The Revolution Will Be Driverless: Autonomous Cars Usher In Big Changes

Dec 10, 2018
Originally published on December 14, 2018 9:46 am

Imagine driving alone in your car, but instead of sitting behind the wheel, you're dozing in the backseat as a computer navigates on your behalf. It sounds wild, but former New York City Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz says that scenario isn't so far off the mark.

"I was a New York City cab driver back in 1968, and I watched transportation evolve over time. I have never seen anything as rapid as what has happened this decade," Schwartz says. "Autonomous vehicles are coming."

While Schwartz doesn't know exactly what the autonomous vehicle of the future will look like, he notes that it may not look anything like today's cars. It might not have a steering wheel or brakes, he says: "It could be a room any size; it could be a conference room."

Beyond aesthetic differences, Schwartz predicts that driverless cars will transform roads, job and economies. He notes that while repair shops, trucking companies and car dealerships may lose business, other industries — including the advertising industry — stand to flourish with a captive, backseat audience.

Schwartz examines the benefits and drawbacks of driverless cars in the book No One at the Wheel.


Interview highlights

On how driverless cars might look different from the cars of today

I liken this a bit to the cellphone. In 1982, I was traffic commissioner. I had one of the first cellphones that I could use during emergencies. And the cellphone came — with a man carrying it — on a 12-volt battery and this huge phone. And today, the cellphone of today doesn't look anything like the cellphone that I had in 1982. ... The same thing can happen with cars. ... There's no reason to think it's going to look like a car, other than that's what we're used to.

On the broader impact of autonomous vehicles

I think everybody is expecting fewer drivers, and that's no surprise. But it also means that there are probably going to be fewer repair shops. ... AVs lend themselves to fleet operations, especially if they're going to be offering rides, as opposed to selling maximum vehicles, so car dealerships may disappear.

So this is going to have wide impacts. Truckers, of course, are going to be impacted. ... But lots of industries will be affected. The insurance industry, certainly, will be affected, since we will have fewer crashes, and about a third of the insurance industry is based on crashes. And if we have fewer crashes, there are going to be fewer cases in court. There'll be less of a burden on the court system.

On automated safety features that exist in today's cars

I have a car, a 2017 Volvo, that will stop on its own if I'm not paying attention and about to rear-end another car. There are features that will let me know if I am leaving the lane. The car itself will tug and tell me that I'm crossing a lane. And so if I'm drowsy, if I'm not paying attention or if I had too much to drink — which I would never do — I would know that. I know that there's a warning if there's a car in my blind spot and I'm trying to change lanes.

On the safety record of autonomous vehicles

This is really an industry that has tons and tons of data, but they're not sharing it with the public. The only data that's accessible is [from] the state of California, which is reporting anytime there is a crash when a vehicle is in autonomous mode, and so far the results are not good.

So far, we know of three deaths and not because of any [industry] reporting. That's the media reporting of three deaths [related to cars driving] in autonomous mode. For conventional cars, that would take 260 million miles before that would occur. And here we have three deaths and AVs have driven maybe 10 or 15 million miles.

In California, which requires the reporting of crashes, the cars in autonomous mode are crashing nine or 10 times more often than the conventional cars. Will they solve a lot of that? Yes, they're going to. They could solve a lot of the safety problems in the next few years. Everybody could have automatic braking. Everybody could have a lane control protections and could have blind spot monitoring and other safety features.

On the difficulty autonomous vehicles have recognizing people and predicting human behavior

So far, the track record is not very good with autonomous vehicles. They can't figure out what a pedestrian is or [what] a pedestrian is going to do. They can't separate a child from a dog. Sometimes a tree branch overhanging the road will be taken as something in the way. So, you know, we're far from [perfect]. They work perfectly without human beings, without people [when] there's nothing in the roadway that's getting in their way. ...

There are times that they'll have a false reading or they will still say, "I think this is a person," and this is what happened with the Uber crash in Tempe, Ariz., that killed a woman. The woman was walking with a bicycle. So you would think a) it would recognize the woman and 2), it would also recognize a bicycle. But the system said, "I'm not sure what this is; it doesn't look right to me. So I don't want to stop suddenly because that also contributes to crashes. I'm going to plow right ahead." And it plowed right ahead and killed her.

Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The future of the driverless car is going to affect the future of how we travel and what we do in cars. But driverless cars are also likely to transform roads, cities, suburbs, jobs, the economy and daily life.

