It’s 6 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona and pitch-black outside. I’m standing in the middle of a five-lane thoroughfare, among a group of people too numerous for the narrow median. We got trapped here after a brigade of left-turning cars preempted our passage—that’s a thing that happens in cities like this one, designed for automobiles over pedestrians.
An SUV pulls up as we cower inches away, waiting for the next traffic-light cycle. The driver’s window is rolled down to allow some of the cool night air in. The man behind the wheel looks bored like most drivers do. But he isn’t a driver, not exactly. The vehicle he controls is an autonomous Volvo operated by Uber, which is conducting an ongoing test of its self-driving fleet here. With his hands idle in his lap, the driver is more like us pedestrians—waiting for the cars around him to move.
Whether in five years or 25, eventually cars like this one will probably convey most people to their destinations. That might free people from the risk and burden of transit, or it might bind them to new burdens when technology services run cities. No matter the case, the age of autonomous cars has felt abstract and hypothetical so far—the stuff of splashy corporate demonstrations and tech-guru prognostications, not everyday life.
But standing inches away from the robot Uber, I’m hit for the first time by the tangible, ordinary reality of that future. This isn’t a test track or a promotional video. Likewise, it’s not San Francisco or Silicon Valley. This is a self-driving car in the belly of car-loving, suburban America.
Few people get to encounter the uncanny feeling of the autonomous transition right now. But in addition to sketching out the technological, ecological, health, and civic impacts of self-driving cars, it’s also time to ponder what it will be like to live with these things in the city. When they cease to be uncanny and just become normal, robocars will alter something just as fundamental, but easier to overlook: the texture of everyday, urban life.