Magic Cars and Silver Bullets: Will the Self-Driving Car Save the World?

Back in the day, we beheld the future, and in it, we were zipping about in electric cars. Yes, on that day way back in the aughts, we beheld a future in which a passel of problems were about to become passé: crippling gas prices, entanglements with oil-rich frenemies, dirty air, and climate-changing emissions would all disappear through the magic of automotive engineering. Chevy’s Volt, Nissan’s Leaf, and next generation EVs would mitigate car culture’s costs. And we would still get to drive all over kingdom come.

Look, ma, no hands! Behold, Google's self-driving car. Photo: ## and Chew##

What happened to the fantasy of EVs should provide a reality check to our understanding of self-driving cars — but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Just over 71,000 of the vehicles now traversing America’s roads are electric — less than 0.03 percent of the total. Their share is likely to remain in the single digits through 2035. The revolution so heavily televised hasn’t happened.

New CAFE standards championed by environmentalists and set by the EPA have had a more profound effect, forcing incremental improvements to models across automakers’ fleets. Model year 2012 saw the greatest annual boost in fuel economy since 1975; from MY2006 to 2011, emissions dropped 10 percent as fuel economy improved 11 percent. Still, overall fuel economy remains under 24 mpg, far from the triple-digit dream that electric cars presented when rolled out. Experts also caution that the used-car market could undermine these standards, keeping old gas-guzzlers on the road longer as people avoid buying pricier new cars.

The evolution toward a less gas-guzzling car fleet is a slow one, nudged along by force of advocacy and regulation, and so too will be the evolution toward safer, self-driving cars. 

It’s hard to tell this, though, from the coverage of self-driving cars in the media, which might be even more breathless than the coverage of EVs. Hopped-up headlines blare that self-driving cars will “change our lives.” They are going to “change everything.” Crash rates and insurance and medical costs will go down! Fuel efficiency up! Pollution and traffic congestion down! Productivity up! And everything’s going topsy-turvy “faster than you think” — our dramatic new future is once again moments away. Get ready.

Of course, self-driving cars have their critics. Some say consumers will resist them, distrusting their new technology or disbelieving they’d be fun to drive. Others claim that consumers should resist them because they are part of a government plot. Still others worry whether or not regulators can keep up with technology well enough to protect the public interest. NHTSA’s policy statement on “automated vehicle development,” released last week, gives credence to this concern, explaining that the agency “is conducting research on self-driving vehicles so that [it] has the tools to establish standards for these vehicles.”

EVs faced similar charges pre-launch. Yet one argument used against electric cars has not been employed against self-driving cars, though it is among the most compelling: that they benefit only elites.

Hay has been made of the Volt’s roughly $40,000 price compared to the $30,000 average amount paid for a vehicle. Driverless cars could cost many thousands more. Yes, savings may come in the cost of ownership of these vehicles, but a high purchase price remains a hurdle only the well-financed can cross. The companies integrating some early self-driving technologies are mostly luxury purveyors: Audi, Mercedes, Volvo. And if the entire fleet ultimately turns over to self-driving cars, the last to have them will be the car-dependent poor, which means that if these cars are all they’re cracked up to be, the poor will be the last ones stuck driving the most dangerous, most costly-to-operate vehicles on the road.

Will transit lose its advantage as the mode of the multi-tasker? Photo: ##

Even Randall O’Toole, who predicts “fully self-driving cars” will be sold in the U.S. by 2020, admits that flow-through would take another 18 years, so now we’re talking 2030-2040. More cautious forecasters, including some auto execs, don’t see truly autonomous cars arriving for several more decades. A few automotive journalists have acknowledged cars that entirely or largely drive themselves may never come to be (although headlines such as “At High Speed, on the Road to a Driverless Future” fail to reflect that tempered view.) So we should expect — or hope — that the process will be slow if we expect regulators to help maximize safety. Viva la Evolución.

So, is there any harm in the hype? Full-bore enthusiasm may be needed to produce incremental improvements, and every increment in lives saved is a good thing. Pedestrian detection systems alone could advance traffic safety. Viva la Evolución.

