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. The Toyota Prius alone has sold over 1 million units in the U.S. alone and over 3 million world wide. I see them everywhere. So sure if you exclude Hybrids it seems we are making miniscule progress. But in terms of pure Electric miles driven things are looking way up. Self driving cars will probably be similar, with some hybrid mode that purist won’t call self-driving all the will with more and more self driving miles being driven.

  2. A self-driving taxi service or self-driving public transit isn’t unimaginable. Both of those would be accessible to the poor.

  3. So technology isn’t going to save us?

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines and luckily, as retirement age nears, I plan to ride my bike to my necessary destinations and if I can’t get there by bike then I’m not going…

  4. Self-driving cars can solve exactly one problem: they can go somewhere else and park themselves. That way you don’t need parking at popular destinations, just because people want to drive there. It’s actually a fairly significant improvement to the car paradigm.

  5. What’s not mentioned is that self driving cars could eliminate the need for most people to own a private car at all, thus saving huge amounts of money, and possibly helping to promote public transit.

    If people can get to all their errands with a self driving city carshare equivalent, they will still need to use public transit for getting to and from work as the volume would never be supported by an on demand fleet. But since they wouldn’t need to own a car for daily errands car ownership could drop dramatically.

  6. One problem that I have with the idea of self-driving cars is that it is essentially a reduction in the price of automobile transportation (to the passenger in the car) which, as Streetsblog often points out, leads to over-consumption.

    I worry that this will just accelerate the growth of an environment built with cars in mind. For instance, living in far-flung transit-inaccessible suburbs wouldn’t be so terrible if you could sleep through your commute. Or consider how annoying jaywalkers would be to the passengers in self-driving cars which, hopefully, wouldn’t play an aggressive game of chicken like New York cabbies do. Would that mean that then mean that we build fences around the streets? Relegate pedestrians to overpass bridges or something? Does that mean even less political support for bike lanes?

    Giving people access to a car that’s even easier to operate than the current model (which most of the U.S. is already addicted to) can’t help create support for dense, safe, walkable environments where cars are forced to slow down for people.

    I’m usually optimistic about new technology but I’m a little skeptical about this one.

  7. I think that’s the point of the article, but you put it really well. There are still lots of costs to automobile use other than gas and time spent driving. I definitely feel like robot cars mixing with pedestrians is going to pose a challenge that may not have an easy resolution.

  8. “Exactly one”? Dude, think about all the other uses; automatic taxis zipping people around, less need to own a car in the first place, etc.

    The big one though is deliveries. Walmart and Safeway could save a bunch of money if they didn’t need truck drivers.

  9. who is going to unload those deliveries? And that’s great, even fewer workers so we can all just sit at home and buy things online forever.

    In the future, we’ll all be shopping online in prison.

  10. It makes no difference to the built environment whether the grocery truck drives itself, or is driven by a person. Same for automatic taxis.

  11. 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.

    Yeah… no. New technology is always expensive; remember how much the original Tesla Roadster cost? Remember how much cell phones cost in the 80’s? Or how much computers used to cost?

    Early adopters might need thick wallets, but as the technology matures it will eventually get down to a reasonable price.

  12. I’m only skeptical of this because it solves one issue which is driver error, and potentially the use of energy (since it can be more efficient). However, there’s also concerns about hacking the computer, and I just read “what happens when the car swerves to avoid a shopping cart rolling in the street and hits a child instead?”
    The other issues of driving, like health (if you can just hop in a self-driving car, why walk anywhere) and the built environment (people will still buy and park them) would still exist. Will we just turn into those big people from Wall-E if we’re driven everywhere and it’s even cheaper than it is now?

  13. The only people who should be celebrating a reduction in labor are corporations. Those savings are not passed down to the consumer.

  14. The only people who should be celebrating a reduction in labor are corporations. Those savings are not passed down to the consumer.

    Of course not. Maybe you should read up on how supply and demand works too.

  15. she’s critiquing media coverage not that new technology is expensive. It also still requires faith that it will reach that level of scale to reduce price, which isn’t certain. I mean, how much has segway cost come down?

