In this second and final post in a series, I’m responding to Bill’s reservation about robot cars. In my first post, I responded to Bill’s objections to robot cars. Now I want to draw attention to some benefits I think he (and others) overlook. So here, in no particular order, is a list of some of the potential benefits of robot cars.
Fewer cars. As Bill points out, many of the benefits of robot cars come from the fact that we could have fewer cars. While he asserts that we can accomplish a reduction in vehicles without robot cars, I’m not so bullish. I think few technologies or policies hold the same (long term) promise of robot cars to reduce the number of vehicles. This means more money in your wallet, probably less gas burned and more importantly (for urbanists):
Less parking. There may be three nonresidential parking spaces for every car in the United States. Imagine if we could reduce that to two or even zero. A car that can drop you off wherever you want and then leave doesn’t need parking space. How much land in our urban centers could be turned over to productive use (some say one-third of downtown Minneapolis is surface parking)? How much more livable could we make these places? How much stormwater runoff could we prevent? If cars needed to park at night or during off-peak times, they could drive to places no one likes for storage, or simply double or triple-park on wide roads. As Matt Yglesias points out, giant mall parking lots and park-and-rides would become an artifact of history.
The right vehicle for the right job. As Americans, we know that we might at a moments notice need our vehicle to traverse craggy cliffs and deeply rutted canyons to engage in some unique adventure in unspoiled wilderness. This desire (as well as comparatively low, low gas prices) means we often drive vehicles that are much too large. Imagine a world in which you could summon that hulking four-wheel-drive beast when you needed it to move those steel tubes around the construction site, but for your daily commute you could summon a half-width hybrid electric podcar. This would mean significant fuel savings and more efficient use of our existing roads.
Safety. Yes, there will still be accidents, but far fewer per mile. At least there should be, or we shouldn’t even consider adopting robot cars. And the current track record (although slim) looks good. Computers never get tired, drunk, don’t talk on the phone or text, don’t speed and won’t drive beyond the limits of the vehicle or the weather. Cyclists and pedestrians should rejoice. Obviously road design issues are still very important, and the coming of the robot car does not mean we should stop thinking about how all modes will interact.
Better transit. Timothy Lee and Matt Yglesias both posit that robot cars will actually help transit systems, especially in places with robust existing network. In densely developed places, robot cars won’t replace what we currently think of as transit, because a car is still a car, and takes up more space than a person sitting on a train. In these places, robot cars will help transit. Parking spaces near transit stations can go away, meaning denser development which improves accessibility and therefore fixed-route transit as a mode. Transit will also evolve. From Timothy Lee:
Current bus systems are designed to economize on one of their most expensive components: the human driver. Contemporary buses are enormous and run infrequently. At off-peak times, they’re almost empty. Buses that drive themselves will be dramatically cheaper to operate, which means that we’ll be able to afford many more of them. Instead of a full-size bus stopping every 15 minutes, it’ll be feasible to have a van stop every 3 minutes. And because each mini-bus will pick up fewer passengers, travel time will be lower.
Indeed, it’s not clear that the concept of a “bus” will even make sense in a self-driving world. More likely, when you order a self-driving taxi with your smartphone, you’ll be offered several options. You might be offered a private taxi for $3, a taxi shared with one other person for $2, or a carpool van with several other people for $1. The dispatching software will be able to automatically group together passengers taking similar trips at the same time, so the carpool options shouldn’t add much time to the trip. With those low-cost options available, it’s not clear anyone would want to ride a bus.
Think about this future: transit becomes cheaper as a system, people have more options and arrive more quickly at their destination, and political wars over transportation funding cool as the line between “transit” and “car” star to blur.
Yes, we still need to care about sprawl, and yes we still need to care about equity. But those are issues we’ll have to deal with no matter what our transportation systems looks like. These are policy issues, not technology issues. Robot cars may be able to drive us around, but they won’t vote and they won’t be making laws. We can harness the benefits of robot cars to create more livable and environmental sustainable cities.