How Driverless Cars Will Change the Feel of Cities

Autonomous vehicles promise safety and efficiency. But nobody knows what it will be like to live with them.

An autonomous Uber test vehicle traverses Apache Boulevard in Tempe, Arizona.  (Ian Bogost / The Atlantic)

It’s 6 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona and pitch-black outside. I’m standing in the middle of a five-lane thoroughfare, among a group of people too numerous for the narrow median. We got trapped here after a brigade of left-turning cars preempted our passage—that’s a thing that happens in cities like this one, designed for automobiles over pedestrians.

An SUV pulls up as we cower inches away, waiting for the next traffic-light cycle. The driver’s window is rolled down to allow some of the cool night air in. The man behind the wheel looks bored like most drivers do. But he isn’t a driver, not exactly. The vehicle he controls is an autonomous Volvo operated by Uber, which is conducting an ongoing test of its self-driving fleet here. With his hands idle in his lap, the driver is more like us pedestrians—waiting for the cars around him to move.

Whether in five years or 25, eventually cars like this one will probably convey most people to their destinations. That might free people from the risk and burden of transit, or it might bind them to new burdens when technology services run cities. No matter the case, the age of autonomous cars has felt abstract and hypothetical so far—the stuff of splashy corporate demonstrations and tech-guru prognostications, not everyday life.

But standing inches away from the robot Uber, I’m hit for the first time by the tangible, ordinary reality of that future. This isn’t a test track or a promotional video. Likewise, it’s not San Francisco or Silicon Valley. This is a self-driving car in the belly of car-loving, suburban America.

Few people get to encounter the uncanny feeling of the autonomous transition right now. But in addition to sketching out the technological, ecological, health, and civic impacts of self-driving cars, it’s also time to ponder what it will be like to live with these things in the city. When they cease to be uncanny and just become normal, robocars will alter something just as fundamental, but easier to overlook: the texture of everyday, urban life.

* * *

Uber was a latecomer to self-driving cars; Waymo, Google’s autonomous division, and even Tesla seemed poised to beat it to market. But Uber has been catching up. It moved its autonomous test fleet to Tempe this year, after a dispute with California over permitting. This isn’t the first municipal test of the technology, either. Google tested robot cars in Mountain View for years, before moving its autonomous division to the California’s Central Valley. And Uber also operates an autonomous test fleet in Pittsburgh, where it lured top computer-vision and robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon to help it transform car services from flex work to automation.

But Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has been especially supportive of ride-sharing, and particularly of Uber. When Ducey opened Arizona’s doors to Uber, the company accepted the invitation.

Uber tells me that real-world operations are critical to the success of its self-driving program. Its Tempe drivers help the company identify improvements to the technology, specifically those that might address rider interest and concern. Actually, Uber doesn’t call them drivers, but “pilots” or “operators” instead. The company requires the crews, some of whom worked previously as Uber drivers, to pass a three-week training process before putting them behind the wheel of an autonomous car. Pilot seems aspirational, now that I’m looking at one in the flesh from the median. Operator is a little startling to hear in reference to automobiles, but it’s accurate, too: Isn’t everyone an operator now, much of the time? The computer does its work while humans coax it along.

In the passenger’s seat of the car in front of me, a copilot holds a laptop visualization of the road ahead, as captured by the LIDAR unit atop the vehicle—the remote-sensing laser used for guidance—and processed by its onboard computers. Like a rally navigator, he’s here to call out actions when needed. The screen is mostly blank, except for the cars and other obstacles, which glow red—the color of threats.

Since robot cars are new and unproven, their every error is judged harshly. In March of this year, one of Uber’s Tempe vehicles was involved in a high-speed collision, an event that was widely reported even though no one was seriously injured and the robot car was not at fault. And last week, an autonomous passenger shuttle in Las Vegas was involved in an accident on its first day of service; a truck had backed into the stationary shuttle and dented it slightly. Even so, news reports called it a crash.

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.

* * *

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.

