Autonomous Vehicles - a very American obsession
Kevin's Note: I edited this on December 26th after some excellent reader feedback.
I’m not an anti-technology person. I’m really not. Quite the opposite. I love my gadgets and toys, and since I was a kid I was always interested in the next, cool thing having to do with computers. I’m one of those Gen X kids that grew up with Atari, then Apple computers, read a lot of sci-fi, and have always been enthralled by futuristic movies and ideas. I’ve never really been the first adopter for new things, but often very soon after. For example, at first I made fun of the idea of the iPad, and now I can’t imagine living without one. I waited a while to get a cell phone in the early 2000’s, but soon saw the advantages. I write all this to say – I’m not a Luddite, and tech has always fascinated me.
I’m also fully aware that the opinions of one person on matters such as technology really don’t matter. People working on the next big thing are not going to suddenly stop working on it because someone expresses skepticism. If the rock stars of tech can’t stop the inevitable march forward of AI, then I’m pretty sure that this blogger’s opinion won’t suddenly halt R&D on autonomous vehicles.
But I do want to draw some attention to a different way of thinking, for those people that care about cities, quality of life, transportation and safety. And, I hope I can help to clarify where advocates of city life can best spend their energy.
This American Life
It should be plainly obvious to anyone that we live in a country and culture that is obsessed with cars, traffic, parking and single-family houses. That’s been the case for about 100 years now. We call it The American Dream. I’m not judging it – just noting the obvious reality. We’ve constructed rules, processes and bureaucracies that focus and support just those issues, starting with street and highway funding, to zoning and development rules to traffic engineering standards and much more. That system makes us different than basically every other country in the world. If you have ever done anything to try and question that status quo, you understand just how deep the belief system goes. It defies all political boundaries, and ignores all types of facts or information that point out the downsides of our national obsessions.
Let's talk about parking and parking requirements as an example. Time and experience have proven that there is no realistic way to predict how much parking a given building might need for its users. We have rules of thumb, most of which are based in pseudo-science and educated guesses. We also know two other things about parking: that we can’t build our most beloved places or buildings with today’s parking rules, and that in high-demand cities, parking crowds out housing which makes those cities less affordable.
So, we know these things, or at least most people understand them when it is explained. But go ahead and try to lower parking requirements just one time in your community, and witness the comments and blowback. Business people that would object to all manner of regulations will freak out at the idea of not having “enough” parking. Environmentalists that clamor for reductions in carbon usage will still demand adequate parking for their hybrid or electric cars. Affordable housing advocates wonder will wonder where the poor will park their cars. Residents in neighborhoods built for walking will be furious that they might not be able park in front of their own house.
It’s literally a bit of societal insanity. I’ve been in the trenches for 25 years on these issues, and at times it feels like it has not changed one iota. Of course it has, and progress has been made in some quarters, but it’s been slow and often painful. The nature of those deep-held beliefs is one reason why I believe that advocates of urbanism should stop trying to broadly remake American suburbia.
So into this diaspora comes the latest “disruptor” or “game-changing technology” – autonomous vehicles (AV’s).
The list of promises is fascinating: we will save countless lives, reduce carbon emissions, and make personal transportation cheaper for all. In order to accomplish this, our best and brightest minds are spending years and countless billions of dollars on bringing us this brave, new world.
After much careful consideration in recent months, I have to come to believe two things about AV’s:
1. AV’s are an enormous, unproductive distraction from the issues that most cities in the US face.
2. It’s almost certain that AV’s will never have the widespread use that their promoters claim.
Let’s examine the first item, since it’s really the most important:
AV's distract us from the real issues
Safety is of course, the big, sexy sales feature. Removing the humans from behind the wheel will save thousands of lives. That’s what we’re told. And, it’s probably true – humans do some really dumb things when they’re driving, and cell phones have clearly made us all worse, more distracted drivers.
But here’s the cold, hard fact about transportation and safety: we have such a high rate of injury and fatality in America because we have designed our cities around cars, and because our street designs encourage speed. The latter is entirely fixable, and often very inexpensive. For example, half of all fatalities occur at intersections, and most of that is because of poor intersection design. We’ve often used the simplest, dumbest intersection designs in this country, even when we know of designs that are inexpensive and vastly safer.
