Transportation has changed in the last decade but self-driving cars will still take some more time:
The boldest bid to remake transportation with tech was also among the earliest, and so far, the most disappointing. In 2009, Google cofounder Larry Page tapped computer scientist Sebastian Thrun to build a self-driving car. Make a vehicle that moves people safely and efficiently, Page said (in Thrun’s telling), and you could have a business as big as Google itself. The resulting effort, now known as Waymo, helped trigger a global race for autonomy, one that many predicted would bear fruit by the decade’s end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would drive itself across the country in 2017. General Motors promised to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. Nissan targeted 2020 for the market debut of its self-driving car. Former Waymo lead Chris Urmson said he hoped his sons would never need to learn how to drive.
But billions of dollars and thousands of engineers haven’t produced a robot that can match, let alone eclipse, the ability of the human driver. AV developers have retreated to quiet suburbs and simple interstates, hoping they can master at least some corner of a profoundly complex world. GM pushed back its debut date indefinitely. Nissan has stopped talking about self-driving. Waymo is just starting to take the human backups out of its cars in the Phoenix suburbs. Musk never made his road trip.
Reading this brief overview, two things struck me:
- Having a computer do all that is needed to drive is a monumental task. There is a lot of information to take in from behind the wheel and the environment keeps changing. This makes human drivers look pretty good. Even with all the accidents and deaths that occur every year, that humans can handle all of this at 60 mph or higher is remarkable.
- All the money and effort that has gone into this simply reinforces the car as the primary agent of transportation in the United States. While having no human driver could be a game changer, all this effort does little to displace the car as center of social life, work, urban planning, and sprawl. Perhaps it would be too much to ask Americans to give up cars but this could be viewed by future Americans as a missed opportunity to reorganize society.
Even if the next decade features truly autonomous vehicles, it will take more time for these vehicles to work their way through the system. Since I have also seen lists of the new laws and regulations going into effect January 1, is it far-fetched to imagine a new rule starting in early 2025 that all new vehicles purchased must be fully autonomous?
In my daily drive (or bicycle ride) to work through mostly residential neighborhoods, I encounter multiple intersections that require stopping with six stop signs, two traffic lights, and one trip over railroad tracks. A few patterns for my suburban trip and including these stops:
-The majority of the stops occur along an important north-south road in the community that is one lane each way, goes past houses of various kinds, and has a speed limit of 30 mph. Both traffic lights involve this road with only one light involving a four lane road.
-My average speed is roughly 12.5 mph. If I could go the 30 mph allowed on most of the trip and there were no stops, my trip should be more like 5 minutes long.
-Most of the stops are pretty short except for two kinds. The traffic lights can cause a wait of up to a minute and a half and the busier one can be longer if I have to wait through multiple lights. The train crossing obviously can wreak havoc with a typical trip with a stop for the train and then heavier traffic afterward as a long line goes down the road. Most of the time, I do not encounter a train and I now have a decent sense of when the passenger trains come during the morning and evening rush hours.
The average American one-way commute is now 26.9 minutes so my commute is much shorter than many. But, that time factor can obscure distances – a 20 minute commute in a more rural area is going to cover more distance than my 12 minute drive in a residential suburb and a 35 minute commute in a major city might be a different distance.
One promise I have read about involving self-driving cars is that they will be much less impeded by intersections. Because vehicles will be able to communicate with each other, stopping at a stop light for 1+ minutes or a required stop at a stop sign in light or no traffic could be limited. Removing all that stopping and starting would also be good for the environment because of reduced idling.
I assume all of the stops are there due to safety concerns and trying to keep traffic flowing in all directions (based on traffic counts, accident reports, and road and planning guidelines). But, it would be great to see in the next few decades changes to how many stops and starts vehicles must make.
Thinking of autonomous vehicles as just another iteration of the car may not go far enough:
If you think of driverless cars as nothing more than cars without drivers, Burns says, you’re not seeing the full picture. These will be rooms with wheels. And that means their implications extend far beyond transportation—into retail, commerce, and even an expansive re-imagination of where Americans should live. Commuting an hour to work from the far suburbs isn’t such a drag when the autonomous pod comes with Netflix, email, and wi-fi.
