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: ##http://byteandchew.com/best-of-2012-8-rise-of-the-self-driven-car/##Byte 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: ##http://www.engadget.com/2012/12/03/volvo-self-driving-cars-2014/##Engadget##

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. I agree with most of your points above, but I think it’s important to consider 2 things:

    You can not ignore the energy and resource intensive process of manufacturing the batteries in this comparison. Using current battery technology, a lot of the energy savings at the vehicle level are eaten up by the energy expenditures from manufacturing the batteries.

    Second, a mass switch to electric power for the US vehicle fleet would certainly require a lot more power generation. Does the current grid have this capacity? Up to a point, yes, but if you are talking about powering all or most vehicles on grid electricity then it will almost surely require additional generating capacity.

    It’s true that there are some sources, like nuclear or hydro, that are “always on” and represent a supply of unused power during low-use periods. But the current power plant, especially in heavily populated areas, is mostly gas or coal. The output from these plants can be demand-managed much more effectively, and thus would require stepping up generation to provide significantly more power.

    My point is that, with current technology, I think EVs make the most sense for vehicles that are driven every day at predictable times for fairly short trips, and that get stored in places where dedicated charging stations can exist.
    To me, that sounds a lot like municipal vehicles or delivery fleets for places like UPS and FedEx, and maybe taxis.

  2. You’re right, and in cities robocars and robo-taxis probably make little sense when you can just take a bus or train to realize the same benefits. It’s really in the suburbs where this might revolutionize things.

  3. Maybe we’ll eventually require more generating capacity, maybe we won’t. It’s not like we’ll go from nearly zero to millions of EVs overnight. It will be a gradual thing. We may be able to save in other areas to make up for the shortfall. For example, by 2020 or so LED lighting will be at 80% market share. This will cut the power we use for lighting by half or more. That surplus power will now be available to charge EVs. And home appliances are getting more efficient as well.

    For now, you’re probably right that delivery fleets make the most sense to convert to EVs. The stop-and-go driving patterns of these vehicles are a natural for electric drive. And delivery vehicles constitute much of the total VMT in cities, so making them electric will greatly improve air quality. And yes, taxis shouldn’t be “maybe”, but yes. Electric taxis will be a boon to everyone, including fleet owners who will lower operating costs.

    Batteries are getting greener. It’s only a matter of time before we have much better battery tech.

  4. This article is weird. The author criticizes media hype surrounding electric cars, but doesn’t mention that the industry itself didn’t expect them to replace gasoline cars for decades. Electric cars are being purchased at rates in-line with sober estimates, and in the case of the Tesla Model S, faster than they can make them. Driverless technology, by contrast, isn’t available anywhere, and still has engineering, legal, and political problems to solve. Comparing the two is a stretch, on a level with comparing solar power and fusion energy.

    I agree that our cities would be better with fewer cars, more bicycles and public transportation, etc. But the way to do that is to engage the public realm, not the private one, and construct cities that favor these goals. So long as it’s fast, convenient, cheap enough, and seemingly safer for us to drive, we will continue to do so, and in preference to other modes. But make, say, cycling faster, then people will cycle.

  5. “But make, say, cycling faster, then people will cycle.”

    And I’ve mentioned the idea of building grade-separated bicycle highways in cities, and possibly also mass producing velomobiles, at a way to accomplish exactly that. A good velomobile on grade-separated infrastructure can offer average travel speeds in excess of 25 mph, even 30 mph. That’s faster than just about anything else in the city once you account for congestion and/or waiting time for mass transit.

  6. Cycling doesn’t necessarily need to be faster as long as we don’t space everything so far apart in future developments. Bikes aren’t really practical for long distances, but then again, most trips in the US made by car are only a few miles!

  7. Actually, in congested cities cycling does need to be made faster. When most people decide whether to take a bike or not, they decide based on time, not distance. If the time is more than about 30 minutes, many will opt for other modes. So by making cycling faster, you expand the radius over which it’s useful. In city cores with traffic and stoplights, you’ll be lucky to average 5 or 6 mph by bike. That makes your effective radius 2.5 to 3 miles. This is fine in a compact city like Amsterdam, but it’ll never get cycling mode share past the single digits in NYC or Chicago or LA. If you build grade-separated infrastructure, perhaps designed to channel prevailing winds into tailwinds, you can increase average speeds to 15 to 25 mph. Now your effective radius goes from 7.5 miles to 12.5 miles. Put velomobiles into the mix, and you might expand the radius to well past 15 miles. At that point it becomes feasible to do many car trips by bike or velomobile.

  8. It takes me 45 min to go 9 miles by bike. I understand that others will have different speeds. For many trips you don’t need to go that many miles at all, so speed isn’t as important. But for longer distances that is why there is a transit system like trains, light rail, or bus.

