Driverless cars

Via Virginia Postrel, an op/ed piece by Bob Bruegmann has some thoughts on driverless cars’ impact on urban life.  Since sf colors how I think, I found the lack of thought-through details disappointing. The main take-away is “driverless cars wouldn’t necessarily lead to more sprawl,” which suggests to me the piece is intended to lodge in the brains of Congressional aides and other people who won’t build the future, but can stop or slow certain embodiments of the future.

The idea of an on-demand vehicle–essentially, a robot taxi–is certainly appealing. (I have an airborne version in New California). However, given that the right to own a manually-driven taxi is immensely profitable, thanks to an artificial, government-created shortage ($1 million for an NYC taxi medallion!?), the vested interests would oppose it. (I picture a smoke-filled room where representatives of Big Taxi promise money to charlatan do-gooders who’ll astroturf an anti-robot-vehicle movement).

I also found interesting one comment on the article, that equates “robotic” with “centrally controlled.” Not at all. The first robotic vehicles, e.g., the one that one the DARPA challenge a few years ago, or Google’s Bay Area-to-LA robotic Toyota, are autonomous. They know the rules of the road but make their own decisions about how to get to their destination. (After all, do the police instruct your car’s nav system to take or refuse certain routes?) The commenter’s confusion suggests those of us eager to build a pro-freedom future need to better play up the angles of distributed decision making, spontaneous order, self-organization, etc.

What would a world of driverless cars feel like to live in? Here are a couple of thoughts.

Commuters would get more done. I usually enjoy driving, but I’d gladly trade the 45 minutes I spend in my car on a typical day doing something more productive. We already multitask when we drive (listen to music, listen to audiobooks, have phone conversations), but I think most people would like to do more. Or take a nap.

Cabins of cars would become like the passenger compartments of limos, with all the seats facing one another and more luxuries (TVs, computers, etc.) available.

We wouldn’t need parking lots near our destinations. The driverless car could drop us off and go find a parking lot somewhere nearby. E.g. the Toyota Center in downtown Houston has a parking garage that sees use maybe 120 times a year, almost always on nights or weekends. The biggest obstacle to using it for parking during the workday is that it’s a few blocks from the nearest office buildings (and you wouldn’t want to walk half a mile in Houston in the summer if you didn’t have to). But if your car drops you off, it can make that drive. You’d tell it to pick you up at a set time, or you could call it to come get you a few minutes before you need it.

The autonomy of a driverless car might make it easier for a family to have only one car, if they choose. It drops off the kids at school, then takes the parents to each of their jobs, then picks up someone for an appointment or a lunch meeting, etc.

Would roads full of driverless cars look like a stereotype of Italy today, cars driving pell-mell without regard for lanes and intersections? Probably not, for two reasons. First, driverless cars would share the road with human drivers for a few decades, and pedestrians after that. People need signs and lights. Second, even if there were roads where the only people are passengers in driverless cars, don’t underestimate the lock-in effect of human expectations. Does your cell phone’s camera still make a shutter sound when you take a picture? We expect cars to follow the rules of the road, and that won’t change if robots are driving them.