According to a July 18 article, a company called Inrix has “selected” the streets of Portland (among several others) to test its “self-driving” automotive technology. Being “selected” sounds as if we’ve won a prize. But despite the thrill of a company from away batting its eyes at us and promising us all a good time, there concerns need to be addressed. Your press release dressed up as a news story addressed none of them, so here are a few of my own.

First, what does it mean that Inrix, a private company from Washington state, has “selected” us? Why were we selected? What were the criteria? Are we already obligated to welcome them? On what terms? What’s in it for us? How will Portland be compensated for the use of public streets to test an unproven and certifiably high-risk technology? Will we be on the hook if or when something goes horribly wrong? Who will be liable for injury or death? How much public money will be spent to corral this unicorn? Since the article addresses none of these questions, we’re left to wonder if anyone at City Hall has thought to ask them.

Second, like Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, and so many other tech success stories, the Inrix business plan appears to hinge on exploiting outdated regulatory frameworks and publicly owned infrastructure to “disrupt” an existing order and turn a private profit. Inrix, like the well-capitalized companies just named, expects to cut costs by testing its product at public expense simply because it believes it can.

Third, how much might the city of Portland be willing to invest to improve and maintain public safety infrastructure for people who aren’t driving? Evidence suggests it’s not much. For half of each and every year, for example, crosswalks, bike lanes and other painted-on-pavement measures designed to protect vulnerable road users are neglected. They fade in just a few months, disappear altogether over the winter and may not be repainted until August. Can Inrix technology detect invisible crosswalks and bike lanes? Or will the city bear the cost to improve and maintain a minimally safe streetscape? If so, how much is the city willing to pay?

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the primary purpose of corporations like Inrix is to grow and make their founders and financial backers richer at the end of every quarter than they were at the start of it. If you’re a fan of private equity vultures like Bain Capital, which has invested significantly in Inrix, this may sound entirely right to you. But rest of us should understand that any concerns about public safety, convenience, or quality of life will of necessity be secondary to private profit. That’s just how these things work.

Despite unlimited faith in the miraculous powers of their own technology, it turns out it’s harder to make a car that safely drives itself than the corporations pushing this on us ever thought it would be. Their track record so far includes plenty of violence, injury, and death – and a truly autonomous vehicle is still likely a generation or two away.

Your reporter attributed to the city manager the notion that injuries and fatalities make “it seem like (these vehicles) are unsafe.” I’d suggest that injuries and fatalities are pretty conclusive proof these vehicles are unsafe. The fact that he “personally” thinks “self-driving is much safer than human-driving,” doesn’t reassure me and it shouldn’t you either. Because he is wrong.

As it happens, he’s also wrong about a future in which all the cars magically drive themselves and “innovative” and “smart” technology somehow create a golden age of prosperity for all Portlanders. If any benefit at all accrues to our city, it will accrue to the wealthiest among us – and not to anyone who works for a living. But it’s probably wise to address the many negative facets of this proposal – assuming it isn’t already a fait accompli – in the order in which they’re likely to cause injury, mayhem or death.

Until such time as the technology is proven safe for use in Portland, why on earth shouldn’t we keep these things off our streets?

 

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