My guest Samuel Schwartz expects it to be a very disruptive technology. Schwartz is the author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future," which he says is about the good, the bad and the ugly of how driverless cars will change our world. He knows a lot about transportation systems.

He served as the traffic commissioner of New York City and chief engineer of the city's Department of Transportation. He now has his own consulting firm and has worked with cities around the world on transportation-related issues. Later in our conversation, after we talk about the future, we're going to talk about traffic problems that plague us today. We're going to use the words driverless car interchangeably with the words autonomous vehicle, or AV.

Sam Schwartz, welcome to FRESH AIR. In your book, you write that AVs, autonomous vehicles, will be the most disruptive technology to hit society worldwide since the advent of the motorcar. Give us a couple of examples of industries or jobs or roadways that we might not realize will be profoundly affected by AVs once they start to really dominate.

SAMUEL SCHWARTZ: I think everybody is expecting fewer drivers, and, you know, that's no surprise. But it also means that there're probably going to be fewer repair shops because AVs lend themselves to fleet operations, especially if they're going to be offering rides, as opposed to selling maximum vehicles. So car dealerships may disappear. So this is going to have wide impacts. Truckers, of course, are going to be impacted - how we move about in so many different ways. But lots of industries will be affected. The insurance industry, certainly, will be affected since we will have fewer crashes, and about a third of the insurance industry is based on crashes. And if we have fewer crashes, there are going to be fewer cases in court. There'll be less of a burden on the court system.

GROSS: So kind of nobody's going to have a job, is what (laughter) - is what you're saying.

SCHWARTZ: No, not quite, but...

GROSS: You know, I've always - until reading your book, I thought of AVs - autonomous vehicles, driverless cars - as looking a lot like my car, except that I wouldn't have to sit in the driver's seat, or if I was in the driver's seat, I wouldn't have to do anything. But as you point out in your book, once you have an autonomous vehicle, you get to rethink the whole design of the car and probably also what the car is made of. I mean, let's face it. Our cars are designed for, like, the gas engine under the hood, and the steering wheel and the brake pedal. So give us a sense of, visually - like, of how a car might be designed differently.

SCHWARTZ: A lot of people have the image that you have, Terry. And a lot of them look - they kind of look - the Google car looks like a smaller car, like a smart car, and it's got some intelligence on top of it. But I liken this a bit to the cellphone. In 1982, I was traffic commissioner. I had one of the first cellphones that I could use during emergencies. And the cellphone came - with a man carrying it - on a 12-volt battery and this huge phone. And today - the cellphone of today doesn't look anything like the cellphone that I had in 1982.

The same thing can happen with cars. It could - the autonomous vehicle of the future, most people think that by the second half of the century, at least, and maybe sooner, will have no steering wheel, will have no brake. It will be a room. It could be a room any size. It could be a conference room. It could be, you know, the width of a house. It - there's no reason to think it's going to look like a car, other than that's what we're used to.

So others are beginning to think of these vehicles as being something totally different - different uses. And I see that as a real potential - as a meeting place, a sleeping place, an eating place. Medical facilities will come to you. It'll look like a hospital room or a doctor's office - a place to be examined by a doctor remotely in which a remote stethoscope listens to your heart, and your blood pressure is taken, and all those types of things are possible. Some of this is good. But we should be - go forward with our eyes wide open.

GROSS: What's your assessment so far of the safety of autonomous vehicles and what that would be like in the future? I mean, on the one hand, you don't have a driver's misjudgment or a driver falling asleep at the wheel, so that could eliminate certain crashes. On the other hand, technology is always subject to failure, and computers often mess up, and they - you know, everybody's been on the computer when it just kind of freezes, and you can't work anymore. So imagine that happening to your car.

SCHWARTZ: And it could happen, and, of course, hacking could happen. But many of the features that autonomous vehicles are - operators are claiming are needed, you don't need in the autonomous mode. So there is automatic braking features. There are lane-control features. There are blind-spot monitoring. There's a whole host of things that are being offered today to people who could afford it.

So the low-income people are not getting all these safety features that could cut down on crashes tremendously. And then you take the driver out of it. Yes, you'll - you can reduce crashes further because you don't have to worry about the judgment of a driver, but you may create other types of crashes. Right now, the industry isn't sharing anything. This is really an industry that has tons and tons of data, but they're not sharing it with the public. The only data that's accessible is the state of California, which is reporting anytime there is a crash when a vehicle is in autonomous mode. And so far, the results are not good.

