“This [car] is bound for glory…”

Megan Garber of the Atlantic explains the car-centric origins of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral:

The efficiencies of the [Orange Drive-In Theatre where Rev. Schuller first held services in 1955 in Orange County, CA] were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car….”

The Schullers, and their contemporary entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged….It was, with its peculiar yet practical combination of openness and enclosure, an improvised idea that happened to fit its time. The Schullers’ motto? “Come as you are in the family car.”

As the article goes on to note, Schuller eventually moved out of the drive-in and into his Crystal Cathedral, which has been “in the news most recently for its financial troubles — culminating in bankruptcy, a controversial shift in the the church’s leadership structure, and, finally, the sale of the Cathedral itself to a neighboring (Catholic) diocese.”  I guess things went a little off the rails at some point.

More seriously, however, I find Schuller’s integration of the automobile into Christian liturgy fascinating (and more than a little disturbing).  Megan’s article makes it clear that, by and large, Schuller’s drive-in congregants remained in their cars throughout services (“Church rubrics, the guidebooks for services, included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows”).  It’s hard to understand how attendees could have Christian communion–in either the literal or general sense–by themselves from the walled-off comfort of their own cars.

Pedestrians in a world of driverless cars

Many bloggers are starting to tease out the social and infrastructure implications of driverless cars, including David Alpert over at the Atlantic:

[Driverless cars] will bring many changes, but when it comes to the car’s role in the city, they may just intensify current tensions.

David suggests that new technology will simply exacerbate current trends by “trigger[ing] a whole new round of pressure to further redesign intersections for the throughput of vehicles above all else”:

If autonomous cars travel much faster than today’s cars and operate closer to other vehicles and obstacles, as we see in the [University of] Texas team’s simulation , then they may well kill more pedestrians. Or, perhaps the computers controlling them will respond so quickly that they can avoid hitting any pedestrian, even one who steps out in front of a car.

In that case, we might see a small number of people taking advantage of that to cross through traffic, knowing the cars can’t kill him. That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.

Our metropolitan areas could then look, more and more, like zoos for humans interlaced with pathways for the dominant species, the robot car.

Personally, I think one of these scenarios (i.e., “travel much faster…[and] kill more pedestrians”) is unlikely.  Initially, driverless cars will almost certainly be much more expensive than equivalent conventional vehicles.  A car that is both (1) more expensive and (2) more dangerous seems unlikely to sell well, to say nothing of the likelihood that such lawsuit-magnets would be sued utterly out of existence.  To catch on with a mass market, driverless cars will at least need to uphold safety’s current status quo.

As far as David’s second fear (“metropolitan areas [that] look, more and more, like zoos for humans”), I’m unclear how much that differs from current development patterns.  While there are plenty of examples of “walkable” cities, much of contemporary American infrastructure is extremely unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-car users.  To the extent that cars dominate today’s roads, a move to driverless cars seems only to continue, rather than augment, that trend.

The gift of empathy

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic has a timely reminder of the dangers of schadenfreude:

I saw a fair amount of chortling this morning about this Bloomberg piece on wealthy financial-industry types who are having to cut back because of plummeting bonuses….[W]hen middle class people take out a mortgage that’s perfectly affordable on the income they’ve been enjoying for years, and then lose the house because they suddenly saw that income cut in half, we don’t feel a delicious sense of joy because they finally got what was coming to them.   We recognize that this it is really terrible to be forced out of a home where you’ve built loads of happy memories and dreams–and not incidentally, to possibly be forced to yank your kids out of the aforementioned schools.

Why are people supposed to shrug off the exact same thing because they’re rich?  It’s still really awful to lose your house.  I hardly think it’s whining to worry about this when your income drops and your fixed expenses don’t.
There are plenty of problems in this country and this world.  Rejoicing in the misery of others is just another problem that nobody needs.
The fact is that no matter how much you make, seeing your income fall below the expenses you’ve committed to is difficult.  Obviously, people whose expenses are closer to the minimum deserve more of our sympathy, and our help.  But I’m not sure that this means we’re supposed to be happy when it happens to someone richer than we are.  It’s not very attractive when conservatives rejoice to see union members thrown out of work.  I’m not sure this is much better.

Fuel efficiency = bankrupt highways?

Brian hit the issue almost a year ago, but Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic recently re-focused attention on the problem of funding U.S. highways with fuel taxes:

Since back in the Eisenhower era, the federal government has maintained a Highway Trust Fund, paid for mostly by taxes on fuel, that helps cover the repair and construction of our country’s roads, bridges, and mass transit. The idea was that drivers themselves should bear some of the cost the roads they used. Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993. Since then, inflation has eaten away at least a third of its value…[and] two new challenges [have] emerged. First, Americans started caring about the fuel efficiency again, as skyrocketing oil prices ended the era of gas-guzzling SUVs. Then the recession struck, and penny-pinching drivers logged fewer miles to save on gas.

The upshot, of course, is that

less money is flowing into the Highway Trust Fund, which is now facing potential insolvency in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

I guess it’s good that fuel efficiency gains are having an impact?  (Ah, unintended consequences.)  Looks like we’re headed into a world where cars will have to start paying by the mile–or the highways are going to get a lot worse.