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CAP TIMES TALK 02-02222017112510

Ald. Maurice Cheeks, who represents the Allied Drive neighborhood, said he has “hundreds” of constituents who make less than $20,000 a year and regularly spend $12, one-way, on a cab to get to the grocery store or to jobs.

The driverless car revolution is just around the corner, and the impact on society and the economy will be huge. The implications are so vast that a Cap Times panel discussion Tuesday could only hit the broad strokes.

Moderated by Cap Times reporter Eric Lorenzsonn, the panel discussion touched on the implications of the automated car age, including increased safety by the elimination of human error, the ability to provide transportation to people who now have no access to it and the economic fallout as self-driving cars take on more of the transportation workload.

As Lorenzsonn recently reported in a Cap Times cover story, cars that drive themselves could be hitting Madison streets in about a year. Last month the U.S. Department of Transportation tabbed UW-Madison as one of 10 proving grounds for driverless cars.

“It seems like most people think that this is coming,” Lorenzsonn said. “This is not some overhyped Silicon Valley fad.”

Some on the panel said that personal and commercial automated vehicles won’t be far behind.

One thing is clear: The time to prepare is now.

“The city’s making millions and millions of dollars of investments every year in infrastructure,” said Yang Tao, assistant city traffic engineer for Madison. “We don’t want to make the investments without considering the future and a few years later we find that the infrastructure’s outdated. So we want to be involved and spend our money wisely.”

Exactly when the driverless revolution comes depends on the technology, which is in a rapid development stage as car makers and tech companies race to get products and services ready for the market.

But the timing is also dependent on state and federal regulators, which are behind the curve.

Teresa Adams, director of UW-Madison’s transportation management and policy program, said some manufacturers are “ready to go” with vehicles, but rules are slow in coming and could vary widely from state to state.

“We really need to have some consistency across our nation,” she said. “And I think that’s slowing it down a little bit.”

There was no consensus on just how long the transition to driverless cars will take. Tao warned that transportation planners need to prepare for a period during which driverless cars will interact with manual vehicles.

Madison Ald. Maurice Cheeks predicted the “full transition is going to take a generation.”

But some think the demand for driverless cars will fuel an incentive to move quickly.

Dave Cieslewicz, executive director the Wisconsin Bike Fed and former Madison mayor, pointed to a number of factors driving demand. For one, it costs about $9,000 a year to own and operate a car, and it sits idle about 95 percent of the time.

For another, human error is by far the most common factor in car crashes. Since driverless cars are projected to cause fewer crashes, the cost of insuring a manual car will skyrocket.

And he pointed out that one in four 19-year-olds do not have driver’s licenses.

“Will they want to buy a car when they can subscribe to a car sharing service?” he said. “Probably not.”

Cieslewicz sees safety as the primary reason to adopt the technology as soon as possible. He pointed out that from a biking perspective, automation could have prevented at least 16 of 25 bicyclist fatalities in the last two years by eliminating human errors.

In a larger context, he said, about 40,000 people are killed on U.S. roads each year, costing more than $800 billion. In Wisconsin, 3,000 people a year are injured in drunken driving crashes, about 200 of them killed.

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Since about 94 percent of car crashes are due to human error, it follows that eliminating human error would reduce those numbers dramatically.

“Any time anybody tells me all these things could go wrong with self-driving cars, my answer’s always, ‘Yeah, compared to what?'” he said. “What’s so great about the system we have now?”

Adams said the move toward automation will bring vast safety benefits, but they will require society to “accept the one crash, the one bizarre crash where the technology fails, because it’s going to happen. We’re going to have to learn from it.”

Making the urbanist argument for the technology, Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., said the potential for automated shared car services could eliminate one of the banes of every downtown: parking garages.

“Wouldn’t we want to have more cool restaurants and more cool places to go for entertainment and everything else in our isthmus than just providing parking ramps,” she said.

Cheeks, who represents the Allied Drive neighborhood, a relatively poor and isolated enclave with no grocery stores and inadequate access to public transportation, sees the benefits from the perspective of equity.

Cheeks said he has “hundreds” of constituents who make less than $20,000 a year and regularly spend $12, one-way, on a cab to get to the grocery store or to jobs.

“Not have a personal vehicle and not having ready access to public transportation is a huge barrier to food, to economic justice,” he said.

A well-developed shared vehicle system could lower the cost of transportation to the point where struggling families could better afford it, he said.

“There’s a really exciting potential promise that this shared transportation network can provide,” he said.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.