So far, we know of three deaths, and not because of any reporting. That's the media reporting of three deaths in autonomous mode. For conventional cars, that would take 260 million miles before that would occur. And here we have three deaths, and AVs have driven maybe 10 or 15 million miles. In California, which requires the reporting of crashes, the cars in autonomous mode are crashing nine or 10 times more often than the conventional cars.

Will they solve a lot of that? Yes, they're going to. They could solve a lot of the safety problems in the next few years. Everybody could have automatic braking. Everybody could have lane-control protections and could have blind-spot monitoring and other safety features. But there is this meme that we have to wait until we have autonomous vehicles for safety, instead of the meme that maybe we could do a lot now.

GROSS: So what kind of features are you talking about?

SCHWARTZ: Right now, in - for example, I have a car, a 2017 Volvo, that will stop on its own if I'm not paying attention and about to rear-end another car. There are features that will let me know if I am leaving the lane. The car itself will tug and tell me that I'm crossing a lane. And so if I'm drowsy, if I'm not paying attention or if I had too much to drink, which I would never do, I would know that. I know that there's a warning if there's a car in my blind spot and I'm trying to change lanes.

So there are lots of features that exist today that if the industry that is claiming, safety, safety, safety, and that's why we need AVs, would really focus on safety, they'd say, we could have - by 2022, every single car sold in America could be the safest car possible, and we'll make it even safer eventually with autonomous vehicles. But so far, the track record is not very good with autonomous vehicles. They can't figure out what a pedestrian is or the pedestrian is going to do. They can't separate a child from a dog. There's sometimes - a tree branch overhanging the road will be taken as something in the way. So, you know, we're far from perfecting.

GROSS: How good are AVs at recognizing a human being?

SCHWARTZ: They're in the high 90s - they will - percent-wise. But there are times that they'll have a false reading, or they will still say, I think this is a person. And this is what happened with the Uber crash in Tempe, Ariz., that killed a woman. The woman was walking with a bicycle. So you would think, A, it would recognize the woman and, two, it would also recognize a bicycle. But the system said, hmm, I'm not sure what this is; it doesn't look right to me, so I don't want to stop suddenly because that also contributes to crashes; I'm going to plow right ahead. And it plowed right ahead and killed her.

GROSS: Wow. Yeah. I think I didn't understand how that happened. My guest is Samuel Schwartz. He's the author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future." He is the former New York City traffic commissioner and the former chief engineer of New York City's Department of Transportation. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Schwartz. He's the author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future." He knows a lot about roads and cars and traffic. He's New York City's former traffic commissioner and former chief engineer of the Department of Transportation. He has his own consulting firm now.

So let's talk about how AVs could affect transportation in terms of, like, traffic. And, you know, driverless cars are great if they're not stuck in traffic (laughter). And they're going to affect the amount of traffic on the road. Then they'll also affect what the road looks like.

You lay out a scenario. There's a family with a couple of kids, two parents. The AV takes one parent to work, drops them off work, comes back home, picks up the kids, takes them to school, drops them off at school. The autonomous vehicle comes back home, picks up the second parent, takes them to work.

And then the car does - I'm not sure what. I'm not sure where it stays (laughter) in between all of these trips. But you point out, in between trips, you have an empty car. You have what you describe as, like, a zombie car. So what does that mean in terms of, like, the number of cars that's going to be on the road?

SCHWARTZ: Well, one way to look at the future is the intent of many people in the AV industry is to replicate Uber, Lyft, Via and other car services but without a driver. So in lots of cases, you - it would be an app or whatever succeeds an app. You will call for a car. The difference between that and an Uber today is there will be no driver.

So the - we've already been able to determine a lot of things about these new app-based services. The average app-based service, when it carries you 1 mile, it needs to travel 1.6 miles. So a 10-mile trip means that vehicle would have traveled 16 miles over the course of the day. And that's because it's empty during portions of the day. The car has to get into position to be near where there's density of people. So we already know it increases vehicle miles traveled.

We also know that there's a concentration - unless we're smart, there's a concentration of where the well-to-do are. It's a concentration in most cities like New York, like Philadelphia, like San Francisco and Chicago that a lot of the well-to-do are now near or in city centers, where we already have the best transportation and the best transit systems. So what we've been finding is the congregation of the Ubers and Lyfts, A, where we already have good transportation service, B, where many of our wealthiest citizens live and, C, where we already had the worst traffic.