The harm is this: Perpetuating the belief that a magic car will be the silver bullet that solves our transportation problems doesn’t just focus too narrowly on automotive solutions to transportation problems — it slows down progress on non-automotive solutions. Detractors of transit like to point out that it can take decades for investments in rail infrastructure to be realized, claiming that nimble private car companies can and will bring us a better future more quickly. Media salivation over self-driving cars helps sustain this myth.

It also furthers the notion that the only really cool transportation technologies are automotive ones, preserving the car as a key marker of social status and symbol of progress. This makes it harder to encourage healthier and more sustainable and efficient modes, and harder to rally taxpayers behind transit investments. 

“Mobility is freedom, at least a part of it,” O’Toole states, and that’s not wrong. What’s wrong is the persistent conflation of mobility with cars, born of a fascination with the latest gee-whiz technology. The expansion of mobility and freedom must work for all — not just those who can shell out for the latest vehicle.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former investment banker and marketing executive, is co-author, with anthropologist Catherine Lutz, of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives.

113 thoughts on Magic Cars and Silver Bullets: Will the Self-Driving Car Save the World?

  1. You misunderstood what I wrote. There would be a transition, but not a mix of human-driven and robocars on any type of road. On expressways you would start with one lane being for robocars only. As most of the fleet ends up with self-drive capability, you add more robocar lanes and fewer lanes for human driven vehicles on expressways. Eventually, you’re not allowed on expressways at all unless you have a car which can drive itself. Those same robocars will still be human driven on other roads until the software is capable of coping with driving on these roads. Once it is, all the robocars have their software updated, and human driving on the next class of roads is forbidden. Eventually you’ll get to robocars only even on dirt roads. At that point you can dismantle the motor vehicle licensing bureaucracy.

    As for the “gearhead” problem, they can drive on tracks. Public streets aren’t a suitable place for “performance” driving anyway. The hard fact is the vast majority of the general public will embrace robocars because they seem to have little interest in driving. If they did, they might actually be better at it, and not try to do other things while driving. The fact that you may have a minority of hard core drivers isn’t a reason to continue to allow human drivers on public roads once robocars are up to the task.

  2. Creative pursuits could mean lots of things. I find it hard to believe the majority of people get any satisfaction at all from their work. Most people retire as soon as they can. Those who don’t actually are the ones who have relatively creative jobs they enjoy. And then there’s the issue of work hours. Even if you love what you do, you might not want to do it 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and on somebody else’s schedule. I like to do lots of things as hobbies but can’t think of a single one of them I would want to do 40 hours per week. Also, our education system is currently focused only on turning people into workers. Don’t you think in a society with much more free time we might instead teach free thinking and creativity instead? In fact, when you look at children, most have very active imaginations and can fill the day with play. The only become adults incapable of not being bored unless working because of years of being stunted by both the educational system and menial work.

    As for the desire to maximize self-interest, yes, that’s inherent but this doesn’t necessarily mean always wanting more material things. That’s actually a very recent, very shallow view bought upon by corporate advertising. I submit that once material things pass the point where people have enough to be comfortable, maximizing self-interest will involve engaging in interesting activities.

    The hard fact is that we’re actually moving in the direction where there won’t be full-time work for most adults. The only things which need to be decided are how to divide resources, and also how to educate people for a life where a lot less of their identity is tied up in what they do for a living.

  3. Joe,

    Two things:

    First, you’re not going to be able to keep the human-driven cars out of the robocar lanes. Jerks don’t stay out of HOV lanes; why would they honor SOV lanes? That’s especially true during this transition time during which you assume that the robocars still have driver stations. How will an enforcement officer know that the car approaching him [or her, disculpe me, ladies] with one occupant is under control of that person or the computer?

    Will they have a little “GOOGLE” light on the roof like a Taxi that lights up in robo-mode? [hint: people will hack that light; you can double-darn betcha].

    And second, you have a minority of hard-core gun fanatics who dominate the politics of gun control. The same thing will happen with road access, especially since the gearheads are often the same people as the gun-nuts and have a long history of getting their way politically.

