The driverless car is one of those ideas that I used to look at and respond, "get a bike." Then I spent a couple of days with some of the smartest designers I ever met at the Institute without Boundaries, "envisioning a new sustainable mobility vehicle" and drank the Kool-Aid, to the point where I recently wrote about How the self-driving car might make our cities better and greener.
Now Allison Arieff takes a look at the subject in the New York Times and comes to a different conclusion. She notes some of the possible upsides that I have mentioned, (safer, probably faster, fewer of them), but nails the issue when she asks:
Why Are We Still Focusing On the Car?
Self-driving cars seemed futurist a century ago; today, it seems out of touch to focus on cars at all.... In the United States, it feels like all that innovation is connected to the automobile with app-enabled carsharing, ridesharing and even the renting out of one’s driveway for extra revenue. While this sort of invention is a welcome addition and helps reduce the problem of one person driving alone in one car, it has the potential to lessen our belief in public transit as a public good as greater numbers of people turn to these customized solutions for getting to work.
She goes on to make what I think is her strongest point, asking:
Do Driverless Cars Enhance Density — or Encourage Suburban Sprawl?
If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive. America’s car-dependent culture has been encouraged (and subsidized) for the last half-century; instead of bucking that trend, a driverless car culture remains car-dependent.
Allison then raises the issue of social equity; how the young and the poor who cannot afford cars now probably won't be able to afford a self-driving one either, even if they are shared rather than owned. At this point I realized that techno-optimism can blind you from the real issue on the table, the reasons I so objected to Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) or pod-cars, calling them a Cyberspace Techno-dream; that they represent the peculiar American fear of buses and transit, where people actually have to share space with other citizens who might actually be poor or a different race. They do, as Allison notes, remove the incentive to live in denser places where you can walk or bike to school, work or shopping.
I admit to having been captivated by the idea of sharing, the elimination of parking lots, and the fact that as many as 95% of cars might have been eliminated if they are always on the move serving someone instead of being parked.
But then I read the majority of the 300+ comments to the article, attacking Allison and summarized here in two comments:
A predictable anti-car anti-suburb Jane Jacobs type of article. Most people do not want to live in high rise apartments and ride subways. Most people like their own houses, gardens and cars. I include myself among them. Cars are an essential part of low density life.
Most people do not want to live with the noises, smells and cramped quarters that high density urban living require. They would prefer the privacy and quiet of suburban or rural living if they had access to urban amenities. Solar derived electricity and robotic vehicles will provide the technologies to do that within decades and improve the quality of life for everyone with reduced costs and environmental impact. It's not sprawl if it's environmentally friendly and low cost, and that's what it will be, even with Luddite complaints about how the world was better in the 19th century before the invention of the internal combustion engine.
It all reminds me of Woody Allen's Sleeper, or the wondrous H2Pia that proposed a world of low density suburbia all running on sunlight and hydrogen. The driverless car is nothing more than a way to spread the suburban way of life even deeper into the countryside. Allison is right, and I am reverting to my original thought: "Get a bike."