Self-Driving Cars: ‘Freedom’ or ‘More of the Same’

2 Feb

That last post got quite a response.  It was really fun reading all the comments.  Thanks to everyone for keeping the conversation civilized and productive.

One recurring theme that kept appearing in the comments section was that of self-driving cars.  If self-driving, autonomous, driverless (whatever you want to call them) cars still seem like science fiction to you, they probably won’t seem that way for long.  I am not even going to make the argument about whether or not they are coming.  They ARE coming!  Google seems to have nearly perfected the technology behind it.   At this point, it is only a matter of sorting out the legalities of introducing millions of self-driving cars onto our roadways.

Just for fun, here is a short TED Talk on Google’s cars.  The technology is absolutely awe inspiring.

If we assume that these cars are coming, the next question is:  How will this change our driving habits and our lives?  I have two very different expectations of what will happen when Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and all the other big manufacturers start putting out self-driving cars.

First the optimistic expectation.  In the optimistic future, self-driving cars will provide a complete paradigm shift in the way we think about transportation.  If self-driving cars become the main form of transportation, there is no practical reason to own a personal car.  Think about it, when cars are in storage approx. 95% of the time, that is a wasted resource.  This is the reason that we require so much parking.  What if during that 95% of downtime, the cars were off handling other trips like driver-less taxis?  When you needed a car, you summon it and it appears Batmobile style within seconds, or at the worst a few minutes.

How great would that be?  You no longer have to worry about maintenance or parking and you get to split the cost of the car with everyone who uses it.  Parking would free up all over the city because it is no longer needed.   You don’t get stuck with a single car.  If you need a 7 person SUV, you get it.  If you need a pickup truck, you get it.  If you need a single passenger vehicle, you get it.   And since you aren’t tied to your car, you might even walk more.  Previously you would drive that 1 mile to the grocery store, now you may walk it and simply opt for a ride back.  The sunk cost of owning and operating a car would vanish.  You would only pay for what you actually use.  This might actually prompt alternative transportation use.  It is hard to justify taking the train, when I have already sunk 20 grand into my car.  If enough people exchange a few car trips for walking or transit, we may even see a return to more walkable communities.  This would, of course, lead to even more people choosing walking and transit.  I can really see some positive momentum coming from intelligently used autonomous vehicles.

Now for the pessimistic vision of the future.  Nothing changes.  It is the same model that we have now.  Every single person owns his or her own car.  We still have to store all those cars 95% of the time and the only real difference in the commute is that you can watch cartoons on the way to work instead of driving.  Granted safety would be greatly improved and maybe some increase in efficiency on the highway.  Although as long as some people are still driving themselves mixed in with the driver-less cars, not much efficiency can be gained.

What would really happen in this scenario is that urban sprawl would increase dramatically.  When people are deciding on where to buy a house, they are weighing cost per square foot against commute times.  People who currently tolerate a 45 min. trip to work in exchange for the 6000 square foot McMansion way out in the exurbs, can now really spread out.  Instead of driving 45 min. to work, you can move 2 hours away from work and sleep in your car on the way in each morning.  Hell, why not live 8 hours away and do all of your sleeping in your car. (OK maybe that is a little crazy)

 Each time a new mode of transportation is introduced (bikes, trolleys, trains, cars, highways, etc.)  our cities change shapes.  Make no mistake, self-driving cars will not be a simple improvement over our current system.  They will have a dramatic effect on the shapes of our cities.  Ultimately we will probably have a mix of both the pessimistic and optimistic views.  After all, what is pessimistic to me may be optimistic to someone else.  This is OK, as long as the net effect is an increased quality of life in the towns and cities where most of us live.

EDIT:  The blog Narrow Lanes has an interesting post on driver-less cars with more examples and a skeptical POV from someone who doesn’t want to lose the joy of driving by turning control over to machines.  It is worth a read.

18 Responses to “Self-Driving Cars: ‘Freedom’ or ‘More of the Same’”

  1. Charles February 2, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    Man, forget driver-less cars. Where are the flying cars “Back to the Future” promised?

    • thelyniezian February 3, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      Incidentally having driverless tecnology might make flying cars more plausible. Much of the reason flying-car concepts have never taken off is because basically you need a pilot’s licence to fly them, and that’s far more difficult foryour average person to manage- flying vehicles are that much more difficult to safely handle. If everything was automated, it would remove this hurdle.