    Basically, Americans are, largely, selfish jerks — especially American men over 35. Robocars might work in Scandinavia where lawlessness is looked on as a sign of insanity. And they might work here after all those of us who grew up with Malibu’s and Charger’s die off. But in the current “Libertarian” American where “beating the man” is considered the highest achievement in life, No, they are not going to fly.

    Or drive.

  4. You can easily keep human-driven cars out of the robocar lane. Robocars will communicate with each other. That’s part of how they work. When a car with robodrive capability enters the robocar lane, it automatically goes to self-drive. If a car with no robodrive capability enters the robocar lane, the robocars detect this and start slowing down gradually, eventually coming to a full stop, unless the human-driven car leaves the lane. Not hard to do, and it gives a good incentive to not be a jerk and try to drive in the robo-lane.

    And I can think of one reason robocars will fly despite the selfishness of most Americans. Eventually, insurance companies will realize robocars have far fewer claims. They will greatly lower the insurance rates for robocars and/or raise the rates for non-robocars to prohibitive levels. The end result of that will be a small minority of very rich people continuing to drive while everyone else has robocars.

    Also, demographics are changing. Urban areas will increasingly determine election results and politics. We may even just let states set their own robocar policies to ease tensions. If people in, say, Wyoming still want to drive their own cars, they might be able to, but only when in Wyoming. If they come to the Northeast or the West coast then they won’t have that option. That might actually be a good compromise. I personally couldn’t care less if some “gearhead” wants to drive on a two-lane highway out in the middle of nowhere. However, there’s no way in hell I want that person driving in NYC once most cars have self-drive capability.

  5. “when it should be…”

    Oh Grand Poobah, your worthless underlings gaze at you with eyes filled with the diamonds of admiring tears. You grace us, O Great One, with the shining pearls of your timeless wisdom.

    Shrive us of our sinful wish to create a more healthful world, O Plangent One. We now see our error in thinking that we might have some meaningless shred of value.

    We abase ourselves before you in abject submission!

  6. I’m sure there were plenty of people who thought we’d “never be able to” got to the moon, but we got there, didn’t we? Science is amazing. I wouldn’t underestimate it, especially not with how much public support there is and the many obvious benefits to be had from perfecting this technology. I’m sure Googleers are working on terrain sensors as we speak.

  7. Stupid for city applications? Are you kidding? Do you know how much I’d love to have my car drop me off somewhere downtown instead of having to circle 3 blocks to find an open place to parallel park? Even if you’re not going very far and we’re talking self-driving car vs walking, I’m sure a single gal in Chicago wanting to meet her friends out for a drink would be glad for a self-driving chauffeur as opposed to having to walk the whole way after dark clutching a can of mace.

  8. Honestly, I can’t believe MADD isn’t all over this. Self-driving cars would virtually eliminate drunk driving, because a computer can’t get drunk. No more worrying about designated drivers or paying $40 for a taxi home/back to the bar the next morning, because the computer’s your designated driver. More convenient/less expensive for the drinkers and an overall societal benefit in that we don’t have to worry about them careening into a family of four on the way home.

  9. That’s just as good as a self-driving car, provided:
    1) I get to decide what time the train leaves so that I don’t have to wait on it
    2) The train goes door-to-door from my house to work
    3) I can decide whether other people are allowed to be on the train with me or not

  10. I feel like if walking/biking was good enough for you in the past, you’ll probably still be walking/biking once self-driving cars are a reality. If a person would rather sleep/read a book on the way to work than walk/bike, they probably already prefer to drive (because if you prefer to do more sleeping/reading in the mornings, there’s already a time savings from driving vs walking/biking), so self-driving cars are unlikely to “convert” a bunch of people from walking/biking to car travel.

  11. Aren’t they? Will you care how far away your car has to park, if it can drop you off at the door and you can call it back to pick you up via a phone app or some additional “smart key” functionality?

  12. Insurance is not a net drain – insurance is a solution to a real uncertainty and risk problem. That is a real true benefit to society by allowed future uncertainties to be managed.

    Lawyers – yes near total dead weight loss.

  13. Artificial intelligence not problem here. Sensors in weather conditions, sensors covered after snowstorm or impaired. I think these problems will be solved but they are hugely non trivial

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