Self-driving cars have been a thing on TreeHugger since 2011, when we predicted that they would be shared, smaller and lighter, electric and there would be far fewer of them. And back then we were predicting them taking over in 2040. How things have changed; now they are apparently right around the corner, and many are worried that they are not the answer to all our urban problems that we once thought they were going to be. Rebecca Solnit explains why in the Guardian:
We don’t need new ways to use cars; we need new ways to not use them. Because here’s the thing people keep forgetting to mention about driverless cars: they’re cars.
She goes on to explain why we can't have nice things like high speed trains and subways that work and libraries that have books and parks that are maintained: because the car and the home in the suburbs meant that we no longer had to share common spaces when we had a media room instead of a neighborhood theater, a backyard instead of a park.
The rise of the private automobile accompanied the white flight of the postwar era. It was subsidized by a massive governmental program to build highways and freeways and by a withdrawal from public life and public space, which suburbanizing modernist designers saw as useless, chaotic and menacing, when they saw it at all. They tried to design it out, with much success. Their designs pushed people into what sprawl gives rise to: the rise of private transit, the decline of public transit, socially and economically segregated landscapes, and unpleasant commutes.
We have written before about how self-driving cars are beloved of conservatives who see them as a way to eliminate mass transit; just throw a pile of cars at the problem. As one Florida senator said about investing in rail: "It’s like they’re designing the pony express in the world of the telegraph." Solnit makes the same case about the Silicon Vally technocrats.
Apple, Tesla, Uber, Google and various auto manufacturers’ pursuit of driverless cars is an attempt to preserve and maybe extend private automobile usage....That’s not the future. That’s dressing up the past. We need people to engage with bicycles, buses, streetcars, trains, and their own feet, to look at ways they can get places without fossil fuel.
Solnit discusses how apps and technology can make our transit experience better still, with apps that tell you when the bus is coming. She notes that spending an hour on a train with a book (or even twiddling with your phone) is very different than an hour in stop and go traffic (although to be fair, in a self-driving car you can twiddle with your phone, read a book or have a martini too)
Self-driving cars are, like so much technology, a solution in search of a problem. We already have beautiful solutions, well-deployed, to moving people around, better solutions in terms of safety, emissions, efficiency, and the rest. All we need is the political will and cultural imagination to get on the bus. Or train. Or ferry. Or bike.
It's a good read, by an author who previously wrote Wanderlust: A history of walking and knows her topic. But in the end it has all been said before in the Best Tweet Ever about urban design and transportation, by Taras Grescoe: