Mass transit in an age of self-driving cars
Wired’s article about the nearing technical feasibility of self-driving cars makes several intriguing observations about the (possible) future of personal transportation:
[A]s we gradually relinquish our driving duties, it’s conceivable that we may also give up our sense of ownership of the car itself….Does anyone long for their teeming towers of CDs over the simplicity of Spotify? Similarly, we may well come to view the car less as an object to be owned than as a service to be streamed from the cloud. We already have the experience, through an app like Uber [www.uber.com], of summoning a car service with our smartphone, then watching as it moves toward us on a Google map, like the progress bar of a download. The final leap here is to envision a self-driving car that can be commanded like an elevator. When a car can drive itself to our door whenever we want it, why own something that spends more than 90 percent of the time simply parked? [emphasis added]
Most of Tom Vanderbilt’s piece dissects the current state of the art in self-driving cars (summary: it’s incredibly good and getting better), but I think this speculation into some possible cultural effects is far more intriguing. Many current conversations about transportation and its relationship to development assume an impasse between mass transit and private cars. (See, e.g., Brian’s recent discussion of edge city Tyson’s Corner here.) However, if cars drive themselves and can be “subscribed” to as a “service”, much of the efficiency of mass transit could be realized without changing America’s dominant infrastructure (i.e., roads and highways). I imagine, for example, that each self-piloting car would be on the road for a far greater percentage of the time, lowering the overall demand for the number of cars. Additionally, “auto-taxi” companies could offer varying classes of service, from expensive and on-demand (i.e., a car to one’s exact location immediately) to cheaper and shared (e.g., using algorithms to find other passengers demanding similar routes and combining them into one trip). Perhaps transit authorities could even offer a greater choice (and variability) of bus routes , knowing that they would only have to actually run buses on routes and at times actually needed.