  16. not to mention… even if the cars are shared by people (and a lot of people won’t spring for sharing their cars, many still like their cars to themselves), people will still live 50, 60, 70 miles away from their jobs in far-flung suburbs. that doesn’t solve anything like building efficiency (environmental problems) and doesn’t even begin to dive into the social problems caused by isolating yourself in a metal box for hours of the day, driving from garage to garage.

  17. I’m surprised, usually you have a better contribution to make.

    But yeah, it’s that simple. Supply – demand, trickle down, when Amazon saves so do you, no consequences and endless breadsticks.

  18. Look, you run a business, you charge what people will pay. Period.

    Your costs have NOTHING to do with what you charge the consumer. Not a single thing.

  19. Wal-mart and Amazon prices have more to do with monopolization than with passing savings on to consumers. So, yeah, production costs are related to consumer price, but I don’t think lower prices are necessarily guaranteed or something to expect from automated driving. Most driving is done for free already by people driving themselves and we all pay the social cost of that.

  20. hahahah the economist.

    “Mr King argues that workers (who are, naturally, also consumers) were virtually the sole beneficiaries of the new economy, in the shape of faster real wage growth.”

    That’s great, except for the fact that real wages have remained stagnant for the last 40 years while corporate profits have grown and while the stock market has recovered since 2008, employment hasn’t.

  21. You’re missing out on one very key factor-very high per capita infrastructure costs in sprawled out areas. We could make transportation in these areas more accessible, or even free, but that doesn’t fix the fundamental problem-namely that suburbs require net subsidies to exist. In fact, many derive a lot of their revenue from things like speeding tickets. That will all but disappear with self-driving cars, making the already precarious situation of the suburbs worse. Remember the suburbs starting contracting before gas prices went higher. Ever increasing real estate taxes were one of the reasons. No, self-driven cars won’t save the suburbs. In the end, probably all motor vehicles will be both electric and self-driven, but many of those will be delivery trucks or buses serving urban areas, not single occupant vehicles tooling around the suburbs.

  22. I disagree with the basic premise that most of the vehicles on the roads will remain gas guzzlers. It’s true the used car market and general wage stagnation will keep many older cars on the road long past their time. However, battery-electric cars will eventually be cheaper than their gas-powered counterparts once they’re manufactured in similar numbers. When large parts of a car are hand built, of course it will cost more. Battery tech is getting less expensive and better all the time. I think by 2020 half the new cars sold will be battery-electric. There’s just no other viable way to meet the increased MPG standards unless much of the fleet is electric. By 2025 probably virtually all of them will be. At some point you’ll have a critical mass of charging stations and cars sold to make electric cars the cheaper alternative. When that happens, people will buy them for that reason alone. Most people don’t care what moves their car, only that it works and works long enough to get them where they’re going. Once 200+ mile range is normal for EVs, and 20 minute charging stations are installed at many gas stations, EVs will take over. Accounting for used cars, by 2035 probably most of the cars on the road will be electric, although I think there will be a lot fewer cars by then. Long before 2035, you may even see large cities restrict vehicles to zero emissions only. That will create a large, captive market for EVs, further increasing use and decreasing cost.

  23. Yes, wages are stagnant but many goods (outside of food and housing) are dirt cheap compared to years ago. I guess that’s how productivity increases were passed on to workers-in the form of cheaper goods. Of course, it doesn’t help that nothing is being done about food or housing costs.

  24. The robo-taxi application sounds promising though. As taxis play an important role in transit-oriented societies by filling the gaps where normal modes (walking, transit, biking) don’t happen to work, this should probably help such societies by reducing the cost of taking a taxi (though the cost will still be relatively high compared to other modes).

