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The Driverless Car Debate Heats Up

Writing for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Brad Plumer has a nice round-up of the costs and benefits of automating cars. After going through the litany of advantages, including higher efficiencies and roads more friendly to bikers and walkers, he brings up this criticism:

More and more people will drive. Think about all the people who are not allowed to drive right now. Everyone under 16. The elderly. The disabled. People who are intoxicated or on medication. People who are sleeping. That’s a huge portion of the population. And all of those people will be able to ride in driverless cars. And that means we could see many more car trips.

That’s a huge plus for mobility. But it also has big energy implications. At the moment, vehicle miles-traveled in the United States appears to have peaked back in 2005 — in part because fewer and fewer young people are getting their licenses and driving. Could self-driving cars reverse that trend?

Somehow we think that if anything is going to wreck Planet Earth it won’t be joy rides for the handicapped that does us in. But the transportation revolution, if it comes, is going to be part of a set of changes that make for a much more sustainable economy with much more benign environmental consequences than even some optimists have yet understood.

Plumer and a lot of others miss that two factors will be working together to reshape 21st century transportation: not just self driving cars but telework and more broadly the substitution of the movement of information for the movement of meat. People may well travel for fun more than they do now, but they will travel less, perhaps much less, for work and for errands. The twice-a-day Great Migration of the 20th century, in which hundreds of millions of people around the world drove to work in the morning and then drove back home at night, is likely to fade away. More people will work from home or from conveniently located satellite offices more of the time; more routine business travel will drop off as new generations more comfortable with interacting and transacting online come to the fore.

Put telework and driverless cars together and you start to get a much clearer look at the kind of future we can build. Big mass transit investments don’t look smart in this kind of world—Governor Brown’s high speed rail in particular. The roads and the airways are going to be significantly less crowded and congested than many planners now anticipate, and old-style mass transit will be less heavily used than many hope.

Plumer understands that conventional mass transit will lose its appeal once individuals have their own form of passive transport during which they can zone out. But some of his worries about the impact of driverless cars on the environment dwindle if we remember that people will still be cost-sensitive in the future and that driverless transport can take many forms.

It’s likely that some people will prefer group transport on self-driven vehicles. Buses can be as automated as cars. Cheaper than door-to-door individual transport will be auto-bus rides with multiple passengers going to different destinations or, in some cases, passengers leaving from many destinations heading to one final stop. Many people now prefer to take cheap airport shuttles that drop several passengers at different destinations rather than individual cabs; automated busses using smart algorithms will offer services that many people will prefer. Such rides will take a little longer but cost much less. And some of these routes can be subsidized as a new form of mass transit that is significantly less capital intensive and much cheaper to operate than the mass transit systems we now have.

Also off Plumer’s table: huge infrastructure savings since it’s peak rush hour capacity that drives the need for a lot of construction. This downshift in infrastructure construction has environmental as well as economic consequences, and provides a powerful financial incentive for government to promote and hasten the transformation of the transport network and the wider adoption of telework.

Americans need to recover a sense of optimism. The world of the future looks to be significantly cleaner, greener, cheaper and more convenient than the world of the present, and the faster we make the change the happier we will be.

[Driverless Google car image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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  • Andrew Allison

    The problem here is nomenclature: they are not driverless cars, they’re self-driving cars which, for the foreseeable future will have a licensed driver subject to all the usual regulation sitting in driver’s seat.

  • Jim Luebke

    The real question, of course, is how long the driverless car actually took, in its lap around the Top Gear test track…

  • Luke Lea

    I wonder if it will be boring, riding around in a driverless car? I hope it’s not as bad as riding in an elevator. Driving engages our attention at least.

  • Asad Abdi

    I am hoping the same finest operate from you inside the potential also.

  • Ethan Rosen

    Another potential not covered here is the concept of driverless car communes. While richer people will undoubtedly opt to own their own cars (or share them with their immediate families,) self driving cars open up a world of possibility for poorer folks.

    Since the cars don’t need a driver, it is probably that in the future, entire communities may opt to purchase small amounts of these cars (10 for 100 people perhaps,) and allow users to essentially share the cars, using smartphone apps to allocate a car to pick them up, and drive them to their destination. Since the cars are self driving, they can drop the users off, and immediately leave to go pick up another user.

    The potential to share cars could cut down on the energy and materials required to actually produce the cars, while also enabling a type of car pooling that could cut down on total energy used by allocating the cars more efficiently.

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