely to happen in the future.
Q2: Could you please explain your view that the AV-powered future is more about “mobility” as a concept than just how we drive?
The biggest red herring of autonomy as it has been defined and sold is that it is mainly about self-driving cars. In fact, self-driving passenger cars are likely to be the most difficult kind of automated vehicle to perfect. We’re seeing that in the market right now, with setbacks to the timelines of Tesla, Uber, GM, and every other big company working on this. It’s a phenomenally hard engineering challenge to build an AI that can drive on any road, at any time of day, at high speed, in any weather. People also like driving, so this is a technology that to some degree, we still don’t quite know how much demand there is and what will be needed to incentivize people to adopt it.
In contrast, almost every other application of automated driving has a clearer value proposition, is technically easier to achieve, and is moving forward. I tried to name some of these, so we have a vocabulary to compete with self-driving cars. There are conveyors, cart-sized delivery bots that mostly stick to sidewalks. These combine onboard AI and remote human overseers to operate safely. But they’re small and slower, so if they aren’t perfect, no one dies. We’re also seeing the first generation of rovers, self-driving scooters and bikes that don’t get left on sidewalks but drive themselves to the next customer or a charging point. Even heavy vehicles, like self-driving convoys of tractor-trailers that I call software trains, are easier to build because they mostly operate on highways, which are much less complex driving environments than city streets.
Q3: In your book, you discuss a dichotomy of possible alternative futures – one in which private AVs perpetuate the personal auto/suburban lifestyle of the present, and we see no actual reduction of vehicles on the roads; and a second in which AV shuttles and a wide range of special-purpose vehicles enhance urban lifestyles and more environmentally responsible living. What factors do you think will make the most difference in which direction prevails?
The price of energy is the big factor. If we make a quick leap from cheap fossil fuels to cheap renewable electricity, that’s going to undermine efforts to create the kind of compact walkable and transit-served development that automated mobility that doesn’t consist of just private cars could bring about. Demographics will potentially kick that into high gear, too, because as the population ages, the killer app for a self-driving car is going to be pressing the button to go to the doctor. It’s ultimately a technology for aging in place, and that could drive both the market and public policy too. It’s hard to see the U.S. staying afloat if we have to move huge numbers of old people into nursing homes over the next few decades. Because, suddenly, it turns out that immigrants aren’t coming in the numbers they used to, and people are likely to have to care for themselves at home to a much greater degree than we anticipated. You’ll need a robocar for that to work.
Q4: You cover not only AVs for personal mobility but freight hauling. Both areas will have a major impact on availability and type of future work. How do you see this playing out in the workforce over the next 20 years?
The United States is already at a point where the entire economy is at risk because we are unable to move the freight needed to keep supply chains moving. This has been building for a decade due to demographics (experienced truck drivers are retiring faster than new ones are joining the workforce) and economics (shippers have become very agile at playing haulers off against each other). Pretty much every ounce of automation that can be delivered in the next decade will be needed to help address this.
My expectation is that we’ll probably see rising employment even as automation becomes widespread. That’s how much of a worker shortage we have now—it’s actually restraining growth in trucking. Unlock that potential, and we will unlock more jobs in trucking and more jobs that truckers who decide to leave the road can move up into, like teleoperation of semi-automated truck fleets.
Q5: You tell three “stories” in your book, culminating in the story of the “financialization of mobility.” There you trace our history of mobility from the tollgate syndicates of the original Industrial Revolution, through trolley monopolies in the last Gilded Age, on through the rise of rideshares and the current influence of free markets and concentration of capital. If even government is unlikely to stand up to the new reorganization and financial manipulation of our mobility by investment bankers and plutocrats, how can ordinary citizens and their social leaders, including tech creators and faith leaders, do so?
The best way to resist mobility monopolies is to build different kinds of communities. When we live in ways that allow us to access the services and places—be it schools, shopping, or places of worship—without getting in cars, then we reduce the leverage these platforms have over us. That means more compact communities, but it doesn’t mean living on top of each other. And getting out of our cars can produce bigger, almost immeasurable social and spiritual benefits for us.
About a dozen miles from my home in Jersey City, there’s a suburb with a large Orthodox Jewish community. On the Sabbath, you can go there, and the streets are filled not with cars but multi-generation families walking to worship. People are happy because they are sharing the present and living a full life, without the isolation and anxiety cars bring. When I see it, I wonder—if this can happen here, why not everywhere, and why not every day?
It’s also worth pointing out that Orthodox communities rely heavily on automation to maintain the Sabbath while also enjoying the comforts of modern life. New Yorkers are all familiar with Shabbat elevators, which are programmed to stop on every floor on the Sabbath. But it goes far beyond this. A group at Intel Research in Oregon looked at this back in the early 2000s and were astonished by the amount of timers, smart home, and other technology that people put to work to maintain creature comforts. It’s a fascinating symbiosis between deep tradition and high tech. One wonders if we’ll see automated mobility employed in pilgrimages in the not-so-distant future.
Q6: You wrote Ghost Road before the COVID pandemic seemingly disrupted everything in our work and social lives, including the vastly greater mobilization of delivery services and online business. Has the pandemic changed your analysis significantly, and if so, in what ways? Will you be writing about this?
The book was published in June 2020, about three months to the day after New York City’s lockdown began. My publisher was worried about relevance, so even though it was too late to change anything, I took one more pass through the manuscript to see how it was holding up. And the end, I put it down without marking a single change. Clearly, there is a tremendous amount of anxiety about the changes playing out during the pandemic. But two of the most important—the dispersal of population and business and the shift of retailing to delivery—were trends that Ghost Road addresses extensively. In a sense, the forces that I described only became more intense, bringing the future that they heralded forward much more rapidly.
What I’m worried about, though, and I’ve started to write about a bit here and there, is that we’re tilted very much away from the car-lite commune scenario of dense, highly automated (and very sustainable) cities towards an even more intense version of exurban sprawl powered by self-driving cars and delivery vehicles. The risk of what I call a “stand-off society” is taking shape—a country that uses technology to hold itself together while geographically spreading itself further apart. There is a lot of fear out there, and we’re getting pretty good at using our technology as a band-aid to avoid the things that scare us rather than dealing with them directly. Self-driving cars could be an appealing tool to deliver that, just like conventional cars were in the 1950s and 1960s when America was changing quickly, too. In the afterword to Ghost Road, I wrestled with my own internal conflict on this. I think for many Americans, it will be a much easier choice to flee to yet another “frontier” while staying connected with broadband and self-driving cars.
Q7: Are you optimistic, pessimistic or somewhere in between about transportation users’ ability to aim for fair and just access to mobility as a result of this disruptive, coming AI-powered autonomous technology? What worldview and values do you personally bring to this question?
For me, everything comes back to sustainability and fairness. I very much see the potential for us to turn the technological potential here into a force that helps us clean up our act, literally—reducing carbon emissions quickly and decisively—and making it easier for people of lesser means to access the services they need every day. But we have not been dealing with the reality yet, that most of the visions being sold by the folks inventing this technology will steer us the other way. They’ll make us less economically independent as communities, families, and individuals; they’ll sustain extractive systems of production and consumption that are not only unsustainable but immoral because they deplete and even destroy the natural capital that we have inherited from previous generations and are obligated to pass on to the future.
For me, this is about science and engineering, but it’s also about something bigger and more fundamentally spiritual. If we’re going to build this massive global grid that connects everything, we need to make sure it respects the connections we all already have to each other and the natural world.
Thank you, Dr. Townsend, for answering our questions! We hope both technologists and faith leaders will pay attention and exercise their power to influence choices for good community in this coming world of AVs.