  25. I’ll celebrate a society where all the grunt work is done by machines, and people are finally free to do what they do best-engage in creative pursuits, not economic ones. Up until this point, people have largely been little more than machines doing mind-numbingly boring tasks to fulfill their economic productivity quotas. How about a society where machines produce enough goods so everyone can be at least middle class, and everyone gets a quota of these goods, plus a place to live? If you want to work and earn more to buy more than your quota, you can. If not, you can still live in comfort, and do what you want with your time. We might evolve more to a society of artists (in one form or another), feeding off each other’s creative pursuits. Or perhaps expand man’s reaches into outer space given the human propensity to explore.

    The point is the way we live now is not the only possible way we can ever live. The whole idea that your main purpose for existence is to work a silly 40 or 50 hour a week job doing the same boring crap, and everything else you do must be fitted into a small amount of “spare” time, will hopefully die by the second half of the 21st century.

    Eventually we’ll have robots making robots and other goods. There will be no need or incentive here for “corporate profits”. I’m sure the first people who designed the robots will try to extract income from their use and sale indefinitely, but eventually the profit motive will die. Corporations will no have no more claim to the productivity of robots than they do to the productivity which occurs as the result of solar energy hitting the planet. Eventually when what you create evolves into something different, it’s no longer yours to use as you want.

  26. It’s only a significant reduction in cost when somebody gives up ownership entirely. If they own their own robo-car it will be more expensive than the equivalent car without robo.

    Once they give up the car ownership model, then each trip becomes it’s own expense, thus discouraging driving, and making other options more competitive for each trip mode decision. Walking and biking will still be far less expensive.

  27. Schools don’t have much parking but are already jam before and after school. Self driving cars aren’t going to eliminate traffic congestion and the desire for closer parking.

  28. But what wlll be used to generate all that electricity? In my home state of NY, the answer seems to be natural gas from fracking.

  29. Driverless cars have the potential to prevent 98% of car accidents. Over 30,000 people die in accidents every year in the United States.

    The question isn’t whether this technology will be adopted but when it will be mandated by law.

    It’s not the driverless car’s fault that Anne believed the marketing hype around hybrids. Hybrids have not taken over because the economic value of their advantages over conventional cars is fairly small. But driverless cars will take over because they are 30k plus lives a year better than what we have. AAA estimates each fatal accident costs the economy $6 million. The costs in lost productivity are gargantuan. By comparison, the incremental gas savings of a hybrid are peanuts.

    While driverless cars are sure to cost more, insuring them is certain to cost far less. But more importantly, their passengers will be exponentially safer.

    I don’t disagree that media salvation over mythical transportation solutions is an issue. But there’s just as much myth and fact free analysis in this piece to earn it mythical salivation status.

    The only part of our transportation problems this driverless car will solve is preventable traffic accidents and their related massive costs to human life and the larger economy. But that is still a huge and worthy advancement.

    I agree with Anne that the car centric discussion over driverless cars is an issue. One solution would be for her and other transportation writers to point out that driverless car sharing, taxis, buses, and mass transit are also going to benefit from these technologies. No magic bullets their either.

    But public transit agencies will find huge bottom line savings when they no longer need to hire so many drivers and train operators.

    Driverless cars can also be certain to never block transit only lanes, strike pedestrians (in or out of crosswalks), cut off bicycles, park in bike lanes, block intersections, run red lights, or fail to yield to emergency vehicles.

    When car-to-car networking technology is integrated with transit systems, debates over light priority will seem quaint relics compared to simplicity of always on transit priority for buses and transit vehicles in traffic.

  30. The utilities have a lot of off peak capacity overnight, which incidentally will be exactly the time when cars will be plugged in at home recharging. No need for more power plants.

  31. I think you hit on the central point here-30,000+ lives and another 2 million injuries are enormous societal costs which driverless cars will all but eliminate once they’re mandated. And traffic cops will be a thing of the past as well, saving even more money. You also won’t need traffic controls at intersections. Cars will communicate with each other to avoid collisions. Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to proceed across intersections whenever they get there, without reducing speed, confident that the cars will stop or slow to let them through. You’ll also be able to greatly increase highway capacity, often even allowing you to remove a lane or two for other purposes. And travel speeds on highways can be greatly increased, perhaps even rivaling those of high-speed rail (although I still feel rail is a better solution for long distance travel). Just these advantages are worth whatever it costs to convert to 100% driverless cars.

