Why Uber's self-driving cars won't last, according to an expert at MIT

Uber recently rolled out a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It’s an astonishing development, just a few short years after the taxi-replacement company began to transform the way people get around cities. Even though the cars have their limitations, it’s easy to imagine a future of robotic Volvos ferrying us all around urban centres like in a scene from a sci-fi movie.

But Kent Larson, an architect, city planner, and leader of the Changing Places group for redesigning cities at the MIT Media Lab, said that self-driving taxis will likely just be a short blip in the history of transportation in cities.

The self-driving Ubers are significant, he said, because they further cut down on the need to clog up cities with heavy, expensive, wasteful personal vehicles. But he believes they’re just a step on the way toward even more sensible shared-transportation options.

Most trips in the city, he said, involve individuals moving around their own neighbourhoods far below the maximum speeds of cars.

“Why have a 4,000-pound automobile that seats five to move one person a short distance at low speed?”

Self-driving shared vehicles, even if they cut down on the total number of cars a city needs, still require major parking and driving infrastructure. The more you can cut into that, Larson said, the more you can expand living, working, and communal spaces for a city’s residents.

Which isn’t to say self-driving cars don’t excite Larson. In his own lab, he works on a variety of self-driving vehicles. But they’re smaller, and lightweight, not geared toward the specifications of a family on a long-distance road trip.

“[A driverless Uber] is a logical step towards this vision,” he said, “an intermediary step.”

But he thinks in the future they will look archaic.

“It’s just like, you had the horse and buggy,” he said. “You got rid of the horse, it still looked like a buggy.” But those buggy-like cars did not last long, even though they almost certainly seemed futuristic at the time.

An important note: Larson wasn’t talking about the company Uber when he said this. Who knows what role they will play down the line. But Uber’s self-driving car fleet? If you accept his vision, don’t expect your grandkids to ever see it.

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