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Will this car change your life?

Will this car change your life?

Following last week's post where I issued some caution about driverless cars,  Neil Salmond takes me to task on robotaxis, as he prefers to call them. I prefer driverless cars, some prefer autonomous vehicles, though I'm also fond of occupied drones on wheels. (maybe a good name for a band?)  While I don't mind at all being called unoriginal, don't call my arguments weak, dammit! Ah, the fun of Internet debates.

I've played both sides of this argument before about driverless cars, so sure, I'll happily play the skeptic role. After all, it fits my nature anyway.

Salmond really dislikes anything approaching the techno-fetish label, but I have to repeat again: if you only believe the upside for the thing you like, but dismiss the downside; If every answer to a question is that the tech will solve it; If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck..  you own that label. Every belief system has a spectrum, and so not all techno-fetishists are alike. But the core element is the same - an abiding faith in technology to always produce good results. Or, that a tech that we find intriguing or cool or fun of course has only positives.

I think the lessons of the last, oh, 100 years or so, are clear that we should be far, far more skeptical about any new emerging technology. Every new good idea has a negative side. Many new technologies never go beyond niche markets. Many leap forwards have both helped and harmed cities and human beings. Smart phones, for example, enable us to do some pretty incredible things, but they also have been terrible for human attention and socializing. Sharing sites like Airbnb enable people to very easily make some more money from their homes and give a unique traveling experience; they also enable wholesale absentee ownership in neighborhoods. Mechanized farming has helped feed billions of people, but also destroyed rural communities and created serious questions about environmental and health costs.

The reason I harp on the actual human experience is because it's something so often overlooked by the tech sector. As humans we have lots of great qualities, but we're also vain, lazy, control-freaks, fearful and greedy. Those are parts of our nature that don't change just because we have new toys. It's real - we must consider those in addition to our capacity for joy, love, kindness and charity. It's why the questions about hacking are so important when it comes to any technology nowadays. I'm pretty certain that the recent stores that were hacked think it's no small deal. Heartbleed anyone? Every few months a new story surfaces about a system that was thought invulnerable to hacking that has been hacked.

So, seriously then, what happens when some clever person hacks into a single robotaxi or a fleet of them and crashes them into buildings? Beyond the simple question of liability (don't you think that will impact premiums a bit?) is the human question: how will it impact the psyche of users? That is the essence of the question of control. Most of us are willing to give up control of an airplane to a pilot because we know we're not qualified to fly. Yet, even then, it's very unsettling. Fear of flying is no small condition. 

Cars, on the other hand, can be operated by virtually anyone. It's easy. It's, dare I say, fun. The reason that over 77% of Americans drive alone to their job is because, when considering the options, it's still the best experience for them. You control your own vehicle, your own path, you choose your own music. The control may in fact be an illusion, and you may be stuck in traffic a lot. Parking may be a pain. But you feel in control.

I argue personally for walking and biking for similar human reasons. Walking and biking can just be really pleasurable ways to get around. It makes me feel good. I control my own path and destiny. I get some fresh air and a little exercise. My senses are engaged, and I might even get to talk with someone along the way. Those are real, human factors that make it enjoyable - primarily if the walk or bike ride itself is in a beautiful environment.

Plenty of pretty smart people thought the Segway would revolutionize how we get around. Remember all of the hubbub for legislation that allowed them on sidewalks? And today, they're nothing more than a novelty item for tourists and a few law enforcement operations. Why? Maybe because the human experience is really not that great. Maybe we intuitively understood that walking or biking is more fun, and the Segway really replaced neither.

As to some of the specific issues that were raised:

  • I don't follow at all why insurance rates would go up for human-powered cars. Car insurance is priced relative to the risk of the individual. Your premium is derived from looking at numerous factors based on your history and people with similar histories. Unless the new world of mixed robotaxis with existing vehicles means *more* risk for drivers, insurance rates would not go up. In fact, if the pool of "bad" drivers decreases because of other transportation options then insurance rates for "good" drivers may actually decline.
  • Salmond writes "as the boomers die off their car consumption will not be replaced." If you read my blog at all, you know how much this simplistic generational mantra drives me crazy. People are people. Millenialls are not some special breed of human that hate cars and sprawl. I won't belabor this - just read here, here and here.
  • The Jakriborg model is really cool. Only, it won't be evident in the vast majority of US metros. The transit piece itself doesn't work, for reasons too numerous to mention here. The urbanist dream of turning American suburbs into European-style suburbs is a reality in probably less than 10 metros. In the rest of the country, we'll need much different solutions that don't involve expensive, fixed rail transit.

