Why Driverless/Self-Driving Cars Aren’t the Future and Aren’t Good for Us

October 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Every once in a while I see an article pop up on some reputable newspaper/magazine’s website about the driverless car (specifically Google’s driverless car). This recent article in the Economist touts the driverless car as a revolution in the auto industry. I believe it would be a bit daunting to write an entire piece about driverless cars, especially because I have a tendency to rant. Instead, I’ll take some excerpts from articles on the subject (which are vastly about the benefits of the driverless car) and offer an alternative perspective. Starting with this Economist article:

THE arrival of the mass-produced car, just over a century ago, caused an explosion of business creation. First came the makers of cars and all the parts that go into them. Then came the garages, filling stations and showrooms. Then all sorts of other car-dependent businesses: car parks, motels, out-of-town shopping centres. Commuting by car allowed suburbs to spread, making fortunes for prescient housebuilders and landowners. Roadbuilding became a far bigger business, whereas blacksmiths, farriers and buggy-whip makers faded away as America’s horse and mule population fell from 26m in 1915 to 3m in 1960.

The auto industry has spurred a lot of growth and investment in certain sectors, like homebuilding. But building and building and building out into the suburbs isn’t sustainable, economically and environmentally. Car parks (“parking lots” in American English) are directly the product of automobiles, however, most people park for free anyway, and parking lots – especially in urban areas – are ugly and a waste of precious land. They’re expensive, too, and everyone pays for them when they’re built. And suburban shopping centers? They’re dying, and complete neighborhoods do a better job at providing everything necessary for quotidien life. No more sustaining the unsustainable model of the suburban shopping center.

Do you really want to go back to this?

I don’t know how “blacksmiths, farriers and buggy-whip makers” fading away is a relevant point. Moving on:

Just imagine. It could, for a start, save the motor industry from stagnation. Carmakers are fretting at signs that smartphone-obsessed teenagers these days do not rush to get a driving licence and buy their first car, as their parents did. Their fear is that the long love affair with the car is fading. But once they are spared the trouble and expense of taking lessons and passing a test, young adults might rediscover the joys of the open road.

Just two paragraphs earlier, the author was talking about the antiquated blacksmiths and buggy-whip makers and how the auto industry replaced these. The author then proceeds to make the case that driverless cars will save the auto industry from stagnation. It reminds me of what President Obama said at one of the presidential debates recently about bayonets:

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor [Romney], we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.

I don’t know what the author is getting at here, but if the auto industry is stagnating, maybe it’s because young people are moving on to better ways of getting around that don’t involve the automobile. I don’t think that there is much “trouble and expense” in getting a driver’s license – many high schools offer the courses before or after school, and it’s insanely cheap to get a driver’s license in the U.S. It’s less the expense of getting licensed and more the increasing expense of actually purchasing, maintaining, and operating a car that is causing young people to shift away.

Another worry for the motor industry is that car use seems to be peaking in the most congested cities. Yet automated cars would drive nose-to-tail, increasing the capacity of existing roads; and since they would be able to drop off their passengers and drive away, the lack of parking spaces in town might not matter so much.

Nose to tail? Not until every single car on the road is driverless in this future. With the technology certainly more than a decade until debut, and decades further for full integration, “nose to tail” traffic won’t come quickly. And just where does the author think the cars will go after dropping off their passengers?

There’s are existing modes of transportation that drop people off at a destination and drive away afterward: buses and trains.

Cars have always been about status as well as mobility; many people would still want to own a trophy car. These might not clock up much mileage, so carmakers would have to become more like fashion houses, constantly creating new designs to get people to swap their motors long before they have worn out. But cars that are driverless may not need steering wheels, pedals and other manual controls; and, being virtually crashless (most road accidents are due to human error), their bodies could be made much lighter. So makers would be able to turn out new models quicker and at lower cost. Fresh entrants to carmaking could prove nimbler than incumbents at adapting to this new world.

So this model produces more and more and more to get people to spend their money without regard for the environmental cost? Not a word on what to do with the vehicle parts when they’re worn out. I hardly think this is the path to a more sustainable, reusable future.