What this might lead to is unclear:
In sum, self-driving cars have the potential to improve existing transportation technology in unambiguous ways, to expand the suburbs, and to create new economic opportunity for a variety of industries, from hotels to restaurants. But they might also change the character of our cities for the worse and strangle roads with cars in a way that ruins the urban experience for millions of people. What does this sound like? It sounds like the legacy of highways in America.
Given the love of cars among Americans plus the way social life is ordered around them, the implications could be wide-reaching.
But, the idea that cars could become rooms is intriguing. Americans like having private space. Hence, the ideal of the large single-family home in the suburbs. A few thoughts on cars as rooms:
- What kinds of rooms do they become? If primarily occupied during commuting, they could become work spaces. Of course, not everyone might want to work on the way to or the way home from work. Napping spaces? Outfitted with televisions and wifi?
- Does having a mobile room mean that homes do not have to be so large? The vehicle could become a mobile extension of the home. Members of the home could always escape to the vehicle, even if they are not going anywhere.
- Does a mobile room elevate vehicles to an even more important status symbol? If owners could customize their vehicle spaces to their tastes, the range of interiors could be impressive.
I would guess many Americans would like a mobile room.
If the single-family home offers private space in suburbia, the car offers private mobile space. The home offers a base to which the owner can retreat, the car offers the chance to travel elsewhere. Even if the single-family home is the ultimate focus of suburbia, these homes are hard to imagine without cars in the garage or driveways (usually front-facing, sometimes in the rear) or without traveling to the suburban in something other than a car. Cars and homes are intimately connected in American society.
Americans love driving (and need convincing to instead use mass transit). The suburbs require driving. The sprawling nature of suburban communities are often ill-suited for mass transit. On one hand, driving offers freedom to go where you want when you want. It is a symbol of American individualism. On a global scale, Americans have one of the highest rates of car ownership. On the other hand, owning a car has numerous costs. It is not just the obvious costs of gas, insurance, and car maintenance (and even these add up for the average owner). Additionally, critics would argue cars are a drain on community life as people can build relationships and spend money wherever their car can take them, commuting via car can take a lot of time and can limit economic mobility, road networks are costly to maintain, have negative effects on the environment, contribute to health issues through limited walking and biking, and are a menace to pedestrians and bicyclists who want to be part of the streetscape as well as are a safety threat to drivers and passengers themselves. Even with these costs, Americans persist in driving. For example, rather than push back against highways and driving in the auto-dependent Los Angeles area, officials instead focused their efforts on getting more efficient cars. The thought of major highways closing for a few days in a sprawling region creates near panic and highways can become effective sites for protests because of the number of inconvenienced drivers.
Numerous aspects of suburbia emphasize the love of cars. The single-family home would be incomplete without a garage. As homes increased in size over the decades, so did garages. The pattern of driving out of the garage at the beginning of the day and back in at the end with minimal neighborhood interaction may not characterize every home but is common enough. Many suburban single-family home are located along residential streets that are plenty wide and can handle cars traveling at decent speeds. The fast food restaurant would not be possible without cars. What is more American than going through the McDonald’s drive-thru in the midst of another suburban trip? Think of the many commercial strips all around America with fast food restaurants and strip malls (they may even not be considered aesthetically appealing by some suburbs). Similarly, the big box store – Walmart, Costco, Ikea – and shopping malls would not be possible without cars. In these spaces, hundreds of separate drivers can congregate in massive parking lots for unparalleled choice and prices. Numerous industries, let alone the automobile industry, depend on cars, vehicles, and roads.
The suburban car is part status symbol, part lifeline to the outside world. What vehicle you have matters and judging from the vehicles around me, the suburban family life is impossible without an SUV or minivan. Not being able to drive is a huge problem (sorry teenagers and some seniors). The largest category of trips involves drives between suburbs, particularly for work as jobs are spread throughout suburban regions. Additionally, the image of soccer moms persists as kids need to get to all of their activities.
