Seattle’s Crosscut columnist Knute Berger thinks it might be – in this piece: Is Seattle freeing itself from the automobile age?

In South Lake Union, you see folks zipping along on monowheels, hoverboards and electric bikes and scooters. These electronic gadgets seem less intrusive and more versatile than, say, a Segway, and some can be carried by hand or in a backpack.

Other innovations are in the works. Boeing is testing a pilot-less “autonomous” air taxi — a kind of flying Uber. Is the era of the flying car, as envisioned on The Jetsons, finally at hand? In Snohomish County, Amazon is testing a small delivery bot, named Scout, that can bring Amazon Prime customers their order. It looks like a robotic cooler on six wheels. It could someday be more efficient than fleets of street-clogging delivery cars and trucks.

The quest for car-free city living is speeding up, not slowing down. Seattle was reshaped and improved by a technology that arrived as a circus toy. Don’t be too quick to dismiss the driverless novelties that might be flying overhead or rolling along the sidewalk to deliver goodies in your neighborhood.

Of course, ‘careful what you wish for.’


  1. Ever I studied computer science in the 1980s have I heard this story in numerous flavours. First it was the speech recognition software that would make typing and secretaries obsolete, then it was translation software that would make learning foreign languages obsolete, then robots and AI that would make humans making things obsolete and now it’s AVs that allegedly make drivers or driving by humans obsolete.

    Believe none of it. Of course, very simple tasks are now doable via voice recognition, translation, production or automatic driving.

    Even today in my hybrid car when I say “phone Jim” it often says “pardon”. That is almost 35 years after the speech recognition idea was developed. Translation software of course translates very simple sentences like “I am eating strawberry ice cream” into almost any language correctly. But add a few slurs or lingo or even a moderately complex sentence and it malfunctions to the point of humour or embarrassment. AV will be similar. Of course it will auto assist when coupled with GPS on clear not too busy roads or highways devoid of humans. Add snow, rain or ice, or a busy intersection in Kits, with busy car traffic, trucks, SUVs, bikes, dogs, strollers, people jaywalking, wheelchairs, left and right turning vehicles or left turning signals, and AVs too misfunction.

    The human free fully autonomous car, except in controlled factory settings, is many decades off. While pizza delivering drones are a good idea in principle, once the first pedestrian gets a serious face injury it gets banned worldwide. The real world is very complex. AVs will muster a small portion of it, but will always need a human behind it ready to intercept.

    1. I studied computer science in the 1990s. I agree with you.

      For the public, it seems, computers are magic. Of course they are – they do magical things! There is boundless enthusiasm for what people believe is a time of unprecedented innovation. (Economists know better; they argue about why innovation and its impact on growth have slowed in recent decades.)

      The tech industry has a powerful marketing machine to sell its message, but many technologists on the ground know better. I remember that when schools introduced computers and tablets in the classroom, many programmers were against it. When social media arrived, technologists avoided them. (I thought it was obvious from the start that Facebook was bad news. Though I didn’t know exactly what would happen, the structure of the technology and the business guaranteed it.) Silicon Valley sells phones and social media to everyone else, but many there have long tried to keep it out of the hands of their own kids.

      In fact, computers *are* magic, but it’s a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of magic. Complex software is not understood by *anyone*, including its creators. I think we are shifting from a logical understanding of software, which we can break down and analyze, to an empirical understanding, where all we can do is experiment on it from the outside and hope that our generalizations are right. Meanwhile, we’re putting software in everything. If that scares you, it should.

      Great enthusiasm without understanding is not respect. We should respect technology, because it is dangerous. The revelations at Boeing are ongoing, but the technical story is simple. Everyone in the software business is shocked that the obvious flaws with the software and its potential interactions were overlooked. And that’s a very, very simple system.

      I don’t buy the AV hype. A friend working in aerospace just made a face when I asked her opinion. An AI prof I know is skeptical. An in-law whose wife is high up at Microsoft told me he does believe in AVs. The industry is stagnating, he said; they’ve exhausted their existing markets. They need something new, and they’re hanging their hopes on the car industry. They aren’t pursuing it because they have the technology: they’re doing it because they need the market. No doubt we will have some limited autonomy in some situations. It won’t be the wonder-cars everyone is expecting – and it won’t need to be to deliver what the tech companies consider success.

      Marketing, media and the tech Utopian zeitgeist are so powerful that technologists are mocked by non-experts. Will building more roads solve congestion? The public, politicians, and even traffic engineers just know that building more lanes is the answer. Planners are such killjoys.