  2. Roman Melnyk February 2, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    it is funny, but in Kyiv, Ukraine, students are using this method, you described in your post, I mean to sleep for two hours while your car drives you to the office. The difference is that we sleep in trolley-buses which are often sank in traffic jams, but it works to some extent:)

    another pessimistic vision could be the possibility of the government or municipality or a private firm, who own those cars, to watch where how and whith who we are going somewhere..

  3. Thomas Weigel February 2, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    Regarding the optimistic version: keep in mind that there need to be enough cars for peak traffic, not average traffic. That is, if people store their cars for 95% of the time, that doesn’t mean that the city can get by with only 5% of the cars during the morning commute.

  4. Rio February 2, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Well,it might cut down gridlock. Would they have a “central control”?

    I think people will still want “their own” cars because the really crazy thing about the relationship between this device and it’s human is the ownership. People are (in some cases) more apt to regard that relationship as some holy bond, greater than parenthood. That and the fact that they keep all their garbage there, dog hair, coffee cups…

  5. Jonathan February 2, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    Interesting. I like the optimism, but I think it is unlikely. You would need some form of management/governance for this system. Maybe it would be something Zipcar could do. I hope for the best, but expect the worst.

    What about self-driven buses and trains? Why not, right?

  6. lexy3587 February 2, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Unfortunately, I can definitely see the second alternative happening. One place I worked had a subway stop in the basement. Because of the terrible traffic getting there, it would have taken me an hour to drive there, or an hour to transit there. I really REALLY wanted to take the subway, because, at least on the subway, I could do something during that hour – read, do a sudoku, nap, whatever. The only reason I didn’t was that I was doing site inspections at least four days out of five, and would need to make it across the city to get to the sites – the car was necessary for getting to those construction sites. So, given the choice of identical commutes, I would have chosen the one that gave me free time… a self-driving car would have been ideal, and I would probably have been willing to have a longer commute in that case. I much prefer the first version you projected, though. Especially if multiple people headed in the same direction could use the same car (automatically, regardless of whether they’d rather be alone)… how perfect woudl that be?!

  7. tmso February 2, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    I like your optimistic view. That would indeed feel like freedom and make us all feel like we are living in a sci fi story. I wonder though, how well will this technology transfer over to third world countries, if at all?

    • dmanstow123 February 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

      well if you look the third world countries are becoming more advanced thou slow so some day it will reach them

  8. lifewithblondie February 2, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    There’s just one reason this idea doesn’t work for me… what happens to all the mail I leave in my car along with the piles of homework and jackets we never bother to carry in the house? You’re asking me to learn to keep the car cleaned out, and I just don’t think that would ever be a possibility for me! LOL

  9. David McClurg February 2, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    The optimistic outlook would be awesome if it happened. I personally could use more walking, and I think it would encourage it to some degree. Of course the pessimistic outlook will always have a say. Things never go perfectly well.

  10. Xamuel February 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    Police Departments will be extremely pissed about losing the cash cow which is parking tickets and traffic tickets.

  11. Gilberto February 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    Derek, not sure if you’ve read my post on the ‘driverless’ car of the future but you’ve cited some similar examples. I actually reference your post “cars kill cities” as well. check out my point of view, for and against here: http://narrowlanes.net/2012/01/31/driverless/

    • dedwards8 February 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

      I just read your blog. Very interesting read. I posted the following response at your blog….

      People love cars. There are few joys better then getting out on an open highway or country road, rolling down the windows, and blasting some tunes. This is something that I never want to lose the opportunity to do. However, this behavior doesn’t really work in urban environments. It is in these places that cars become less freeing and more cumbersome. Urban environments are where driverless cars will be best suited and have the most positive effect on quality of life.

      There are really two types of vehicle usage. There is practical use (going to the store, going to work, etc.) and there is recreational use (e.g., taking trips out of the city and breaking the speed limit on the highway just for fun). Maybe we can find a way to make the laborious tasks easier without taking the joy out of recreational driving.

  12. Panfilo Castaldi February 5, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    Another interesting post, Derek, thanks.

    Your pessimistic scenario is very worrying, particularly with the likelihood of accelerated urban expansion. Here in Melbourne, our ever-expanding suburban fringe makes us one of the biggest and least dense cities in the world. And you’re absolutely spot on about the real estate psychology – heading ever further out will become even more approachable the less one has to do with the actual driving.

    Indeed, extrapolating this scenario another step, I can imagine how the ease of driverless cars could make public transport obsolete – why bother with timetables and the great unwashed public, when your personal taxi is available at a moment’s notice? Take this yet another step and I can imagine city-based users putting their cars into perpetual driving mode when not in use to avoid parking costs, driving around and around all day, waiting for the pick-up call.