It is difficult to predict how exactly cars fit into the future of suburbs. Driverless cars may mean fewer people need to own their own vehicle (those garages can then be used to store more stuff!) but being able to relax or do work rather than drive may mean people could live even further from cities. Millennials have less interested in car ownership and driving. Numerous suburbs are pursuing denser developments, particularly along railroad or transit lines, and this could limit car use in those areas and create more walkable spaces. Yet, it is hard to imagine the American suburbs without many cars and the ability to travel from a single-family home to all sorts of places.
While reading about the opposition Canadians have to self-driving cars, I ran into this explanation from Ipsos about conducting online surveys in countries around the world:
Having online panels is a regular practice among survey organizations. However, I do not recall seeing an explanation like this regarding differences in online panels across countries. The online sample in non-industrialized countries is simply unrepresentative as it reflects “a more ‘connected’ population.” Put another way, the online panel in places like Brazil, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia reflects the upper class and people who live more like Westerners and not the vast majority of their population. Then, the sample is also smaller in these countries: 500+ rather than 1000+. Finally, it would be interesting to see how much the data needs to be weighted to “best reflect the demographic proile of the adult population.”
With all these caveats, is an online panel in a non-industrialized country worth it?
While reading an article considering what daily life may be like with autonomous vehicles, a thought hit me: suburbs – compared to cities and rural areas – will benefit the most from self-driving cars. Sure, cities could remove a lot of cars off the streets and enhance pedestrian life. Rural areas could benefit from easier driving and trucking. Yet, as far as daily life is concerned, not having to pay attention to driving could help suburbanites the most as so much of their life involves driving from one place to another.
Here are the primary advantages of self-driving vehicles for the suburbs:
1. The commute to work changes as passengers can now work or relax or sleep on the way.
2. The other various trips in the suburbs now can be more enjoyable (like commuting in #1).
3. Suburbanites do not need to own as many vehicles.
4. Two groups disadvantaged by auto-dependent suburbs – teenagers and the elderly – now have access to transportation.
5. Suburbanites can live even further away from work and urban centers, possibly providing cheaper housing as well as more options regarding what communities they can live in.
6. The cheap goods suburbanites expect from big box stores and online retailers may be even cheaper as retailers and businesses also utilize autonomous vehicles.
7. Suburban congestion and traffic will be decreased due to both the new vehicles handling roads better and a reduction in vehicles (#3 above).
Granted, these reasons might not account for the ongoing costs of driving. For example, suburbanites may not need to own as many cars or may enjoy their regular drives more but roads still need to be built and maintained.
One reason Americans like driving is the private experience of being away from others. New autonomous vehicles may only enhance that:
Your autonomous car could become an extension of your home. A place to eat breakfast, play video games, or have sex. And figuring out which of these activities you want to do most in an autonomous car is already on the minds of automotive designers…
With autonomous cars, he’s found that privacy, the length of trips, and an ability to leave the car when you want to are what people want…
Which means that creating cars with private spaces are a big part of fully autonomous car designs. “I think people may start to consider these in-car spaces as an extension of their home or office,” he says. This could totally change how we imagine transportation…
What people want to do in their cars is likely to change what kind of cars they purchase, Kobayashi said. He imagines that we will have things like sleeper cars, or meeting cars, or kid-friendly cars. This kind of division of car-function also showed up in the workshop section itself as well. Tech 2025 is a media-strategy company that works to educate the public on emerging technologies, so it invited a bunch of non-experts to workshop design ideas with Kobayashi.
For those who don’t like the effects of the car, this may only make things worse as the daily commute could be come a more enjoyable or even fun. This could encourage suburban growth while discouraging the use of mass transit.
At the same time, it would still be worth thinking about how many resources it will take to fully switch over to all self-driving cars – from development to getting them all on the road and instituting the appropriate infrastructure – versus mass transit. This is not a cheap process and could be viewed as doing everything we can to provide Americans with a luxury good (while the money might have been better used elsewhere).