Ghost Road, On Myths & Future For Autonomous Vehicles With Anthony Townsend — Part One

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In the first half of this interview for our CleanTech Talk podcast series, Michael Barnard, Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc. and CleanTechnica contributor, and Anthony Townsend, author of GHOST ROAD: Beyond the Driverless Car, sit down to talk about autonomous vehicles and urban planning. You can listen to the full conversation in the embedded player below. Below that embedded SoundCloud player is a brief summary of the topics covered, but tune into the podcast to follow the full discussion.

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Anthony recently wrote GHOST ROAD: Beyond the Driverless Car. He is also the president of Star City Group, a forecasting and urban planning collaborative based in New York City, and the author of Smart Cities. As he says, he has been interested in two things his entire life: cities and computers, especially what happens when the two meet. Anthony got his start in computing and exploring online worlds by “dialing into them.” As Anthony explains, he started to study the geography of the internet as it was evolving in the early ’90s and began exploring academic research on how cities would grow as the internet did. He also spent 10 years in Silicon Valley doing long-range forecasting for a think tank before he started to write about what it meant for computing to be easily accessible and fit into your pocket. For Anthony, he was especially interested in how this technology would shape lives and the world.

Mike and Anthony focus the start of the podcast on Anthony’s book. The point of the book, as Anthony explains, is to break down myths surrounding driverless cars as told by the automotive industry. He goes into the history of the autonomous car and the ways in which the book explores the reasons why automated driving is likely to enter our lives, whether it is through the movement of goods or people.

Both Mike and Anthony are curious about the ways in which urban mobility will be shaped by the development of autonomous vehicles and what regulations might be needed as millions of these vehicles get on the roads. They explore common topics of highway congestion and how people might use automation to change travel behavior, including how regulators will respond to those changes. As Anthony notes, the autonomous vehicle conversation includes a discussion of a complex system of many moving pieces. His book, he explains, attempts to map out the freedoms that automation might unlock and what assumptions there might be about future changes.

While some proponents of autonomous vehicles argue they will decrease traffic congestion, Anthony argues that this may not be as easy as people think. Driving on the road, he explains, is going to be more complex, and while more travel and the changing nature of travel is inevitable, there are too many factors to say that traffic could be eliminated completely. Anthony is much more interested in the complex set of variables that go into the future of urban mobility and how autonomous vehicles have the ability to increase mobility, which he says is truly the goal of these technological developments because it expands options for people to get access to goods and services and connect to each other.

Mike and Anthony also talk about the ways in which COVID-19 might shape the future of transportation and usage of vehicles. They agree that Americans are jumping back into their own cars quickly as they worry about their health, and services such as ridesharing are being drastically impacted by this rapid change.

The two transition to a discussion on urban sprawl and planning. One of the reasons Anthony wrote his book was due to a debate on land use and transportation impacts of autonomous vehicles. In terms of transportation, Anthony believes that the future of automated mobility is not about perfecting the automobile, but about the explosion of innovation and enabling millions of new inventions. He and Mike explore conversations surrounding niche products and services that investments in autonomous vehicles might help get to market.

Mike and Anthony wrap up this podcast with a discussion on what vehicles might look like in the future as automation and electrification allow vehicle shapes and sizes to fragment. Anthony is particularly interested in automating freight and the movement of goods, and the ways in which this allows for less carbon-intensive delivery methods.

To hear more on these topics, as well as Anthony’s thoughts on Tesla, listen to the show!

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