- Business Insider/Danielle Muoio
Uber recently rolled out a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh.
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 centers like in a scene from a sci-fi movie.
But Kent Larson, an architect and city planner who leads the Changing Places group for redesigning cities at the MIT Media Lab, says self-driving taxis are likely to be only a short blip in the history of transportation in cities.
The self-driving Ubers are significant, he told Business Insider in a recent interview, 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 neighborhoods 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?” he said.
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.
He called today’s driverless Uber vehicles “a logical step towards this vision” but “an intermediary step.”
He thinks they will look archaic in the future.
“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 it will play down the line. But Uber’s self-driving car fleet as it looks today? If you accept his vision, don’t expect your grandkids to ever see it.