The driverless car doesn’t look any more futuristic today (in fact, it pretty much looks like … a car), but what is radically different now is that the means to make that car drive autonomously have been figured out. For example, Google’s driverless cars — the ones you hear the most about — have completed over 300,000 autonomous-driving miles accident-free. Many experts, from architects to automobile executives, predict the ascendancy of the autonomous vehicle within three generations. Allstate is preparing actuarial tables; Ford, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan, among other car manufacturers, in an unusual shift toward long-term planning, are seeing the writing on the wall and have developed working prototypes. (This may be a smart strategy, given how the United States is trending; in China, meanwhile, car ownership is growing by more than 10 percent annually.)
But all the geeky enthusiasm overlooks serious, um, roadblocks with regard to urban design and social equity. And, if you’ll forgive the hyperbole, the American dream — which is, after all, deeply grounded in the car, the social signifier that is the three-car garage and, even, the red Corvette that is the midlife crisis. There are some very good things autonomous vehicles might possibly provide — yet the obstacles to their integration seem insurmountable. If we’ve struggled so much to get a few hybrid cars on the road, how could we ever begin to get even near replacing our existing auto-dependent system?
But back to the possible upsides. First, a potentially safer way to get around. Cars are dangerous — over 32,000 people were killed by motor vehicles in 2011 alone — mostly because of the people who drive them. Remove the driver, say autonomous advocates, and you’ll remove the danger. Further, self-driving vehicles provide mobility for those who lack it — the disabled, seniors, even children — and for those who perhaps shouldn’t have access to it otherwise (i.e., drunken drivers).
Self-driving cars seemed futurist a century ago; today, it seems out of touch to focus on cars at all. Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses as each year goes by. Rates of car ownership are decreasing. Bikeshare, rideshare and carshare programs are gaining in popularity and acceptance, as are transit-oriented communities.
So why continue to design and plan for a car-based society? Transit innovation is possible, and is indeed inspirational, in many non-North-American cities. The TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in Bogotá, Colombia, for example, comes to each bus stop every 10 seconds and carries close to 40,000 passengers per hour, 1.6 million per day. (Every 10 seconds — can you imagine?) 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.
I began writing this article during the Bay Area’s BART strike the week of July 1, and it was disconcerting to hear many folks in the Bay Area shrug their shoulders (or stick their feet in their mouth) about the loss in service. For them, it was a minor inconvenience, remedied with a $15 ride from the Uber car service (“everyone’s private driver”) or from the on-demand carsharing service Lyft in lieu of a train trip. (Forbes magazine, among others, has argued that the greatest obstacle to driverless cars may well be taxi drivers.)
I wish more start-ups would devote similar zeal to non-car-focused pursuits. And that these innovations were not app-dependent, and by extension, accessible to those without smartphones.
(And it must be said, inherent in an embrace of driverless cars is an assumption of benevolence. The utopian notion that these vehicles would eliminate danger from the driving equation is naïve at best — it’s not difficult to imagine how easily the freeway’s computer networks could be hacked.)