Now, again, the rainbow & unicorn ideal of a fleet of driverless taxis roaming around cities does in theory help tremendously with real estate and redevelopment. It drives the need for parking down substantially and simultaneously the need for wide roads in urban areas. But here's the thing: this is already happening with services like Uber & Lyft. These services are a real innovation, and after many, many painful years the world of taxi service is finally being turned upside down. Uberx essentially functions as a roaming fleet of on-demand taxis, far better than anything else most cities have seen.The same thing is on the cusp for bus service. Those changes alone have tremendous upside for transportation & development.

So robotaxis exactly do what, then that's such a huge leap over Uberx? Oh, yes, they replace the person. This very much smacks of the problem of - damn, if we just get those pesky humans out of the way, life will be so grand. Everything will be so much more "efficient."

Here's a caution to those that really believe anything approaching the efficiency argument: Despite the push by car advocates in the early 20th century, a relentless remaking of the American landscape, mass car ownership and every incentive and law imaginable, we still have pedestrians, bicycles and even horse-drawn carriages on many streets. The free-flowing world of cars-only from Tomorrowland never really came to be. And, in fact, a look at the rise of biking and walking in recent years shows that that ideal is quickly fading. Let's not assume that the future will be about easy, free-flowing lanes of driverless cars and fleets of taxis when all signs point to more mixing; more shared space.

I'm also a new urbanist that believes we should set aside the notion of sprawl repair as any kind of priority. Some early sprawl (pre-interestate say from 1940's-early 1960's) has potential to be made into walkable places. Later sprawl - forget it. As I've said before - the car culture warriors made a giant mistake by trying to remake our older cities into the new modern city. New Urbanists should be wary to do the same. From a practical standpoint, it will be incredibly expensive to remake most sprawl into urbanism, with precious little of value coming from it. We could spend billions on sprawl repair and still have urbanism that's at best a C+. From a political standpoint, we need to understand that there's a very large constituency of people that, dare I say, actually like it. If you believe the latest Pew study, it's about 1/2 the population. As I've always lived in places that were far outside the big coastal cities, I believe those numbers. Why are we so eager to piss off 1/2 the population that is happy with their choice? Why can't we just make the urban as good as it can possibly be and get over trying to change the entire world?

Yes, there are environmental, financial and energy-related issues. But let's let those sort themselves out in time. We have *plenty* to do in existing cities and creating new towns as it is.

So this is all to say: let's not be so quick as urbanists to jump on every technology like it's the be-all, end-all that we need to "save" our cities or repair sprawl. Maybe, just maybe, we could come to the conclusion that a) some people really like cars and sprawl, and that's ok. b) the "lean" way to look at transportation improvements is use what we already have invested in - roads, cars, buses and just do a whole lot better with them and c) always consider the actual human experience. After all, that's what makes cities such damn great places anyway - the human experience. 

Look I'm not a luddite. I like my toys - my iPad, my smart phone, my big tv. I like air conditioning, elevators, and yes, even cars (shocking to some of you, I know!). But I also recognize that embracing change has consequences - not all of them rosy or good. Before we believe the corporations that most stand to benefit from "robotaxis" we should cast a very skeptical eye on the consequences. That's what grown ups do, now that we're a grown-up country.

Some amount of driverless cars is inevitable, I suppose. For my money, I honestly hope it doesn't become more than another niche product. Our world is impersonal enough as it is, and too eager to look to technology to save us. We've fully entered an age that is skeptical of the upside of all tech and I think that's a good thing. Technology, after all, didn't destroy cities. Human beings did. Humans did with our greed, our short-sightedness and our desire to be "modern." Humans also stopped the nonsense and turned it around, by learning to value what was cast aside. Human beings can save and rebuild them again - we don't need an occupied drone to do it.

A great way to spend an hour

Moving beyond simplistic transportation thinking

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