So the future, unless we change that model, is quite bleak because there'll be many, many more autonomous vehicles out there because it'll be so inexpensive to run them, especially if they're run as a fleet. There'll be no downtime. The average car today is in - 95 percent of the time sits idle. These cars will be moving around doing their job 80, 90 percent of the time. So far more vehicles will be on the road.

The other thing is there is this hype from the industry that autonomous vehicles are so efficient, they could follow each other so closely that we could replicate on a highway the capacity of a train. That's nonsense. A train or a bus in an exclusive lane could move 100 people in 60 feet, or certainly a subway car, whereas an autonomous vehicle, unless we change our behavior, is going to have one person per car - even if it has one person per car - it may have zero, less than that - will be moving, at most, two or three people in that same distance. So it - the math doesn't work.

GROSS: So are you, like, making an argument here that, in spite of AVs, we need good public transportation, like trains that can move a lot of people at one time with high density within each car?

SCHWARTZ: Autonomous vehicles are coming. There's no doubt about it. But we should maintain good public transportation systems. We should - and I use the adjective good because there are bad public transportation systems out there. Ninety percent of the country has lousy public transportation. It's called a bus that comes around every half hour or hour. It largely serves poor people. When a system only serves poor people, it's a poor system. Often it's largely people of color.

We have an opportunity to transform public transportation in those areas, not to offer a half-hour service, but we can triple the service by using micro-transit AV vehicles, small buses that are smart buses that are on-demand that know where the people are, know where they want to get off. We already have that technology. We have a company here called Via that is doing it in New York, Chicago and a few others. We have Ford Chariot that's beginning to do it in San Francisco and a few other places. The technology is here.

So AVs could be terrific for lower-density public transportation. But we're going to still need, in the big cities or in places where we want to move lots of people - the Northeast Corridor - you're going to still need trains. You're still going to need subways, streetcars. We can't substitute cars for that kind of service.

GROSS: So, you know, we're talking about cars changing. And we're talking about the road infrastructure. What kinds of new highways will driverless cars require? Like, how might highways change?

SCHWARTZ: If we're really smart, we can have less infrastructure if autonomous vehicles really look something like cars. If they have a width of 6 feet as cars have today, if you have a three-lane highway - the average three-lane highway is 36 feet - you're probably going - three 12-foot lanes - you're only going to need, say, 21 feet. So you can either add more lanes and add more capacities to highways or do something else with all that land that will be unleashed and not have to maintain as much infrastructure.

GROSS: But let me interrupt you for a second because you are saying that we're going to be able to, like, eat and sleep and have romantic evenings in our car. So that requires room. But if you're making the car smaller because there isn't going to be a driver, then there isn't going to be a - you know, space to, like, live in your car the way you described it before.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. So I go through the good, the bad, the ugly.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

SCHWARTZ: What I'm painting right now is the good.

GROSS: OK.

SCHWARTZ: And the good is they look like cars. They don't look like conference rooms. They don't look like houses. They don't look like coffee shops. They look like cars. What a great opportunity if they stay in - looking like cars because of the narrowness of cars. They're 6 feet wide, but we have 12-foot lanes because people weave back and forth. They're imprecise in their driving. They're not paying attention. An autonomous vehicle could be like a tracked vehicle - stay in lane. So for - a 6-foot vehicle could have a 7-foot lane. So in that three-lane highway that's 36 feet - you can get a three-lane highway down to 21 feet, and it'll be a more efficient highway in terms of moving vehicles 'cause the autonomous vehicles could be more closely together.

GROSS: GM recently announced plans to shut down five factories in North America and cut about 14,000 jobs. Earlier this year, Ford announced it will stop making sedans. In 2016, Fiat Chrysler stopped making small and mid-sized cars. I think GM is also going to be cutting back its, you know, mid-sized cars. And the emphasis seems to be in two directions - one on AVs, autonomous vehicles, and the other on, like, trucks and SUVs. So we seem to be heading in two opposite directions at the same time in a way. Like, the most fuel-efficient and the least (laughter) fuel-efficient cars and, you know, more lightweight autonomous vehicles and incredibly, like, big and heavyweight larger vehicles. Do you see us heading in two opposite directions at the same time?

