Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly precipitate an unparalleled reduction in traffic fatalities. And as someone who is deeply disturbed by the sheer magnitude of carnage our society is willing to tolerate for the sake of motorists’ convenience, I absolutely welcome this change. However, while Voltaire cautions us to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, we are at the precipice of an incredibly troubling convention to be embedded into the state of our transportation system. I am of course referring to Mercedes-Benz’s announcement that they will be prioritizing the lives of vehicle occupants over all other people using the street. I wish to explore the disconcerting implications of elevating the value of customers’ lives over those of bystanders, and moreover, the general decline in our collective ability to distinguish between moral and economic philosophies.
Moments after Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director, Paul Steely White, opened the Vision Zero Cities conference by imploring the audience to regard Vision Zero not as a mere slogan, but as an achievable target, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, sullied the room’s enthusiasm by flatly stating that the goal, while laudable, was in fact impossible. The commissioner’s skeptical assessment, while disappointing—and as I will discuss momentarily, false—was ultimately unsurprising. But I would venture to guess that beyond the circles of activists, academics, and experts who better understand the nature of traffic violence, Bratton’s sentiment is largely shared by the general public. So long as people are walking, bicycling, and driving in close proximity to one another, won’t there always be the occasional confluence of circumstances that will tragically end in the death or serious injury of someone?