When people are no longer in control of their cars they will not need driver insurance—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers. Traffic accidents now cause about 2m hospital visits a year in America alone, so autonomous vehicles will mean much less work for emergency rooms and orthopaedic wards. Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too. When commuters can work, rest or play while the car steers itself, longer commutes will become more bearable, the suburbs will spread even farther and house prices in the sticks will rise. When self-driving cars can ferry children to and from school, more mothers may be freed to re-enter the workforce. The popularity of the country pub, which has been undermined by strict drink-driving laws, may be revived. And so on.

The article started with the godsend that is the automotive industry and how amazing its economic power is, but now it’s moved into how many motor insurers and brokers are going to become irrelevant. Where the author really screws up, though, is assuming there will be far fewer hospital visits. There’s a simpler way to reduce the amount of “accidents” and deaths caused by automobiles, and it’s by making cities more walkable and bikeable. The author probably thinks bicyclists are “asking for it” by biking in the street with the dominant autos, but communities that share the road have fewer injuries and deaths. What will continue to increase with driverless cars, however, is the rate of obesity – which will worsen the public health crisis in the United States. Half a century ago, when half of children walked to school, the overall obesity rate among Americans was lower. Today, it’s 15%, and our children are fatter. This is not a direct causation, but children getting less physical activity certainly plays a part in their health. Driverless cars mean less people walking, which means a more sedentary lifestyle (the same lifestyle cars already provide).

In the same argument the author seems to think driverless cars are a women’s issue, and that more women would enter the workforce if only mothers didn’t have to cart their children around everywhere! What a burden children are. It has nothing to do with the fact that these mothers are choosing to live far out in the Euclidian-style suburbs that separate houses from everything. In the traditional communities of nearly a century ago, children could walk to school, parks, you name it. Even today, school buses in most school districts will come to pick children up at a preset time.

The author really nails it on the next one – pubs are being undermined by strict drunk driving laws! What an economic burden it is to stop people from driving while drunk. If only we let more people drive drunk could we build more pubs. What a shame that there’s no service you can call on-demand to get a ride to wherever you need for a modest fee.

All this may sound far-fetched.

No kidding.

On to the next article, via The Atlantic Cities:

Templeton’s theorizing could also answer some of the critiques from transit-oriented environmentalists who see driverless cars as perpetuating the doomed auto-heavy American system. Don’t think about the driverless car as a fossil-fuel powered car replacement; think of it as one mode of a radically more efficient system: what could you do now within a system that now has free-floating semi-autonomous people transporters?

This article focuses a lot more on how driverless cars could reshape urban transportation systems as well, but takes a different approach: The author sees driverless cars as being more like an on-demand taxi, able to be flagged down or called for, albeit faster and probably safer. This is a much more sustainable perspective on driverless cars, but it goes in direct contrast with what others think of driverless cars. Cars like this could revolutionize transportation, but there would still be people that want to buy their own driverless cars, making this image still as relevant as it’s always been:

Cars vs. Bus vs. People/Bikes

Moving the same amount of people 3 different ways.

This is America, and nobody is going to be driving cars smaller than those pictured in the leftmost image above. A bus that moves the same amount of people as all those cars is almost as long as 3 of those cars.

Walking, bikes, buses, trams, and trains are certainly not as fast as driving (most of the time) and wouldn’t be as fast as people think driverless cars could go, do we really want cars flying down streets? Even with the most state-of-the-art sensors, people walking down a street shouldn’t be subject to cars traveling faster than they already go – in many American cities, that’s already too fast. How do we accomodate people who still want to ride a bike or walk? Do we assume that everyone will want to ride around in a driverless car to get everywhere? If so, is this our future?

Wall-E People

Credit: Pixar/Driven2Divide.

I’m not kidding. The obesity epidemic would only get worse if it were easier to drive a car. As it exists now, many American cities’ transportation systems are inadequate and don’t serve the population efficiently, either because there isn’t enough coverage or because the service isn’t frequent enough to be available as spontaneously as a car.

The Atlantic Cities’ article is good at offering a different perspective on the driverless car, but it ignores something else that every article I’ve found about driverless cars fails to mention: Energy.

While energy efficient cars are touted by politicians and are generally regarded as progress toward a more environmentally friendly future, energy efficiency is only one aspect of a car. There is still the fact that cars make more unsustainable land uses possible: suburban shopping centers, wide freeways, huge parking lots, and more space for larger houses that use more energy. They also use energy, and America today still gets most of its energy from nonrenewable sources. The presidential candidates that are actually in the media haven’t discussed anything about energy besides how much they love “clean coal.” Not to mention the question someone posed at the 2nd televised presidential debate, about what each the two candidates would do to control gas prices.