I see what she means. One after another the gray robo-Ubers pass by at the corner, and always in the same way, making a right turn from Mill onto University. Sometimes they appear in small groups, one behind the other. Their synchronized, flashing blinkers make the robocars seem like retrograde automata more than futuristic android.

Surely riding in one would help clarify matters. The server brings my check and my fortune cookie, which I crack open. “A joyous event is in your near future.”

Excited, I Google a little. Back in March, when Uber arrived in Tempe, local news reported that riders who hail an UberX within the test area could be assigned to one of the autonomous cars. I decide to take no chances, positioning myself at a driveway just before the corner where I saw all the robocars turning. My first hail takes a long time, which I take as a promising sign. Tempe still hits 85 degrees in November, and I’m roasting. But then a letdown: Mark is on his way in a Hyundai, my app reports.

I cancel and walk around the corner to a bus bench to try again. Maybe I need to choose Uber Select, I reason. As I’m waiting for the hail, two more robo-Volvos pass by. I try to wave them down, but that’s not how this works anymore. I’m just a LIDAR blip to the two pilots; an obstacle to avoid until I challenge the computer to a trolley problem. My phone buzzes; Samir in a Suburban is coming for me. I cancel again, and Uber warns me that I might be charged because the driver was already on the way. Behind me, a sprinkler pools water in the fresh fescue grass inexplicably planted in the desert.

More autonomous Ubers pass, and I finally notice that none of them have passengers. Just pilots conducting tests for some hypothetical future. Or the most expensive, complicated branding exercise possible. Or both.

Later, an Uber spokesperson says that it’s still early days for autonomy. Riders cannot explicitly request a self-driving Uber yet, but there’s a chance they might be assigned one under the right conditions. In addition to trying out real-world scenarios, the pilots are also supposed to gauge rider sentiment toward the technology. But for me at least, there are to be no sentiments gauged. Eventually—and almost forcefully—Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group communications staff offers to arrange a ride for me, so I can report back on the spoils of my expedition to their future. But by that time I’ve already left town. Really, the car is just a carnival ride for now, anyway. The real show is watching from the curb of the future.

* * *

I give up and hoof it back to my hotel. It’s one of a few hotels and motor lodges renovated to their mid-century glory in this area. Bright trim, stone facades, bent-laminated walnut furniture. This place has huge neon signs that read HOTEL and POOL, throwbacks to the generic-chic of 1950s and ’60s roadside Americana.

Then as now, the automobile was a technology of access and freedom. A car made any place accessible, even if just in theory. That’s also why cars became a means of self-expression: How to go somewhere was a choice, so the type and color of a car conveyed a style. The gray Uber Volvos, fetching though they are, forecast the end of that allure. How can a car offer freedom when you have to ask a company to let you use it?

Instead, cars will recede into the background. They will become infrastructure—still important, but unseen unless they break down. Nobody will care what anyone drives, no more than they might ponder the manufacturer of elevator cabins or subway rolling stock. It might be annoying when the elevator takes forever or the train doesn’t come, but these matters are akin to acts of God, conducted outside ordinary people’s influence. And as the intimate familiarity of choosing, operating, and maintaining vehicles recedes, people will develop a new tolerance for whatever the companies that run the services choose, in terms of appearance and access.

It’s an obvious consequence of autonomous vehicles, but one that hadn’t made itself palpable to me until I saw them there in the desert, empty, prancing circles around Tempe. So much of the American city is taken up by roads filled with cars filled with people. A huge cultural shift will take place if all that space gets ceded to a few technology companies. Not just big things, but small ones too, like standing on medians and waiting at curbs and perceiving of different colors and styles. Tiny experiences like these frame the contours of daily life in subtle ways.

It seems clear that cars will always have a place in America. But until now, they have been slaved to the people who drive them. The roads have always belonged to the people, even if those people were assumed to be inside automobiles. When that coupling is broken for good, and everywhere, the roads will likely be safer, cleaner, and more efficient. But the urban experience, especially in cities like this one, will change forever.