Self-Driving Cars: Advantage Pedestrians

In Boston, two warring factions have been partnered in an unlikely, decades-long truce, their aggressive tendencies controlled by an unspoken, yet universally understood set of rules of engagement. That truce may soon be shattered.

Boston pedestrians will brazenly cross busy streets in the middle of a block, but deep down they understand that getting hit by a car could really suck. Boston drivers are aggressive, using intimidation to navigate rotaries and keep pedestrians in line. But they also understand that hitting a pedestrian would be a major hassle.

The result of this mutual understanding might look horribly chaotic and dangerous to an outsider, but it generally works, making near-optimal use of the road for both groups. Of course a mini van with Ohio plates might get stuck for a few minutes by some commuters coming out of a subway stop. Or a foreign family may wait 3 or 4 light cycles before summoning the nerve to trust the “walk” signal, but that’s the price of stepping into the middle of a conflict without understanding the rules of engagement.

Now picture this scene from a not-too-distant future: a mutual fund manager wants to grab a Starbucks before digging into company valuations for the morning. Before stepping off the curb mid-block, she looks down the street to assess the state of oncoming traffic, and the only car with a real shot at her has no driver - a freshly programmed autonomous vehicle. Instantly she recognizes that lawyers in some glass office building have ensured that the AI in that car will do absolutely anything to avoid hitting her, so she confidently steps off the curb.

As more autonomous vehicles hit the streets, this becomes scene occurs more and more often. Self-driving cars take an hour to go two blocks on Boylston St during commute time. On Saturday afternoon on Newbury St, fancy electric cars are stalled until their batteries run out, blocking traffic for hours afterwards.

It’s not clear what the answer to this emerging problem is. Rehire all of the out-of-work cab drivers to hand out $500 jay walking tickets? Blanket the city with advanced facial recognition cameras that try to shame repeat offenders on popular social networks? Underground roads? Overhead walkways?

It’s possible that nothing will work until we’re willing to make the artificial intelligent cars just a little big crazy.