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I'm very disappointed in that the auto industry - and that, you know, they're reflecting the desires of the American people to be in bigger cars, to be in heavier vehicles and to have these front ends that are so high. That has an impact. That's why pedestrian deaths - that's one of the main reasons pedestrian deaths have soared - is that people are getting hit by SUVs, getting hit not - no longer with knee injuries - and this comes from ER doctors who've seen me, who talk to me. There's a real connection between the health industry right now and transportation. They say in the past, someone got hit by a car, it was a knee injury. It was leg injury. Now it's a chest injury, and those are more likely to be fatal. So I'm really not happy about that. But yes, it is going to be a problem - moving heavier vehicles and trying to consume less energy.

GROSS: My guest is Sam Schwartz, author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future." He's the former traffic commissioner of New York City. And after a break, we'll talk about the kinds of traffic nightmares we face today. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS'S "A FOGGY DAY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sam Schwartz, author of the new book "No One At The Wheel" about driverless cars and how they're likely to change the future of transportation, roads, jobs, cities and daily life. Now we're going to talk about the traffic nightmares we face today. Schwartz is an expert on that. He served as traffic commissioner of New York City and the chief engineer of the city's Department of Transportation. He now has a consulting firm which works with cities in the U.S. and other countries on transportation and traffic-related issues.

There are so many changes going on right now in who drives and what they drive and what the roads are like, and I'd like to spend some time talking about that 'cause I'm as interested in what's happening right now as I am as what's going to happen in the future as more and more AVs come onto the road. And you know a lot about what's happening now because your consulting firm advises, you know, different cities around the world how to deal with current changes. So let's look at what's happening in some places in America right now.

As you point out, millennials are generationally less likely to own a car or even drive a car than previous generations. So let's start with, why do you think that is?

SCHWARTZ: For a variety of reasons. And I did write a previous book, "Street Smart," in which I interviewed a lot of millennials. They came up with lots of reasons - you know, the cost, the - certainly the availability of other forms of transportation with the apps that you have today. The loans that they still have from college make it difficult. The - there was also an interesting thing that I learned talking to millennials - is they saw it as old-fashioned. They saw it from the back of the car.

Many of them grew up in suburbs - saw very unhappy parents fighting over who's going to drive the kids to soccer practice and school and to the dentist and all of those things. And they didn't - that's not a lifestyle that they want. So there's been a big 20 percent drop in millennials. It doesn't mean the majority don't drive. The majority do drive. But it's gone from 90 percent driving to 70 percent driving. A 20 percent drop is like an earthquake in transportation.

GROSS: And of course bicycles have become much more popular. But also millennials are taking advantage of app-based car services like Uber and Lyft. And I'm wondering how you think app-based car services like Uber and Lyft are affecting larger traffic patterns in urban areas.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, you know, I've been in the transportation business for a half century. I was a New York City cab driver back in 1968. And I watched transportation evolve over time. I have never seen anything as rapid as what has happened this decade. So Uber and Lyft - we were caught flatfooted, all those of us in city planning. We never saw it coming. We never thought it would be as popular as it is. But it is so popular that in five years, a brand new service eclipsed the number of people taking taxi rides in just about every city from taxi industries that have been around for a hundred years.

It has rapidly increased the amount of miles driven in the densest part of cities, so it's made congestion much worse in those places. And it's not provided the kind of service improvements in transit since it's taking a lot of people out of transit. In New York City, perhaps half the people in Uber and Lyft come out of transit. In California, which is really a car capital of the world, it's 33 percent of Uber and Lyft drivers - Lyft passengers say that they came out of public transportation. In Denver, in Boston - any city, it's the same thing.

So we're putting more cars on the road and we're putting them in the worst traffic spots. So it's been a shock to the system. If we can go to - when these services came in, they talked about taking people to transit. That would be the best use of these services.

GROSS: Another thing that I think is really changing the roads in cities are the delivery services, like the trucks that deliver groceries to your door through various apps and the bicycles that deliver food from restaurants through various apps to your door. And the delivery trucks - you know, when they double-park, that takes up a lot of space. And I know they're only running in and out, but it still kind of backs up traffic for that amount of time. So what's your impression about how the convenience that so many of us are taking advantage of through these delivery services, including deliveries on things that - you know, on goods that you order through the Internet - how these delivery trucks are affecting traffic?