We also have chosen to spend our resources on wide streets and prioritize long-distance, fast traffic, in spite of the failure of that philosophy on every metric that matters. I made this video a few years ago to illustrate one case study in simple street design changes that make an enormous difference. It particularly highlights how the small details of lane width, lighting and sidewalk design have a huge impact on the desirability of actually walking:
With the coming onslaught of AV technology, everyone seems to now want to punt on any improvements that could be made immediately, and see how AV’s are going to solve or change everything. There's talk of remaking our street infrastructure for AV's. This is a tragic, and expensive mistake.
Just take a look at what one small city - Des Moines, IA – is doing. For only $33 million they are remaking an entire network of downtown streets to create more sustainable, urban living and first-rate transportation options for humans. Imagine if the top 100 metro areas (Des Moines is #89) made an average similar investment of $50 million. That’d be $5 billion, and would immediately improve the lives of tens of millions of people, dramatically reduce car crashes and give people true lifestyle and transportation options.
Silicon Valley and the carmakers are in the area of $100 billion already invested in AV technology. 5% of that from investors and local governments could accomplish far more, generate tremendous real estate value, dramatically enhance safety, improve quality of life and reduce carbon emissions. Today. Not years from now. With simple, proven techniques. And in so doing, we could actually employ humans instead of trying to replace them with robots.
The idea that we need AV’s to improve safety is simply an illusion, and one that takes our eyes off the ball of what each of us can do in our own communities.
All of which leads to the related, big, hairy problem with American cities...
Despite the futuristic renderings and technology, the biggest problem American cities face isn’t the need to modernize or be “Smart.” Sidebar – I like Smart. Smart is good. I like Smart People. But we don’t need Smart tech to make our cities better.
The big issue most cities face is that we don’t let cities grow and change anymore, in the ways in which they naturally did before the 1930’s. We don’t let neighborhoods urbanize, as they historically did. The idea of by-right, urban development has largely vanished from the world of planning and development, even though it served us well for about 150 years. New York City was once a city of single-family homes, believe it or not. Your city probably was Native American territory, then a tenuous colonial settlement, and then went through a period of constant reconstruction, change and growth.
Our ordinances and processes do not allow that anymore. Sure, there are changes that can be made if you have enough money and patience. But by and large most of our neighborhoods are frozen in place, because we value protecting single family homes, “proper middle-class” neighborhoods and easy parking more than anything else. The consequences of not allowing the natural order of change to happen are vast – lack of affordability (supply can't keep up with demand), traffic congestion from far-flung locations (development is forced to the edges where it's easier to build), damage to opportunity for the middle class (it's not as easy to move to prosperous cities because of cost) and a vast, expensive infrastructure that cannot possibly be maintained.
If we really care about solving the problems that our American cities have, we need to be understand today's dilemma. And that dilemma is, we can’t build Savannah anymore. Or Boston, or New York, or San Francisco or New Orleans. Our laws, codes, ordinances and processes simply don’t allow us to build our most beloved cities and towns. That’s rather ridiculous, and we don't need to wait for AV's to change this dynamic.
It may seem strange to talk about land use, zoning and development in a post about AV's and transportation, but if you care about transportation, you’d better care about the rest, too. Transportation only is necessary as a tool to connect places, and what happens in one realm affects the other.
But AV’s are going to change all of this!!
Well, will they really?
It’s entirely likely that AV’s will never have the widespread use that its promoters claim.
I’ve spent most of my life in what is affectionately called “Flyover Country.” I feel that I know it pretty well, and have a good understanding of the true nature of our entire country – from our largest cities to small, rural towns.
This is an appropriate time for cold, hard fact #2: The US is a very large, mostly rural and low-density country. Polls suggest that a sizable majority of Americans have never even used Uber. How can this be, you may ask? It can be, because only a relatively small number of people actually live in the kinds of dense, walkable neighborhoods that make financial sense for using ride-hailing services. If you live in a suburban or outlying neighborhood, and spend $50, $75 or $100 to use Uber one time, chances are you won’t use it again. AV’s will not change this important fact. They might make the ride costs cheaper (see below), but it won’t change the fact that for most Americans destinations are measured in miles. Our cities are very spread out, and most of it is not going away. There are dramatically diminishing returns for using ride-sharing or AV technology the longer the driving distances become, interstate highways excluded.
So let’s explore those costs, for a second. I’m not convinced that AV’s will really be cheaper than today’s ride-hailing services. This idea is a given today, that there will be fleets of vehicles circling our cities that offer rides for a fraction of what costs are today. But let’s think it through. In essence, the only difference between Uber and AV Uber is the elimination of the human being. Common wisdom says that saves money, since Uber drivers make about 75% of the fee while paying for all of the vehicle expenses. That's a big deal, if you can capture the revenue while minimizing expense.
