These reactions aren’t helpful. The trolley problem was always meant as a philosophical thought experiment, not a manual for the ethics of robot murder. Perched on a foot of median next to a ton of truck run by a computer, the matter seems more complex—no doubt because my own body is the one at risk. Glancing back at the laptop screen, it reminds me of the kind of image that gets faked for television or film. But here it is, conveying an actual car through actual streets next to actual pedestrians like me.
The attractive design of Uber’s robot cars downplays the threat. Slate-gray in color, with an understated, abstract city grid applied to the rear doors. “Uber” is inscribed near the back fender, almost an afterthought. Even the LIDAR is handsome, a contrasting white spar with a gently swirling, black rig atop. Volvo’s SUV design helps here, too. The vehicle looks strong and capable—not to mention safe, the brand value most associated with Volvo.
Then there’s the sun. The big, blue sky spreads above, uninterrupted by the short buildings and the palm trees. The light is high-contrast all the time, making every hour as magic as golden hour. When an Uber traverses these streets, it does so as if posed for a glamour shot. Everyone notices.
Tempe’s suburban design exemplifies most of automotive America. Big, divided streets with four, five, six lanes. It makes sense to test robot cars here, in their native habitats. New Yorkers and San Franciscans and even Pittsburghers walk, train, bus, and bike in droves. In Tempe, the cyclists barrel down the sidewalk even though wide, on-street bike lines are visibly striped for them. How far could they get, anyway? The Phoenix metro area is over 9,000 square miles and blistering hot most of the year. Sweaty, asphalt-sea intersections make pedestrian traversal feel like adventure voyages. This is a place for cars.
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Uber’s autonomous ambitions only amplify cars’ role as vessels of audacity and recklessness. Uber itself has spent the last year thrashing in its own wake—from accusations of sexual harassment and corporate theft to deceiving law enforcement and breaking unions. But on the streets of Tempe, its branded Volvos seem more like harmless grandmas than like rapacious capitalists. They move slowly along what seems like a fixed, clockwise track circling Arizona State University’s campus. They are so numerous that standing curbside along their route becomes an impromptu autonomous-vehicle safari.
To take it all in, the next day I sit down for lunch at a table in the P.F. Chang’s looking out onto the intersection of Mill Avenue and University Drive. It’s the perfect venue for a robocar expedition: the mass-produced strip-mall eatery that exemplifies every suburban automobile destination.
“Have you ever tried one of the self-driving Ubers?” I ask my server, who looks about the same age as the undergraduates outside. “Oh God no,” she answers immediately. “I’d be terrified.” I explain that they have drivers in them for now, and she warms up to the idea a bit. “Maybe I would then. Maybe.” Then she starts telling me about the new Tesla dealership up in Scottsdale. Elon Musk might eventually turn Tesla into a car service like Uber, but I don’t think that’s why she brings it up. Rather, because Tesla, Uber, Waymo, and all the rest blend into one transit-tech slurry for people who don’t follow the industry deliberately.