To whom did you send you your first email? What was the first app you installed? What was the first movie you streamed?

Where did you go the first time a robot drove you?

For nearly as long as I've followed planning and transportation, the running joke, recited in conference sessions and at happy hours, has been that self-driving cars are at least five years away -- and always will be.

But, no. A few days ago, I boarded an otherwise empty Jaguar I-Pace, festooned with sensors, and driven according to a dataset aggregating the wisdom gained from tens of millions of miles of driving.

Nine minutes later, I arrived at the Country Mart, a shopping center that looks like a 1900s farm. The future is now.

None of this is news to many engineers, alpha testers, and tech evangelists. But, given that 99.9% of the population has yet to witness this fact, I feel obligated to confirm that autonomy is not five years away. It's here, now.

(Los Angeles was one of Waymo's three beta-test cities, along with Phoenix and San Francisco. In March, it received permission from the Public Utilities Commission to operate in 22 cities on the San Francisco Peninsula.)

According to the axioms of computing, the technology is as bad now as it will ever be. How bad is autonomous driving? Not. It is not bad at all.

At every turn, the car was cautious to a fault. It accelerated gradually and never went an iota over speed limits. It came to complete stops and took curves gently. It used turn signals fastidiously and stopped for pedestrians. It was like the DMV Driver's Handbook incarnate.

Bedazzled in sensors, a Waymo Jaguar I-Pace stops for a pedestrian.

I'm reasonably confident that robots are safer for occupants, fellow vehicles, and all other users of streets and sidewalks than are the millions of bozos (myself included) who text, talk, sing, dance, daydream, make out, smoke out, and do god-knows-what-else behind the wheels of our sundry suicide machines.

My only complaint: I wanted more zip. I don't want my robots to be in a hurry, but I don't want to feel like I'm in a horse-drawn carriage either. Eventually, there may be a case to be made for higher speed limits for robots.

At whatever speed, autonomous taxis aren't going to take over Los Angeles, or anyplace else in the state, overnight. There's still a chance that AV's will go the way of the Segway. Or, it could be the next iPhone.

Planners, start your engines.

For cities, AV's present a few appealing best-case scenarios: they demand less parking (since they'll always be on the move), create efficient carpool situations, reduce emissions (as long as they're electric and, ideally, charged by green energy), and, yes, might reduce crashes.

The more planners can accommodate AV's, the more of these benefits cities will reap.

Most obviously, planners, in collaboration with developers, need to figure out how to trade parking spaces for safe, easy pickup/dropoff areas. Case in point: my Waymo picked me up in a red zone on a fairly congested two-lane street. To drop me off, it unnecessarily snaked through a parking lot when it easily could have pulled into a curbside space. Cue the public works folks and private-sector architects to design driveways, cut-outs, and portes cochère to their hearts' content.

And yet, Jevon's Paradox tell us that the more efficient something is, the more heavily it gets consumed. What does that mean for safe, affordable, carbon-lite transportation?

Author and robot (l.) out for a Sunday drive.

Jevon will get jump-started when, inevitably, some developer in Hemet, Poway, Camarillo, or Pleasanton -- God bless all of them -- builds huge houses on huge tracts of land and give away free Waymo memberships with each one of them. The discomfort of the hour or so it would take to reach downtown San Diego, Los Angeles, or San Francisco from the exurbs will give way to the pleasantries of reading, watching movies, getting foot massages, or whatever. Super-commuting could become robo-commuting, and we're going to have a huge traffic problem on our hands, along with no small measure of suburban ennui.

I don't know if AV's are going to be good for the soul. I suppose they're not going to be any worse than regular cars are. But, I do know what is better than regular cars: an attractive, lively, diverse city. As humanity surrenders itself to yet another technological revolution, good planning in center cities becomes increasingly urgent. That ping you hear from the Waymo app: it's a call to arms.

Planners, along with developers and everyone else who collaborates to create urban form and culture, must create appealing, functional urban places. We need places that make walking short distances more attractive than kicking back while R2D2 navigates us through traffic. We need places that promote human interaction and aesthetic delight. We need places that are fun, affordable, and full of opportunity. We need places that obviate the need for driving entirely.We always need those things, of course. Now, though, AV's heighten the urgency. Luring people out of their robot cars, once they take hold, is going to be even harder than luring them out of their regular cars. If people fall in love with their robots, they're going to miss out all the more on the flaneuristic joys of walking, biking, and existing as a real, live human in the urban realm.

Likewise, public transit agencies need to collaborate with AV services to promote trips to and from mass-transit stations. The robot that can drive you all the way to the office could just as easily drive you to the light rail station -- and then immediately pick up someone who's doing the opposite commute. Unless and until AV fleets grow, this is the ideal way for AV companies to magnify their presence and usefulness. They're especially useful if the robot can calculate exactly where and when to drop a passenger off to meet the train or the bus, or, perhaps, to avoid traffic jams during, say, morning rush hour.

The public sector has some leverage here, at least for the time being.

AV's are still experimental and aren't yet broadly permitted to operate. And they're too conspicuous to follow the "don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness" strategy of rideshare apps. They need state sanction, which means that the state can attach conditions. Those conditions can, and should, include earnest efforts to support and collaborate with public transit. They should also include contributions to a fund to help retrain and place TNC drivers who are going to be displaced. (Every developer who has ever participated in inclusionary housing, paid an in-lieu fee, or paid a utility hookup charge knows how this works.)

Much of the regulatory lobbying thus far has focused on safety and been motivated by labor interests, such as the Teamsters, who surely would like AV's to drive themselves into the ocean. Meanwhile, SB 915, introduced in January, would give local jurisdictions significant regulatory powers; currently, the Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Utilities Commission have the final say over vehicle-related regulations. As appealing as this bill may be for individual cities, it portends chaos whenever an AV crosses a city limit.

At this point in my life, I've sent and received probably 200,000 emails. And I've taken many thousands of car trips. I expect that my ride to the Country Mart is the first of many autonomous rides to come. But, like receiving a handwritten letter, they still will won't beat a walk down a lively city street.

Image credit: Waymo

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