A country of roving electric car fleets

Andrew Yang is not the first to propose this though he may be the first presidential contender to do so: replace car ownership with fleets of autonomous vehicles.

He told MSNBC host Ali Velshi that “we might not own our own cars” by 2050 to wean the United States economy off of fossil fuels, describing private car ownership as “really inefficient and bad for the environment.” Privately owned cars would be replaced by a “constant roving fleet of electric cars.”…

“What we’re really selling is not the car, it’s mobility,” he said. “So if you have mobility that’s then tied into a much more, if you had like, for example, this constant roving fleet of electric cars that you would just order up, then you could diminish the impact of ground transportation on our environment very, very quickly.”

Americans like driving and have integrated vehicles into all sorts of daily activities. This would not just be about replacing the ability of a car owner to get into their vehicle whenever they want and drive around; this could change how houses are designed (garages could be placed elsewhere or eliminated), the fast food business, big box stores, rush hour (perhaps there would not or should not be enough vehicles in the fleet to meet the needs of current rush hour), road trips, and more.

It is interesting to consider how willing people would be to do this. Is this really just about mobility? Interest in driving may be lagging for younger Americans but do they want to give up cars altogether (or privately owned autonomous vehicles that could be more like rooms) in favor of vehicles that are shared with others? Would such changes require denser housing or could it enable more sprawl? If given choices about what changes to make regarding climate change, would people favor other options rather than giving up cars?

American laws privileging driving, zoning, and differential effects

A law professor summarizes how American law reinforces driving in multiple ways:

A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions—laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards—zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit…

As a matter of law, the operating-speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law—speeding motorists—to rewrite it: Speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal. Other legislation amplifies the harm from this method. In California, for example, cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons. This occurs against a backdrop of radical under-enforcement of the speed limit nationally, and the widespread banning of proven but unpopular lifesaving technologies such as automated speed cameras.

Just as telling as what activities the law regulates is whose interests it seeks to protect. Dozens of our peer nations require carmakers to mitigate harm to pedestrians caused by their products. U.S. design regulations, however, require only measures that enhance the safety of car occupants. Just as SUVs are becoming taller, heavier, and more prevalent—and pedestrian fatalities are surging—U.S. regulators have not required carmakers to embrace those more comprehensive design standards. Instead, they’ve launched campaigns baselessly blaming pedestrians for their own deaths…

In a similar spirit, criminal law has carved out a lesser category uniquely for vehicular manslaughter. Deep down, all of us who drive are afraid of accidentally killing someone and going to jail; this lesser charge was originally envisioned to persuade juries to convict reckless drivers. Yet this accommodation reflects a pattern. Even when a motorist kills someone and is found to have been violating the law while doing so (for example, by running a red light), criminal charges are rarely brought and judges go light. So often do police officers in New York fail to enforce road-safety rules—and illegally park their own vehicles on sidewalks and bike facilities—that specific Twitter accounts are dedicated to each type of misbehavior. Given New York’s lax enforcement record, the Freakonomics podcast described running over pedestrians there as “the perfect crime.”

Several related thoughts after reading the plentiful examples:

  1. The first example provided involved single-family home zoning. Cars and homes are intimately linked in the United States and particularly in the suburbs.
  2. I would be interested to see more discussion of how the legal structures arose alongside the rise of driving in the United States. Was it a back and forth? Did the quick acceptance of driving push the legal system in certain directions or did early legal changes give driving a boost?
  3. The approach of this article reminds me a bit of The Color of Law with the emphasis on the legal system. And the overall argument seems to be that such laws force Americans into driving. But, are there precedent-setting legal cases that could reverse this? Does the legal preference for driving rise to the level of discrimination? A case could be made since driving is expensive and owning a reliable car and driving is related to class which in the United States is also tied to race. Homeownership helps build wealth for certain groups that own but could driving also do the same? Or consider spatial mismatch where jobs and economic opportunities might be hard to access without a significant drive via car.
  4. How might this change with driverless cars and autonomous vehicles? The current system seems to privilege drivers but what if there are not drivers but rather processors, companies, and vehicle owners?

When more technology leads to more traffic

Americans tend to assume technology will solve social problems but what if its use in vehicles leads to more traffic?

As Greater Boston creates more jobs and attracts more residents, car commutes have slowed to an excruciating pace. But while economists love congestion pricing — i.e., making people pay for the street space they use and the damage their cars inflict on the environment — it rankles Americans who’ve been raised to view driving alone as a human right. And in cities around the country, the advent of fully driverless cars, which could be many years away, has become an excuse for not building high-capacity transit networks. Autonomous vehicles, The New York Times reported this summer, became a major talking point in anti-transit campaigns in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville.

Meanwhile, big names in the tech industry are portraying public transit as obsolete or worse. “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told a crowd last year, per an account in Wired. “And there’s, like, a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. OK, great. And that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want when you want.”…

What autonomous vehicles won’t do is make traffic jams disappear. Someday, a driverless car could drop you off at work at 9 a.m. But what if, instead of parking itself in a private garage — which would cost money — it just circles the block until it picks you up at 5 p.m., because we refuse to charge motorists for the use of most streets?…

That’s all the more reason why Greater Boston can’t sit around waiting to see whether and how driverless cars will evolve. We’ll never squeeze enough cars into crowded spaces to get people where they need to go. In the end, no artificial-intelligence algorithm can change the laws of physics. Plan accordingly.