    I disagree on one minor point. Insurance probably won’t be needed at all. Deaths/injuries will be so few and far between that it will be cost effective for the auto manufacturers to cover them.

  32. I think robo-taxis could revolutionize things, especially in areas where no other modes work well. If enough people realize they don’t need to own a car, that’s a lot less parking we require, as well as a lot fewer cars on the road. Moreover, because you pay for a robo-taxi each time you use it, there is an incentive to consolidate your trips, plus take fewer trips to start with. When you own a car, people often use it just because it’s there and they’re paying for it regardless. Robo-taxis then could also reduce general traffic levels

  33. capacity is not the same as realized power generation. Although the generating capacity may be sufficient to meet the extra demand, the power still has to be generated, which means burning more of something.

    It is open for debate whether burning gas in internal combustion engines, given the trend towards higher efficiency engines, is less efficient than burning gas or coal in power plants to produce electricity, transmitting the power, and manufacturing (and eventually disposing of) all the batteries.

    I think both should part of the mix in the vehicle fleet. Municipal vehicles, like buses and sanitation trucks, may be better candidates for electric power than private cars.

  34. If you accept that cars are going to remain an important part of the overall transportation network for a long time, then driverless cars will be a good development. In terms of safety, it’s not that there is no possibility of collisions, injury, and death, but that the rates should be much lower than the current environment when all vehicles are driven by individuals.
    In terms of the issues and problems with an auto-centric culture, I think the question of who is driving is a second order problem at best, and we should be focusing more on land use and public transit infrastructure to deal with those issues.

  35. First, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity which is then used to charge batteries in electric cars is more efficient than burning the same fossil fuels in small internal combustion engines (which at best convert ~20% of the energy in the fuel into motion). A large natural gas plant might convert upwards of 50% of the energy in the natural gas into electricity. Transmission losses are a few percent. Charging efficiency of the battery is over 80%. And the electric motor in the car is at least 90% efficient using the energy in the battery. So we have an overall efficiency of at least 30 to 35%.

    Second, another advantage to generating power remotely is you can filter the emissions to a far greater extent than you can filter car emissions. And those emissions are in remote areas, not spewed from cars in the middle of population centers where they do the most harm. More people are killed by car exhaust than car accidents each year. Electric cars can eliminate the latter altogether.

    Third, noise pollution, especially from large trucks/buses, is all but eliminated with electric vehicles.

    Fourth, the excess capacity I talked about is exactly that. We burn up electricity from nuclear power plants at night in resistor grids because there’s no demand for it. That same electricity could charge electric vehicles. Moreover, guess what the biggest user of electricity is? Oil refineries. Switch to EVs, and you’re freeing up a lot more grid power.

    I’ve heard lots of arguments against EVs, but lack of grid power is one which doesn’t hold water.

  36. Lithium and lead-acid batteries aren’t the only energy storage technologies which will ever exist. Right now we’re developing carbon-based ultracapacitors, among other things. There is a need to develop batteries which don’t rely on dwindling lithium supplies. It’s only a matter of time.

  37. Today’s electric cars try to look and act just like gasoline cars, except you fill them a different way, and worry about their range. The Tesla S is generating excitement (and selling all they can make at ridiculous prices) because while it’s still very similar to a gasoline car, it is more fun to drive, and also fancy inside.

    But the self-driving car is a horseless carriage of a different colour. In its eventual form, it’s really not a car at all, it’s closer to a world like Manhattan, with taxis everywhere that you can get within a minute and take you where you want to go, and don’t have to be parked or refueled (by you.) But unlike taxis, which cost $2.50/mile (about half of which goes to the driver) these can cost a price similar to the cost per mile of an owned car, without the financial burden of ownership. So perhaps for the rich at first, but eventually an enabler for all income levels.

  38. It is simply amazing how much cleverness, innovation, money, and resources some people will pour into avoiding having to ride the bus.

    Occam’s razor says: just give up your car. Any other solution is jury-rigged.

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