A Future Without Street Signs

Driverless cars and augmented reality will mean city markers as we know them will cease to exist.

A sign shows the distance to different cities from the cargo port of Zeebrugge, Belgium.  (Francois Lenoir / Reuters)

It’s amazing that Google Maps is still free.

Free, that is, in the sense of money exchanged. The cost of giving up all that personal data, well, that’s a transaction to dissect another time. The larger point, the fact that the Google Maps app can be downloaded, for no money, to anyone with a smartphone, was what an Uber driver wanted to talk about last week as he drove me to The Atlantic’s newsroom in Washington, D.C.

I had asked how he liked using Uber’s mapping interface. He shrugged off questions about the precision of drop-off and pick-up points, and instead wanted to talk about Google. (Uber’s interface is built on top of the Google Maps API.)

It’s free, he marveled. Then, matter of factly: There’s no way that’s going to last.  

In the world of mapping, permanence is an illusion anyway. Maps are supposed to tell us about the world as it is. But the world is always changing. Paper maps may seem old-fashioned now, but they still feel official. (And, hey, a lot of them are pretty good, albeit imperfect.) But a map that’s unchanging is actually a map that’s inaccurate. Reality, including the places around us, is always in flux.

Increasingly, digital mobile maps reflect this more liminal state, and—with the help of satellites and GPS and traffic reports and street-level photography—do so with improved precision. (Incidentally, Uber is embarking on its own mapping efforts so it can rely less on Google.) That precision will matter more and more as we head toward a future in which the markings of human-made maps will be read by computers, like the machines that will drive themselves from one place to the next with us sitting inside of them.

And when that happens, the other markers of the old world—like street signs—will eventually disappear. The idea of a city without street signs is a bit startling. Or it was to me, anyway, when my colleague Ian Bogost wrote about it last month. He touched on the same thing that preoccupied the Uber driver I spoke with. Modern maps are free, but they’re enormously valuable.

Google or Apple might restrict access to their mapping services in areas that don’t adopt political positions convenient to their corporate interests. They might even elect to alter the physical environment accordingly. In America, street signs are yoked to signage built for human drivers, mounted atop traffic signals and stop signs. Once those devices aren’t needed, their attached markings might also disappear. Perhaps tech giants could persuade municipalities to remove street signs and markers to realize cleaner, less distracting urban conveyance via the synergy of app-street-and-car transit networks.

It’s jarring to imagine a physical world stripped of these familiar markers, but street signs have already changed dramatically since the early mile markers that dotted the roads of ancient Rome. They’ve evolved substantially even in the past several decades. The first stop sign in the United States didn’t show up until 1915, and stop signs were yellow—not red—until the 1950s. Now, some city planners have suggested getting rid of them entirely, as a way to force people to pay attention to their surroundings.

So Ian’s right to be thinking about the demise of the street sign and how it relates to larger technological shifts, like the movement toward self-driving vehicles. In fact, when I described this possible future to Brian McClendon, the head of mapping at Uber, he didn’t even pause before responding. To him, it isn’t a question of whether street signs will someday vanish, but when.

“I think that once autonomous vehicle usage reaches 100 percent and augmented reality reaches 99 percent, then signs will start to disappear,” he said.

Two big things need to happen before that. First, mapping technology will have to be precise enough so that people wearing augmented-reality devices can look around and see the name of the street—or some more efficient marker indicating direction—pop up briefly in their field of vision. That’s likely to happen within the decade. Then, precision mapping technology has to be adopted on a massive scale, the way smartphones have, in the form of driverless cars and augmented reality.

McClendon’s estimate of when that might happen: The year 2060 or so.

“Autonomous vehicles might get 90 percent penetration much sooner than that and augmented reality might get 50 percent penetration much sooner than that, but there’ll still be a larger number of people in the world who walk around who still need that capability,” he told me. “ And governments in general are slow to make infrastructural changes like that, so it could well be that in many countries there are street signs long after people don’t look at them anymore.”

This happens all the time. Previously essential technology goes away when people stop using it. (See also: telephone poles, phone booths.) And, eventually, once-ubiquitous physical artifacts are displaced by new technology and fade out of view. Only people don’t pay attention, because they’ve already stopped looking.