Adding more vehicles to the road leads to more traffic, even if it is easier to obtain those vehicles or the vehicles can drive themselves.

While this article calls for a long-term look at whether cities like Boston should prioritize mass transit or vehicles (and then act accordingly through means like congestion pricing or spending more money on mass transit), this is part of a bigger conversation: what if Americans will do whatever possible to keep up their ability to drive/ride in cars from their single-family homes to where they want to go? Even putting more money in mass transit can only do so much if density does not increase. And in a city like Boston that is already pretty dense, that could lead to some tough conversations about more affordable housing closer to jobs rather than relying on transportation to even out differences in where people live.

More on self-driving rooms and homes

Parts of your home or even your home itself could soon be on wheels and drive around without your help:

Honda recently announced the IeMobi Concept. It is an autonomous mobile living room that attaches and detaches from your home. When parked, the vehicle becomes a 50-square-foot living or workspace. Mercedes-Benz Vans rolled out an all-electric digitally-connected van with fully integrated cargo space and drone delivery capability, and Volvo just unveiled its 360c concept vehicle that serves as either a living room or mobile office. In other cases, some folks are simply retrofitting existing vehicles. One couple in Oxford England successfully converted a Mercedes Sprinter van into a micro-home that includes 153 square feet of living space, a complete kitchen, a sink, a fridge, a four-person dining area, and hidden storage spaces.

For those who are either unwilling or unable to own a home, self-driving van houses could become a convenient and affordable solution.  Soon, our mobile driverless vehicles may allow us to work from our cars and have our laundry and a hot meal delivered at the same time. In Los Angeles alone, it is estimated that 15,000 people are already living in their cars and in most countries it is perfectly legal to live in your vehicle.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The possibilities for adding a new and mobile room onto the homes of Americans might prove to be irresistible. Now I can add a room in which I can just drive away? Or, I can throw all sorts of things in there and then drive it out of view!
  2. The micro-home idea will find a market, particularly since the vehicles seem less cumbersome than the typical tiny home. At the same time, I imagine some wealthier communities will work to keep these sorts of vehicles out of the community. It may be an affordable option but if residents have concerns about apartment dwellers, wouldn’t they certainly have concerns about people who live out of their vehicles?
  3. These changes might only add to sprawl as it would enable residents to be more mobile. This could feed into the allure of driving and mobility. Of course, if some people give up large suburban homes for more mobile homes, perhaps the effects of sprawl might be reduced. Yet, I suspect that a good number of owners of mobile rooms and homes are purchasing them as a luxury item in addition to a home.

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

Could Americans be convinced to use buses by new technology?

Technological advances to buses might make them more attractive…or they might not. Here are the five new features:

Electrification

Autonomy

Minibus/trackless train

Seamless payment

Accessbility

Two things stand out to me from the argument:

  1. Newer technology tends to make things more attractive in society. This does appear to be a general pattern though I am not sure technology alone could overcome misgivings wealthier Americans have about buses.
  2. The shifts described here tend to reduce some of the features that might be less attractive about buses: they would not be as large and they would be less tied to particular routes. This makes them less like traditional buses and more like large vans that have flexibility.

One aspect of mass transit to which I’m surprised there is not more discussion of in this argument is whether these smaller and more flexible buses would be faster for users. If so, this could be a tremendous plus. One of the promises of self-driving vehicles is that traffic flow could be better coordinated and would not be affected by drivers slowing things down.

Forget smart cars; we should at least have smart traffic lights everywhere

Getting to the point where most or all American drivers have safe and reliable driverless cars will take time. In the meantime, why don’t we have smart traffic lights or at least every traffic light operating with sensors?

There are several intersections near my house and work that clearly do not have sensors. You pull up in your vehicle and regardless of time of day or how many others want to go the same way as you do, you will wait a full light cycle. Some of these lights are one to one and a half minutes long. Sometimes this makes sense: one road clearly has more cars. Yet, often this full period passes with few to no cars going through the light.

But, let’s go further. I’ve also run into situations where the sensors might just be too sensitive. This occurs particularly between 9 PM and 5 AM when traffic is light on major roads. A single vehicle wanting to turn onto the major road can stop traffic. If you have a few of these on a single trip, this can be frustrating. Why not have coordinated light signals along major corridors? Cities and suburbs do not necessarily have to go to full-blown smart systems that hope to coordinate all traffic; even just doing this on a few main roads with significant amounts of traffic could help ease congestion.

Perhaps one issue is cost: what municipalities or other governments (depending on who has jurisdiction over the road) want to spend money on sensors and devices? One of the supposed benefits of driverless cars is that they will allow for more flowing traffic through coordination across vehicles. However, in that scenario the cost of less congestion is pushed to the car owners who have to purchase such a vehicle. Sensors at major intersections or at all intersections would not require anything or much from drivers. Yet, I bet you could make an argument that putting money into better intersections will be a cost savings in the long run with less time spent in traffic.