      1. “No doubt we will have some limited autonomy in some situations. ”

        Beyer, meet Geof.

        Welcome to the future.

        1. Absolutely, in some aspects. But not driverless Uber/Lyft enabled cars anytime soon.

          Like fusion which in theory was a great energy source but didn’t work outside small scale labs. Or the voice translation device that you take to Italy speaking / understanding fully fluent Italian to locals ( besides basic stuff like “I want strawberry ice cream” or “where is the closest restaurant”). Or the AI software that invests your money, in any market, for any condition.

          A good friend of mine works as a senior manager for BMW, and like all car firms they have whole armadas of people on it or JVs with Silicon Valley firms. Car firms are afraid of accidents that could have been avoided as any AV accident immediately is worldwide news, shaving billions off the stock price in minutes. Until AV is totally fool proof in all situations, it won’t be unleashed on the public. AV assist, ie auto-follow or NAV enabled auto-steering, sure, until it starts snowing, the road is really busy, it’s foggy or there is a road block, ie things that happen rarely but often enough on a daily basis once you take a billion daily users into the real fussy world of humans and clogged cities !

  2. I just tested my phone. It asked which phone number I wanted to use for the name I spoke (I had several choices).

    Ever think it might be user error?

  3. Like a typical conservative Beyer will fully embrace the future when it is the past.

    1. Unlike many I am a realist not a dreamer.

      AV features are quite useful say when driving in busy traffic ie stop and go or traffic jam.

      Uber has been around for TEN years. Where is it in Vancouver?

      Ford invented the EV a hundred years ago and today we have what, a 1% market share?

      You expect AVs to be here soon, besides the SkyTrain, BC’s contribution to AVs ?

      1. It is helpful to consider AV features along a continuum, and not as simply fully AV (level 5) or not. Lane assist and parallel park assist are the start. Emergency braking goes further. Active cruise is a step towards AV. That are all now commonplace. Tesla now has the parking lot vehicle retrieval function. Call your car from the covered entry at the mall, and the parked car will start up, come to you, and stop for you to load up. It will navigate the parking lot and find the route to you. Seems like a further step to me.

        EV’s are another topic. BC’s number for EV light vehicle market share for 2018 was 4%. You must be thinking of 2017. It is climbing quickly.

          1. AVs may never be human free unless controlled spaces. (See article below)

            EVs on the march, of course but also often hybrid. We shall see when every parking meter in Vancouver doubles as a charge station, and at what cost and if people find it all that appetizing to drag the cord through the mud (esp after the dog has done his business on it).

            Maybe 33% EV market share of new cars by 2030, higher if you count hybrids.

            Decent insight on the enormous fiscal challenges facing car industry in the CASE (connected autonomies shared electric) car space here


      2. Where is Uber? Ask the taxi lobby that! As to where is Uber? that is another question! If you look at their business model, it is quite clear that they have put all their chips on Autonomous Vehicle technology. If that technology isn’t viable, then Uber isn’t viable. They are losing billions of dollars right now, despite what today’s IPO will get them. There are driver revolts in many cities, and this is only going to mushroom. The only good thing that Uber might do, is hasten the adoption of road pricing in major cities. If you put any money into the IPO today, I hope its only short term, pump and dump! Be careful what you wish for, Thomas!

        1. Uber was created when AV was in its infancy. It’s a viable business model, catering to many users and drivers, esp part-time drivers, even if drivers make only minimum or twice minimum wage. The critical thing missing in BC, and a key benefit of Uber, is to allow part-time drivers to make some extra cash. Not everyone wants to drive full time, and many, even I, would possibly do it for a few hours a week if the hurdles weren’t overall onerous .. say on weekends, Friday nights ie rush/peak hours. Hence the proposal of a class 4 license requirement is really dumb.

          Uber has little to do with AV. It’s an added bonus if it worked.

      3. Call yourself whatever you want, Thomas, but you’re a conservative. A realist can foresee the possible. Elon Musk is a realist. (And a dreamer.)

        Note that it wasn’t Ford that got EVs going – it was a dreamer. (And a realist.)

        Often times it is those most entrenched in an industry who are last to see what’s possible and what’s going to hurt them if they don’t smarten up. Take the tar sands. Like you, they don’t grasp exponential growth in EVs either. Even if EV sales back off of their consistent 60% annual growth they’ll make up around 10% of sales by 2022 and 25% by 2025. Around that time the global ICE fleet will begin its terminal decline and by 2030 it will be losing 75 million vehicles a year.

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