Book Review – Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car

I’ve made it abundantly clear how I could not be less excited to hear stories by tech bros, about tech bros, for tech bros, that herald the coming autonomous revolution and the motorcars of to-morrow. So, it was nice to come across a volume that is, in the words of the author, “apprehensively optimistic” about the future– but with some cautions, some clever connections, and a nice balance of the positively lofty and the utterly grounded. Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car, by Anthony M. Townsend, is more academic than journalistic– a welcome perspective on a topical debate- but provides, for the most, the best of both worlds.

Townsend defines the Ghost Road as one of two possible outcomes in the invention of the autonomous, or driverless, car. The Ghost Road could either represent an autonomous future that optimizes urban space and solves the problem of climate change, or, at the opposite extreme, it could represent an ethically and financially bankrupt dystopian version of our present day, in which we would replay “the wasteful infrastructure binge of twentieth-century sprawl on an altogether unimaginable scale. Tens of millions of professional drivers might lose their jobs, with no safety net or alternative livelihood to bail them out. And the poor would be left by the roadside, as the software agents of the ghost road lock out anyone with bad credit.”

Gloomy? Perhaps a bit. But Townsend’s overall narrative is hopeful. He provides plenty of concrete examples of what can go right. He also mentions a lot of things that are industry concerns, but rarely mentioned in the “Next Big Thing” conversations. These include things like the massive data processing (and transmitting) requirements of AV’s. Wireless transmission and accompanying infrastructural challenges. Data processing for terabytes of data every day. Another interesting concern he raises is the opportunities– but lack of attention paid to- AV’s used in fixed-route transit systems like BRT or delivery and drayage.

A lot of the book focuses on considering opportunities alongside challenges. Product delivery and logistics are a key focus, especially around last mile. This is quite timely, given how companies like Amazon have completely transformed the built environment and the entire supply chain– virtually overnight. There are some interesting points to be made about how as the price of shipping gets driven toward zero, market entrants necessarily are more cost-competitive. The platform economy may address this one day, but it’s not going to for now, because Amazon is a de facto monopoly.

Smart cities, or, just building stuff better

As a city planner, I find, as with many texts I read on the subject of #cities and #urban, some of his synthesis a bit dubious– the idea of “microsprawl,” for example. The Smart Cities scene– of which Townsend is indeed a card-carrying member- often seems preoccupied with basic topics of urban design that have been best practice since urban design and planning have been a thing. He doesn’t pay as much attention to questions of things like density or urban form as he does to things like connectivity, networks, and systems. I think this is a bad take, but this is my personal bias. Let’s be real here. We don’t need to reinvent cities from scratch, we just need to build buildings better and build infrastructure smarter.

There is minimal attention paid to the plight of transit as a broader, societal question. But Townsend does mention it. Importantly, he mentions it in the context of BRT, and the applications of AV tech for BRT. This is nerdy and valuable. 

Conclusions

The conclusion of the book emphasizes two very important points that are mentioned tangentially and indirectly throughout the text. The first is that, in the Ghost Road era, we must demand equal accessibility. This is not just a matter of accessibility in the sense of mobility– people in wheelchairs who can’t get inadequately-equipped Ubers, for example- but it’s a matter of economic accessibility. Townsend talks about the economic issue from the perspective of MaaS, which companies are pushing toward as every damn thing moves toward a subscription model.

The second issue is that Townsend mentions the importance of AV’s being integrated rather than separated. This is huge, and it’s huge for the built environment as it is for the technological landscape. Tech bros have tried to do things like “invent sidewalks that can protect pedestrians from cars,” while failing to acknowledge that maybe cars on overbuilt road infrastructure are actually the culprit in pedestrian fatalities.

Ghost Road presents some good ideas. It falls short in its somewhat muddled flow, though– congested, one might say, as a poorly-designed freeway. A decent amount of academic loftiness, but certainly lot of practical ideas. I’m sure I’ve been accused of worse, though. It’s still worth a read, and the style is readable and fun, the anecdotes colorful and interesting. (★★★½)

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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