SCHWARTZ: They're having a big impact, these micro-deliveries where you can have a - you know, toothpaste delivered, and that could be the only thing in the package. It adds to many more trucks. So we're seeing an increase in the number of trucks that are traveling in cities. It may work well in - again, in low-density areas, but in cities, it's been a problem. What we're seeing is some of the fulfillment centers are now using Uber and Lyft to make these micro-deliveries so, again, adding far more traffic. If we go back, you know, again, to the last century, people walked to stores. People drove to stores. People then collected and bought far more goods than they would at one time than they are now getting, every single day, a little package delivered.

GROSS: I think bicycles are having a huge impact on traffic, especially millennials who don't have a car and don't always need or want to take, you know, a vehicle service like Uber or Lyft. You know, you bicycle, but many urban roads are not really designed for bicycles. Where I live, for instance, in Philadelphia, it's an old city. It's a Ben Franklin-era city in some ways. And the streets are very narrow except for a couple of the main streets in Philly. And to squeeze in parked cars and drivers and bikes, you know, on one road is often really challenging. And there's wonderful things to be said environmentally and in terms of convenience about the positive nature of bicycles, but it's also, I think, having some adverse effects for life on the roads.

SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, I - again, I'd like to change the mindset a bit and remember that for hundreds of thousands of years, since the first cities started, it was the pedestrians that were walking, and the carriages had to go around them or move at the same speed. And somehow we've accepted the fact that we need lots of cars, lots of vehicles, and the intruders are the bike riders and the pedestrians, and they shouldn't be second-class citizens.

What happened in cities like New York City, Seattle and others that really went - I wouldn't say all out but at least in their central business districts provide far more pedestrian zones, far more bicycle lanes, the total number of cars coming in has gone down. And so we can get by with fewer cars. If we get by with fewer cars, then suddenly maybe Chestnut and Walnut in Philadelphia could have different uses. Maybe the cars go very slowly, which they do anyhow. But if you go to many European cities, you'll see the mix of pedestrians and cars moving very slowly. We may have to use examples like that, but we have to change our mindset.

GROSS: So what is your greatest frustration now as a driver when you're driving as opposed to using public transportation?

SCHWARTZ: You know, having been traffic commissioner, having been in charge of traffic enforcement, my blood boils when I see violations. And when I see violations where people are illegally parked or people are turning against a red light when they're not permitted, those things really drive me crazy. In New York City, we have government workers who drive in at twice the rate of anyone else because they get placards to park their cars. That drives me nuts. If I were back as traffic commissioner, I'd be telling all of them - in fact, I did that, and I told so many diplomats that I was invited to what I am told is the best-attended session of the U.N. General Assembly.

GROSS: (Laughter) They wanted you to fix their tickets (laughter).

SCHWARTZ: I had the - the Israelis and Arabs were on the same side as...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHWARTZ: ...Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. And it was just me being interpreted into a dozen languages. And one who would've gone by and just seen that scene not hearing what was going on would assume this lone guy at the table that the whole world was focusing on had the answer to world peace. It was all about parking.

GROSS: That is really, really hilarious. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Schwartz. He's the author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future." He's also New York City's former traffic commissioner and the former chief engineer for New York City's Department of Transportation. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI, ROBBEN FORD, BILL FRISELL AND J. ANTHONY GRANELLI'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Schwartz, author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future." He's also New York City's former traffic commissioner and former chief engineer for New York City's Department of Transportation. He now has his own consulting firm.

So let's talk briefly about your time as New York City traffic commissioner and chief transportation engineer in New York. One of the things I've always wondered is, how do you get traffic lights synced up? 'Cause I could see the possibility of syncing them up, say, going north-south, but what about the intersecting streets going east-west? Like, and you were doing that before, like, personal computers. So just tell us a little bit about the difficulties of making that happen.

SCHWARTZ: Actually, I learned how to do signal timing right near you at the University of Pennsylvania 50 years ago, and we did it by using graphs. And we used the speed and distance graphs to figure out - if a vehicle is moving at 30 miles an hour in six seconds, it'll be at the next street so we have to change the signal at the next street. Now, that's easy to do when you have just a linear problem. But when you have a grid problem, how do you do it crosstown? Well, we soon learned that we couldn't do it on every street, but we could do it on every fourth street.

So it's a mathematical problem. But ultimately, the conclusion that I came to in the 1980s, and that's after a dozen years at - working at the traffic department, was that we're not going to solve the traffic problem by moving more cars and that the best signal program for an area like Midtown Manhattan or center city is one that recognizes when the number of vehicles in the center city or the Midtown area is getting to a critical volume.

