No One At the Wheel (Schwartz) Review

While I'm typically very skeptical of opinions on autonomous vehicles by individuals who work outside the field, Schwartz's No One At the Wheel turned out to be a pleasant read that I would recommend individuals either AVs or urbanism to read (after, of course, Autonomy by Lawrence Burns).

The gist

This book frames itself as a discussion on self-driving cars, but it's more a book about urbanism and the implications of self-driving cars in improving, or ruining, city life. Surprisingly, Schwartz is a strong supporter of SDCs in cities, and wants to guide the discussion to how to make it work well and avoid the dystopia that could happen if vehicle miles traveled were to increase instead, or people continue private ownership models, etc.

The book sums up my position on SDCs in cities pretty well, I think, and much of its content is parallel to what I wrote in my October How self-driving cars could benefit New York post on my sister-blog urban.codes.

What I liked

Schwartz weighs both sides here, and covers many benefits to SDCs in the context of urbanism such as reduced need for parking, increased traffic law compliance, improved safety numbers and better transit options such as autonomy buses/minibuses, smaller city-like vehicles, etc. At the same time, Schwartz dispells myths like the AV platoon, zero-stopping intersection ideas where the physics simply don't provide enough space for volumes equivalent to mass transit modes.

What I didn't like

The book feels like a laundry list of disconnected thoughts sometimes, and statements appear throughout that repeat or contradict previous statements. It feels, at times, like Schwartz is listing every possible quote, scenario, etc., that could come to mind about SDCs, and gives them all equal footing. Schwartz's inexperience with the actual robotics side of things shows up occassionally, and while it wasn't enough to make me totally cringe, it certainly would leave anyone who has studied robotics or read Burns' book scratching their head. Some examples include giving a history of SDCs that excludes Google or Waymo but includes Uber, saying Japanese SDC tech is as advanced as USA and that China is/will be the industry leader here, and taking statements from auto execs late to the game as valid critiques of AVs, not signs that their tech is far behind (Nissan/other L2 systems).

Overall the book covers urbanism and self-driving cars, and while I didn't necessarily learn anything new from it, it was nice to see a policy leader and expert weigh in on what they thought pros and cons would be, and to hear that they believe the pros will far outweigh the cons when implemented correctly.