Keep in mind a couple of things, though: first, these companies don't make money today. So, the gamble is not only that AV's can make ride-sharing cheap, but also that they can make the companies profitable. Maybe that will happen, but it seems like a very big and expensive double bank-shot. Does the skinny margin that drivers make today really work out for enabling both goals? I'm old enough to have lived through a few recessions, including the first dot-com bubble, when a whole lot of good ideas that didn't make money disappeared. It's naive to take for granted the idea that this will all work out just fine, even with very big and smart investors.
Secondly, in a world of AV Uber fleets, the vehicles will likely be company-owned. And, those vehicles are not likely to be cheap anytime soon. The AV technology is certain to be more expensive for quite some time than a normal car. Insuring vehicles will be a major cost. Over many years, insuring AV’s should get cheaper. But at first, the risk premium will be high because of the unknowns. When the enormous capital costs, maintenance and unknowns are factored in, I’m not convinced that Uber AV’s will be cheaper in the coming years than today’s human-powered Ubers. This post, from the Market Urbanism blog does a very good job of looking at the potential costs per mile.
But beyond the costs, the tech enthusiasts seem to forget an important equation: human beings. Humans generally like to control their surroundings. Switching from horses to cars for transportation was eagerly adopted, because driving and being in control of a car is enjoyable. Being stuck in traffic is definitely not enjoyable, but actually controlling the machine and personalizing it is incredibly powerful. That's true even for me, and I’m the walkability guy. I really don't care about having fancy cars or doing what many people do, but I do understand it and appreciate it. Cars have become extensions of our personalities, and the idea of totally giving that up for the convenience of working on our phones or tablets while in transit is not likely to appeal to the masses of Americans, who again primarily live in low-density places. We are an independent bunch in this country – suspicious of control by others, and always wanting to blaze our own path. The market for giving up all control seems vastly over-estimated, and focused on sub-markets in a few, large cities where that sub-market is concentrated. Think guns or health care are divisive issues? Wait until laws are proposed or insurance regulations change that force people to give up their cars. I’m sorry to say (again, even as the walkability guy), but that will get ugly. The idea of being in control of your own destiny and destination is deeply ingrained in American society – whether or not you agree with it.
OK, ok, so what? Is my reasoning going to stop AV production and use? Of course not. I’m fairly certain that most in Silicon Valley and related areas would scoff at this long post and presentation. Investors will continue to throw billions at AV tech, because the potential for data acquisition in certain markets is immense. That’s fine, I’m all for people making money. I'm also all for progress and doing what we can to make our cities better and smarter. But I wish we could train our best minds and their backers on the real problems impacting our cities and towns, not giving us a different version of Tomorrowland.
My message is fairly simple:
Don’t be distracted by the shiny tech objects. The safety issues are real. I know this. Humans make lots of dumb decisions. Many, many people die or are injured needlessly every day. I have spent a career lamenting how easily we brush off correctable deaths and injuries when it comes to automobiles. But the real safety issue is a design issue, and an urban design issue primarily.
We don’t need to wait for AV’s to make cities and transportation better. This notion is more about our American obsession to undertake big, bold, expensive undertakings, instead of the small, simple improvements that could make a difference in every community today.
How has that worked out for us so far?
Well, here's a few consequences of decades of the mindset of doing big things for car travel:
- Citizen input into transportation funding and decision-making processes is extremely limited, and transparency is rare.
- Literally trillions of dollars are spent, with very little accountability.
- We have the most deadly streets and highways in the world.
- Our street and airline infrastructure by all accounts is in deplorable condition.
- We have no functional passenger rail system, except in very limited locations.
So, why would it be a good idea to double-down on this approach of obsessing about cars, with the only difference being robots at the proverbial wheel?
So, you might think I'm an anti-AV person by reading this. Again, I'm really not. AV is a technology, and like all technology it has good and bad implications. It's going to happen in some fashion, whether I like it or not. Like many of you, I'll probably take advantage occasionally, especially since I'm an urban dweller where it's already affordable to use ride-sharing and transit. But in the big picture of human life in cities, nothing can still beat the experience of walking in a beautiful place, at a leisurely place, to socialize with other human beings face to face. We don’t need to wait for AV’s to create more of that type of experience. Let's not take our eyes off the ball of repairing the mistakes we've made in the last 100 years of city-building, by assuming that one, shiny new, well-funded toy will fix it all. Instead, look to the places that we love the most, and ask, "how do we make more of that?"