Let’s get one thing straight before moving on: Only the leaders of communist countries control the prices of commodities. Last I checked, right-wing protestors are outraged at President Obama’s efforts to control the cost of health care, but controlling gas prices is serious enough to merit discussion in front of tens of millions of Americans.

I’ll admit to living in a dream world where the price of gas is actually controlled by a free market and isn’t kept down by subsidies, where the gas tax is eliminated and replaced with a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. But we’ve already had problems with the existing gas tax, and I’m not talking about how it hasn’t been raised in over 15 years. I’m talking about how more energy efficient cars use less gas but still travel on roads largely paid for by the gas tax. Fewer gas purchased means less gas tax revenue. To sweeten the deal, some states offer a tax credit for buying a more energy efficient vehicle, further lessening revenue (and subsidizing purchases of expensive new vehicles at the expense of all taxpayers). Fully electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, don’t buy any gas yet drive on the same roads as cars that do use gas and therefore pay a gas tax. This is a recipe for disaster – not only from a revenue standpoint, but also a political standpoint. Any politician who proposes raising the gas tax or starting a vehicle miles traveled tax would be soon out of a job.

So if driverless cars are going to be electric, they’re not paying gas taxes (unless that changes drastically, and soon), yet they’re driving on roads that need maintenance and will certainly need infrastructure upgrades to accomodate the driverless car technology.

The cost of actually “filling” electric cars up is another story. $2 to $4 for 100 miles is a good estimate but varies based on the cost of electricity. Right now, most of America still gets its power from nonrenewable energy sources, so the energy used by driverless cars would still be coming from fossil fuels or nuclear power until we shift to using renewable energy. Buses and trains are still more energy efficient per passenger mile, and biking and walking can’t be beat in terms of energy efficiency. Even if/when the day comes that most of our energy is from renewable sources, we still have to deal with the reality that it is expensive and land-consuming to generate this energy. It should be diverted to the most important uses – not duplicating service (that is, driverless cars where you can walk, bike, or ride a train).

Finally, none of the articles mention communities and how we use the land. This isn’t surprising since the authors are all economists or engineers. This New York Times article cites “transportation experts”:

…there is a growing consensus among transportation experts that self-driving cars are coming, sooner than later, and that the potential benefits — in crashes, deaths and injuries avoided, and in roads used more efficiently, to name a few — are enormous.

I don’t know who the “transportation experts” The New York Times cites are, but I have a feeling they’re transportation engineers, who have little regard for the safety of anyone but drivers and build roadways for the optimal, fast movement of cars (think wide turn lanes in cities). Well-educated urban planners know that this type of road design is on the way out and that there is a growing interest in designing cities for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders – basically anyone that isn’t driving. Decades of policies designed to speed up road traffic have left cities looking like the suburbs that came after them and traffic stagnated. People are moving to more walkable communities, cities are redesigning neighborhoods to be more walkable, and there is a growing interest in making it easier to get around without a car. After all, if you spend less money on getting around, you have more money to spend at your destination.

Do we really want to live in neighborhoods with driverless cars whizzing about? Of course, these cars will be able to sense pedestrians and cyclists, but how friendly will their presence really be? We should focus more on making communities easy to walk in, not only for the economic benefit but also for the social benefit. A driverless car whose journey begins and ends in a garage offers no opportunity to keep streets safer, to socialize with neighbors, or to make communities enjoyable places to be. Jane Jacobs’ theory of “eyes on the street” is further diminished when most people are in cars, no longer paying attention to the street even while driving.

I’m afraid that driverless cars will reverse the progress cities are just now starting to make. We’re investing more in innovating transportation ideas and developing more people-sized communities which offer economic benefits, environmental benefits, and health benefits. Driverless cars may lower the cost of owning and operating a car, but only if monetary costs are counted. Social and environmental costs have been largely ignored in the discussion about driverless cars, and it’s time that we think back to the middle 20th century and how the introduction of the automobile forever changed the urban form, how we’re now beginning to mitigate the ills a car-dependent society has wrecked upon us, and what the introduction of driverless cars would mean – both the benefits and the disadvantages.