And at that point, begin to slowly entry of vehicles into it using the signal system kind of as a belt tightening the number of cars coming in. I first learned that in the city of Nottingham, England, which did that in the 1970s. I call it metering of high-density sectors, but we can't solve the problem of north, south, east, west. We really have to solve the problem as a grid problem.

GROSS: Shortly after you popularized the word gridlock - and you are the guy who popularized it - I was witness to an amazing gridlock in Manhattan. And I was fortunately a pedestrian at that moment (laughter) - not in a car. But it was a symphony of horns honking. And like, all around, the intersections were just totally bumper-to-bumper with cars. There was no place for any car in the area to move. And I always wondered, like, how does a gridlock like that - when it's, like, a super gridlock, how does it end?

SCHWARTZ: OK. Well, it starts because people are piggish. It starts because people block intersections which then block the perpendicular movement. And then...

GROSS: Oh, you're trying to make it through the (laughter) - you're trying to make it through the right.

SCHWARTZ: Right.

GROSS: And so is the car...

SCHWARTZ: Yes.

GROSS: ...In front of you. And yeah. And that's really a recipe for gridlock.

SCHWARTZ: Right, right. So...

GROSS: So yeah. So a gridlock's created.

SCHWARTZ: Right. So a bird's-eye view would show you're blocking yourself. So the key to that - and I've witnessed many gridlocks - is you have to slow the traffic coming into the area. On April 9, 1980, there was a thunderstorm - a terrible storm during the transit strike. And gridlock was happening. I don't know if it's the day you're talking about. And what I did was I took many of the bridges and tunnels and I reversed the lanes so all lanes went outbound. Imagine Manhattan now as a bathtub.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHWARTZ: And I turned all the faucets off that were bringing traffic in. I didn't let traffic into Manhattan for over an hour, and let the traffic go out the drain. I drained the traffic from Manhattan. So you need to do that. What happens on a daily basis is literally the traffic cop manually wrestling with the traffic to get moving. And sometimes it could last for many hours. And I actually keep a record of the 10 worst gridlocks to ever hit New York City.

GROSS: Was one of them around Christmas one year?

SCHWARTZ: Yes, it was around Christmas one year. It was on a matinee day. And what happened was everybody came into the city for the matinee. And many of them were not regular drivers. And they ended up blocking each other, and we had so many pedestrians at the same time. Nothing moved. And ultimately, the cops had to come and wrestle the traffic.

GROSS: I think that's the gridlock that I witnessed.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do a lot - did a lot of people hate you in New York 'cause you were regulating traffic in ways that helped some people but hurt others?

SCHWARTZ: Well, yeah. I mean, a lot of people have complained to me. And even today - I mean, I'm long gone. But during my tenure under my supervision, ultimately, we wrote about 50 million summonses and towed about 8 million cars. So I was not terribly popular. And also when I inherited the city's infrastructure, I closed so many bridges that were in danger of falling - and a few of them did fall - that people saw me and got scared and perhaps went the other way. Or I created bridge phobia which I think created a business for a lot of psychiatrists.

GROSS: (Laughter) All right. You know, I - I'm leaving this interview so conflicted because I see all the points you're making, but I drive. I use parking ramps when I need to. I take taxis or, you know, app car services when I need to. I use all of that, and I use it at my convenience for my needs. And you're making me feel, like, a little guilty about everything that I do. But on the other hand, we all need to get to where we're going in the best way that we can.

So I don't really have a question here. Maybe this is more of a confession. I don't know what it is (laughter).

SCHWARTZ: Well, I end the book with a quote by John F. Kennedy when he was president - the car is not the villain. What he called for was balanced transportation, and that's what I'm calling for. There are absolute times I take an Uber. I'm multi-modal man. I take a bus. I take a subway. I drive. I do all those things.

What we need is a better balance, in that the pendulum just swung in the direction of too many people driving. If the pendulum goes back, taxis will flow better. Those people that are driving will get to their destinations faster. Public transportation will have more revenue. There is a better way.

GROSS: Sam Schwartz, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. This is really interesting. I appreciate it.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you. And please don't feel guilty the - when next time you drive.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

SCHWARTZ: (Laughter).

GROSS: Sam Schwartz is the author of the new book "No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars And The Road Of The Future." He's a former traffic commissioner of New York City. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.