Driverless Futures

Google unveiled it’s newest iteration of the driverless car, this time without a steering wheel or brake pedals.  It looks a bit like a smart car crossed with a Beetle and a koala, but I’m still pretty excited about it.


I have never bothered to get a driver’s license, and it seems now like I was a (relatively) early-adopter of car-free life instead of a life-long freak: the proportion of young people with licenses has been steadily declining over the last ten years.  When I was 16, I looked around and saw lots of teenagers getting crappy cars to drive to crappy jobs to pay for their crappy cars, and decided that I didn’t really want to be involved in that cycle.  Spending 15-30 hours working at Dairy Queen didn’t seem like a terribly valuable experience.

Since leaving St. Louis, I’ve actively made decisions that put me in places where it’s easier to live car-free.  I did bits of undergrad in Boston, Budapest, and Eugene, Oregon, all of which are great places to live without a car.  Graduate school was in Davis, California, consistently ranked one of the most bike-friendly places in the US.  And my main gripe with Toronto isn’t my ability to get around, but rather the difficulty of getting past the sprawl for long bike rides.  On the whole, I think I’ve ended up living in better places because of the non-driving constraint. I’ve certainly spent less time bored in traffic.

About twice a year I find myself in a situation where it would be useful to know how to drive.  But (as of 2009) the average person spends about $9,000 per year on their car, taking into account vehicle cost, gas, maintenance, and insurance.  The poorest car-owners spend around $3,000 per year.  I spend significantly less on transit, so occasionally shelling out for a somewhat ridiculous solution to carlessness is really not a bad deal.  And with the gig economy expanding, it’s much easier to find someone to help move the occasional couch.  The main difficulty is really that I can’t take a rental car out to the mountains on the weekend.  (Instead, my small trips involve a train and a bike, usually.)

It’s looking, though, like if I wait just a bit longer, I’ll lose ALL of the reasons for learning to drive.  It’s pretty exciting, on a lot of levels.  For myself, I can envision renting a car to head to strange places in the middle of nowhere.  But I also envision a world where it’s easier and safer to bike in traffic, where people are dying in car accidents less often, where vehicles are more efficient, where cities are built for people rather than cars.

It’s been a rough few years for the future.  Between climate change and the steady creep of unbounded surveillance, between right-wing hostage politics and the steady failures of market economics, things haven’t been looking too bright.  It’s nice, at least for today, to have one positive development, which might point a way through at least some of the tangled mess that is the American present and into a future we’ve been too busy to properly imagine.

2 thoughts on “Driverless Futures

  1. Jonathan Woolley May 30, 2014 / 11:32 am

    I am mixed about our driverless future. I agree it will be awfully nice to leave Davis CA after work on a Friday afternoon with five friends and wakup fresh in the Tetons Saturday morning for a weekend mountaineering. Yes, it should also make intercity and highway transportation much safer, especially for pedestrians and bicycles. I share your hope that this could help to transform urban design in a way that would be more people-centric and less auto-centric. Even aside from the land-use link, the opportunities for improved efficiency are compelling. I see two levels where the driverless future could save energy even without transforming other things: (1) safer driving can allow for smaller lighter cars, which Newton theorized would require less fossil energy (2) driving, route finding, and traffic flow would become a mathematical optimization problem which could easily save energy and reduce congestion.

    I figure that driverless cars could help to deflate our auto-centric cultural attitudes about cars as individualistic status symbols. This could change a lot of things. Imagine the car share program of your dreams, where a fleet is shared amongst a critical mass of individuals, and math solves our collective getting-there-ness. I’m partial to the idea that we might grow willing to ride-share as well in driverless cars; think granularized, on-call public transportation. You wouldn’t have to do more than call up a route on Google Maps (of course) and a car-van could be dispatched to you directly.

    However, I’m afraid there’s a more sinister side as well. Some academic studies are projecting that congestion could increase. Since the opportunity-cost associated with driving is much lower more people will travel. That is, since you can do other things while traveling (like play GranTourismo on your GoogleGlass) the burden of driving will be less, so more people will do it more. With the promises of efficiency, the economic cost of travel should also decrease which would similarly motivate more travel. The projection relies on the assumption that there is latent demand – that we would travel more if we could. Maybe? I hate to admit, I probably would. My other, related worry is that the driverless future may not usher in an age of people-centric efficient urban living. Over the past several decades people have been flooding to suburbs and our cities have sprawled out into a seemingly endless desert of cement-scaped ticky-tacky. It seems the only limits to this growth have been how far people are willing to drive. Apparently, some people are already willing to drive pretty damn far, so what does it spell for land use in the driverless age? Could the driverless car gut our urban centers and sense of community still further as we slip deeper into a narcissistic techno-centric back hole?

    • sdenton4 June 2, 2014 / 1:39 am

      Good points, Jonathan. It’s been pointed out in a number of places that there is a fairly large contingent of people out there who can’t drive because of age or other infirmity (and a few people like myself) who would almost certainly take advantage of access to transit. Which would increase congestion, while making for a much higher quality of life for people who are otherwise trapped at home.

      On the sprawl front, I’m just as anti-suburb as anyone, and it would be a real shame if the next generation of transit advances encouraged the continued creep of sprawl. I was under the impression that younger people (say, under 35, like me!) tend to be living in cities more than the previous generations, though. Here, at least, is a NYT article saying as much. This article at least suggests that the reduction in suburban living is due mainly to housing costs, difficulty of commuting (note the ‘successful’ suburbs building housing near train stations), and the general non-allure of strip malls and box stores. It seems like congestion and gas costs are already bad enough to make suburbs less attractive, such that increased congestion could actually be a further blow to the suburbs. But obviously, this is hard to actually foretell. You could certainly be right that easier access to transit would lead to more suburbs.

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