Most of the discussion, here and elsewhere, was in varying flavors of an ice cream called "miracle of science." But cars are more than just products of the latest science and technology. They have, in the previous century, redefined human habitation and in doing so, have fundamentally changed man's relationship with the planet. If conventional cars did all that, what will the driverless cars do to our homes, our communities and our landscapes?
A trip with one person in one vehicle (or even 1.13, the average number of passengers in an average car ride to work in the United State) is fundamentally less efficient than that with 50 people riding the bus or 500 riding the subway. The most energy efficient, and the least greenhouse gas-emitting, places in the developed world, are those where people ride public transportation in preference to cars -- like Tokyo, London, or New York.
The least energy efficient and most damaging to the environment are places of highest car usage -- like Atlanta, Dallas, or Phoenix. Will adding driverless cars make for good environmental results?
Cars are a part of contemporary life and are not about to disappear anytime soon. But truly smart and sustainable cities realize that cars exist in a continuum with other means of transportation. For the truly individualized trip, from the city to a vacation home or campground, from school to a game of soccer and so forth, the car makes a lot of sense. But for major trunk routes, from residential areas to areas with job concentration, it makes no sense for thousands of individuals to undertake an identical or close to identical trip in individual vehicles, rather than sharing fuel use, road space, etc.
Sergey Brin, standing alongside the California Governor, said that parking lots were a blight on the face of the earth. What is hard to understand then is how increasing access to cars going to solve the problem?
Cars, no matter how efficient in packing streets and parking lots, are still cars. They represent an awfully large footprint and consume an awfully large amount of resources to transport 1 or 1.13 people. That inherent inefficiency will not go away. In fact, in increasing access to cars, and in surrounding them with an apparent cloak of efficiency -- whether through the ability to pack streets and lots tighter or through using electricity as a fuel -- there is the risk of the rebound effect.
This is what happens when increased efficiency -- resulting in lower cost or increased availability -- ends up driving up total usage. Broadband Internet is the classic example. Driverless cars run the exact same risk.
Ultimately, the phenomenon of people sharing space by riding public-transportation is not just about transportation and its efficiency. It is also, if not entirely, about the intrinsically more efficient communities that public transportation creates. More than the transportation, it is about the people themselves.
Walking from one's home to the bus stop is an act that is humanly scaled. There is the opportunity to run into a friend on the street or a colleague on the bus. It involves walking, climbing stairs and so on.
The act of being in a car by oneself is the exact opposite. It reduces human interaction, the ability to spot a known face, and to stop and chat. It is, instead, the transportation equivalent of isolationism. Now, you don't even have to watch out for that car ahead of you, or the kid chasing a ball across the street.
You can, as you go from A to B, be completely lost in C.
--Projjal K. Dutta, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Director of Sustainability Initiatives. (The views reflected in this blog are his personal views and do not reflect those of the MTA. Find him on Twitter: @projjal.)
Re: An alternate approach I would think the social interaction on public transports is an item needed to be looked at. It would seem though that such interaction might take place in smaller cities, or at least on public transportation that caters to smaller neighborhood units. Those in favor of driverless cars are going to counter that the social media is sufficient for "social interaction" and carryon with one person-one vehicle modes of transport.
The real destination Yes but this seems to miss the big picture. It is not that driverless cars will take people to the places they think they need to be, it is that driverless cars which have screens for windows and are immobilized because there are so many on the roads there is no way they can move, become virtual teleporters showing us a picture of where we want to be while connecting us to the people who we think should be there ina virtual 3d environment in the vehicle thus enabling full and productive lives in 'other' places. And so it becomes a virtual vehicle, parked near the front door so you can hang on to the habits of the past without actually leaving your front garden.....
Re: An alternate approach Thanks for clarifying, gagnamstyle. You have a valid point.
Part of my vision is based on the idea of virtually identical and always interchangeable vehicles, all under network control. The computers would keep most congestion from happening, simply by routing the cars around areas of high traffic. Pick-up and drop-off points would be out of the main traffic pattern so the primary motion would virtually never stop.
Clearly this would require quite a bit more than just a few automated cars. But it seems to me a viable model for transport in the future, capable of replacing nearly all that we have today: private cars, taxicabs, and buses would all be obsolete.
I used arterials as an example. It could be any level of street, really. I was trying to counter the utopian vision of automatic valet parking that one of the respondents had painted. Wouldn't it be nice if we drove somewhere and did not have to look for parking? All I was saying is that the act of looking for parking is a branch further out in the driving tree. If the trunk and the lower branches, i.e. arterials, feeders, and even the highways, were jammed, then how much of a benefit would automated valet parking really amount to?
Re: An alternate approach Indeed taxi drivers might suffer. I had not forgotten that but don't have a solution.
As far as your concerns that the congestion would move out to the arterials...I was under the impression that the arterials already have the worst traffic and that was what this concept might help. Am I missing something?
Re: An alternate approach Hmm...driverless taxis, thats a thought.
But what about taxi drivers? They are wage-earners, often a the bottom of the pyramid. Currently technology cannot do without them. If driverless cabs replace them, then there is a likely scenario where a big corporation (or two) will become a monopoly (or duopoly). And we all know what big corporate monopolies do to pricing.
The vision of stepping out of a car at a destination and car finding a parking spot for itself is a very seductive one (I am now addressing another comment), but what if driverless cars, through increased use, add to traffic congetstion? So that the choke point does not remain parking at destination, but instead moves backwards down the tree to the arterials and the trunk?
Re: Another downside? Lovely point Susan, completely agree. Can imagine the day when divorce attorneys are chasing down driverless car data.
Jokes apart, though, there is an inherent and very significant loss of privacy that comes from driverless cars. It is the opposite, almost, of the old phrase of being alone in a crowd. Data mining is so easy that getting lost as an individual in a large group of people is more possible than than thousands of individual, seemingly private, riding around in cars where a server knows every detail of their journeys.
Re: Cars on demand Peter, there is no historically inevitable connection between cars and the US. Or put another way there is no natural disconnect between public transportation and America. It is very man-made, and relatively recent. The currently high auto-usage that we find ourselves laden with, is a result of large-scale policy intervention (some would say state sponsorship of big-auto and big-oil) on part of the Federal and, later, State governments; starting wtih Eisenhower's signing of the Interstate Highways Act.
Just as 60 years of state-sponsorship has created an artificial sense of natural American habitat (centered on car use), I believe that reversing those policies can bring us back to communities of walking, biking and transit use.
MIA in Brasil Thanks everyone for your wonderful, thoughtful comments. My silence was due to a very happy reason - ten days full of futbol and beach fun in Recife, Rio and Sao Paolo. I will respond to some of your comments separately, in just a sec.
On my first visit, I found Brazil to be a lovely country. The cities and even small towns, to be full of life. And, I would like to think, that some of that sense of community that I got at every turn and in every moment, was a direct consequence of riding the Metro, walking, jostling and generally interacting with each other in a way that can only happen with infrequent car use.
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