    All that said, I agree the driverless car is inevitable and being pessimistic about the inevitable is a terrible way to be.

    So let me be optimistic…

    When the car was invented, it had a very clear purpose: to carry us further and faster with less personal effort expended, more comfort and accompanied by more stuff. Ever since the execution of that original mission statement, we have been hard at work compromising it. In the name of traffic management and safety, we have introduced speed limits, road lanes, traffic lights, speed humps, roundabouts, stop signs, give way signs and blood alcohol limits. Assuming all cars are driverless (a requirement easily legislated in developed countries once the technology is sufficiently widespread), the driverless car potentially does away with all of these obstructions.

    Maybe the technology has the potential to greatly enhance the efficiency of car-based transport.

    As I mentioned to the last post, check out this fascinating and highly relevant project by Danish architects, BIG, commissioned by Audi.

    Regards,
    Warwick.

    PS. Even with driverless technology, I still prefer the train.

  13. dmanstow123 February 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    there got to be a risk with giving control over to a self atomated car like what if it dies or losses control

  14. Mister Nomer February 7, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    RE: If self-driving cars become the main form of transportation, there is no practical reason to own a personal car.

    While I agree that self driving cars will be a boon to car sharing services, I seriously doubt it will kill car ownership. I ask you has the advent of the cloud killed PC ownership and spawned shareable PCs or shareable smart phones? “Here, don’t you want to use my iPhone? There’s only a little bit of schmutz on it. No? Aw c’mon…” What I think it will do is lead to different kinds of car ownership and car use, i.e. the car equivalent of the transition from heavy desktop, laptop, & Blockbuster video to smart phone, tablet, ultrabook, laptop, desktop, and Netflix.

    RE: Previously you would drive that 1 mile to the grocery store, now you may walk it and simply opt for a ride back.
    Actually I think what will happen is that local stores will expand into this market. I mean, why should Amazon Fresh have all the fun? Imagine a large van-like vehicle, trundling through your neighborhood like a milk truck, dropping off groceries and dry cleaning. Multiple stops on a single trip, how’s that for better road utilization?

    Or, if you happen to own your own car: You stay at home to keep an eye on your Mom, who’s elderly and currently sick. Your spouse rides with your daughter to school to have a talk with her along the way, then after dropping her off rides to work and sends the car back home to you. While it’s en route, you redirect it to swing by the drug store. As it pulls into the lot, a camera scans the license plate, notifying a a clerk, who grabs your order and walks it out to your car. Just as you get off the phone with your client (you work at home), your car pulls up outside. And, hey, look, there’s the dry cleaning van.

    RE: What would really happen in this scenario is that urban sprawl would increase dramatically.
    I think you’re being too pessimistic here. Why wouldn’t it also lead to more people living in small, walkable towns and commuting into the city? A 2 hour commute at an average speed of 30 MPH equals a radius of 60 miles. I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot of small towns within 60 miles of most major cities and I think the choices that people will make are going to leave us pleasantly surprised.

    RE: When people are deciding on where to buy a house, they are weighing cost per square foot against commute times.
    Not exactly, please keep reading.

    RE: Instead of driving 45 min. to work, you can move 2 hours away from work and sleep in your car on the way in each morning.
    Or, I can get a jump on the day and work on my laptop in my car. I get to work and do 6 hours of work there. On the way home, I call home and through the miracle of facetime and the giant LCD in the back of my car talk with my spouse about the day and our family.

    Or, let’s say that with self driving cars, spending an extra hour each day in my car (shared or otherwise) means I can live more cheaply. And, because of that, I can save enough to put my kid through college. Or, because of that, I can have my elderly Mom stay with me and get care from a private nurse instead of having to live in a nursing home. why shouldn’t I try to do either of these things?

    I say this not to be snarky but to articulate that there are factors other than $/ft2 vs HH:mm that influence the choices that people make about where and how to live.

    And that, I think, is what this technology will do: enable people to live closer to the way that they want to live be it densely populated city, walkable small town, or somewhere in between.

  15. jpgreenword February 20, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    If the goal is to not have to drive, wouldn’t the logical solution be public transit? In a city with a well organized system, you can get from “anywhere” to “anywhere else” relatively easily. At least that was my experience in Ottawa (Canada).

    The unfortunate reality is that our consumption and use of automobiles is not sustainable. Whether you consider the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, the wasted space in city centers for parking or urban sprawl, the pressure should be towards the construction and use of well designed public transit. Not self-driving automobiles that will actually encourage more driving.

    In my opinion.

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