A couple of Saturdays ago, I did the right wrong thing for the right reason
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of value. Value is the amount of service you get in trade for something. When I was growing up, if you wanted nice things, you had to pay a lot of money. More than I had, anyway. Not anymore.
I read this rather breathless article about driverless cars a couple of days ago. I was smitten with the focus on parking. Less written about, at least here, is that much of the advantage in driverless cars is in much tighter following distance. The driverless cars that are out there now, driven over 400k miles in California’s countryside and cities, are lined with sensors to detect and avoid collisions. The dream of driverless cars is that all cars are driverless, in the same way that all cars drive on the right today. At that point, they won’t need sensors to avoid collisions with each other, as they will be able to use transponders for that. I assume the subroutine will be that transponders will allow much closer following, but that sensed objects off the network will be given a wide berth. They will still need the sensors to avoid collisions with the uncouth and unlinked masses, like old cars, deer and walkers.
The real problem with driverless cars is that they are still cars. They still get about 30-50 miles per gallon of gasoline. They still perform best in many-to-many networks, meaning average vehicle occupancy will never be that high. They still require about 1% of an acre per passenger. Being driverless, their average speed might be well above 35 MPH. Great for passengers, terrible for anything that gets hit by them. They still make us dependent on a mode that spaces out and abstracts land use, rather than concentrating and intensifying it. They still make us dependent on enough energy to move 300 pounds of people in 3,000 pounds of vehicle. They still make us pay rent for the privilege of being on the network, and make those not on the network second class citizens. The cost of that requirement will probably be over $10,000 every year by the time driverless cars really get going. We could use that energy for computing or buildings, or growing food. But no, we have to push the heavy vehicles all around the cities.
So what are driverless cars good for? They would likely be more fuel efficient, from better management of stop and go traffic. They would be more time efficient in route and in parking. The linked article harps on that. They would almost certainly be safer than human piloted cars, even for walkers and bikers. They could also make cars function more like services, not possessions. A car club could rent its members small, efficient, single or two-seater cars for most trips, and offer them a truck or SUV only when they needed to haul larger groups or cargo. There would be no need to worry about skill, and people wouldn’t be driving large trucks for routine trips on the contingency that they would need that size truck every month or so**.
As long as they keep all those sensors around. And of course they would be yet another luxury in our 20,000 year tale of technological progress. I see little reason why driverless cars should not be the majority of traffic in under 20 years.
** Excellent suggestion via Lars Fields.
Since 2007, impossible things have been happening. Traffic has been shrinking in America. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT are down to the same numbers as we had in 2001. With increasing population, per capita miles traveled in traffic is down to 1995 levels. The group ditching their cars has been the youngest generations. Driving is no longer a standard rite of passage at 15. As young Americans age, might they keep living the model of their carfree salad days?
This is astonishing. What did we do to get Americans to use their cars so much less? Aren’t we still building roads? Weren’t highways and road bridges the shovel-ready projects that kept the construction industry afloat in 2009 and 2010? Aren’t we still in thrall of the American love affair with the car? Have all the whispered, urgent pleas of the new urbanists, conservationists, and smart growth advocates finally found an audience? Surely this is the dawn of a new frontier in walking, biking and transit as the vanguard of millennials matures into a new kind of American. One that doesnt need the car anymore, at last.
Just look at what its doing to congestion:
(thicker lines=larger cities
Not so Fast.
We are now mostly cyborgs.
A cyborg is a hybrid of human and robotic elements that enables the human remaining to be more powerful than the human by itself. Google Glass and some prosthetics offer this promise. The enhancement of human capabilities through personal machines. But we have been cyborgs much longer than that.
We drive cars.
Cyborg is a pretty good description of the American relationship with the car in traffic. Technically, the cyborg is about internal improvements to the body, but that is the only exception to a pretty good and common fit. When we get in our cars, our awareness of our bodies expands to the four corners of our vehicle. The way we interact with people we meet is no longer about words, eye contact, or body language. It is about the shared adherence to the rules or f right of way, blinkers, and in the the worst case, horns. If we run into a person on the street, whether than t is a pleasant distraction or an expensive calamity depends on which side of the curb we are on.
The car in traffic is very like a robot that protects us and gives us superhuman strength and speed. Whereas I can only kick or punch things at 100 pounds of force., in an average car, I can deliver 5000 pounds of force to whatever I hit. While I can only walk at three miles an hour, a car can easily do ten times that in stop and go traffic. While I would break a sweat on a summer day like this, the cyborg, or mecha-suit of the car keeps me in climate controlled comfort., No mean feat, when you consider that the closed windows of a car also makes a great greenhouse.
The way many of us are seen in public is not with our faces, but with our grills.
Cartoon copyright Scott McCloud, from his excellent “Understanding Comics“. I recommend that book to anyone.