  9. And I can go anywhere from 10 to 13 miles in 45 minutes, but only by going past red lights whenever I can. If I were to stop and wait out every red light, I’ll be lucky to go 4 miles in the same time. That’s the problem in places with many signalized intersections-there often exists only a choice between cycling efficiently or cycling illegally, not both.

    My larger point though is bikes will continue to be useful only over short distances if that’s the only way we keep thinking of them. I think they could serve many people even over medium distances. We’ll still need trains and buses, but perhaps we’ll need fewer of them if a significant portion of the population considers 5 to 15 miles “biking distance” thanks to grade separated routes. Safety is another reason for such routes, not just speed.

  10. That’s a good point. Trains are expensive to build and run too, and any way to get people to use them less when they don’t have to is good. Bikes also run into the weather problem. A lot of people, like myself, don’t like riding in more than a drizzle.

  11. “A lot of people, like myself, don’t like riding in more than a drizzle.”

    That makes two of us. And a lot of ideas for elevated bike lanes involve roofing them over to keep rain and snow out. Some designs even channel prevailing winds into tailwinds, potentially greatly increasing travel speed.

    But yes, you got my point. If we can relieve capacity on overcrowded train lines and/or avoid building new ones by expanding the practical radius of bicycle travel, it’s a win for everyone. I would personally love a bicycle highway above, say, the Long Island Expressway (six blocks from me). I could hop on, take it to the Queensboro bridge, and use elevated lanes in Manhattan to get close to my final destination. Cheaper than the subway, I get exercise, and probably faster as well. It’s about 9 miles. By bus/train it takes ~40 minutes. By elevated bike lane, especially if winds are redirected into tailwinds, I could be looking at 30 minutes or less.

  12. You will get me from behind the steering wheel when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers

    You have no idea the screams of “Socialism!”, “Tyrrany!”, and “Big Brother” that adding driverless cars to the mix will evoke. They really don’t work all that well when they’re at the mercy of assholes in SUV’s Because the driverless cars are programmed to be good drivers, they always maintain a stopping buffer in front of them, except when “trained” with a leader communicating when to brake and steer.

    So jerks will take advantage of that by jumping in right ahead of them, secure in the knowledge that the A/V won’t rear-end them.

    So soon there will be agitation by the A/V owners to be allowed in the HOV lanes. Then as the population of cars grows, they’ll need additional priority lanes.

    You’ll have a revolution of the ignorant and selfish (nothing new that, but still).

  13. I think most of those on this site agree but unfortunately cars aren’t going anywhere for a while. That being the case, I’d rather they all be self-driving (and electric). Those two things mitigate most of the problems associated with auto use. We’ll still unfortunately have to deal with obesity, and land used for roads/car storage. Self-driving cars can reduce the latter two things a bit if they encourage people to hire cars when needed, as opposed to owning them outright.

  14. People shouldn’t be driving their kids to school period.

    The solution to school traffic jams is for parents to stop acting like idiots.

  15. I went to a school out of zone. Option was parent ride or 1 hour bus ride

    My parents were idiots how again?

  16. I’m amused at how many people will automatically slam and bash self-driving open-road vehicles reflexively, as if anything that made cars safer, easier to drive or more comfortable was inherently evil.

    I think people should all think a bit outside the box here. Let’s assume the self-driving technology becomes cheaper on scale (a reasonable proposition, it is essentially a set of cameras and other sensors and computers that control a relatively simple mechanic device). Several positive outcomes could result. First and foremost, we can imagine a scenario where road vehicles can be much lighter and driven with greater precision because computers are just so much precise than humans.

    It would be an immense paradigm shift of road safety towards crash avoidance instead of crash survival, if one is to assume a city where the majority of the fleet is self-driven.

    Then, we can think of multiple possibilities. The most obvious is greatly eliminating last-mile problems, facilitating a shift on transit focus to major high-volume/high-frequency segregated routes (rail/maglev/monorail/whatever) where it is most effective.

    It would also open a new world of automated deliveries. Imagine small-sized freight vehicles carrying packages from an out-of-town warehouse to your home in less than 1 hour, enabling almost-instant online purchases of items meant for same-day consumption.

  17. This is a red-herring. Technologies that replace human input on repetitive tasks are not entirely fail-proof, but often orders of magnitude safer. From airplanes to ICUs.

    I think if self-driven cars can be proven to reduce even by 50% the rate of serious accidents, they will be embraced. Moreover, there is an extremely powerful network effect: once more and more cars are self-driven, accidents will plummet.

    I’m sure there is a way for a sophisticated camera system to distinguish an human being from an object, and maybe even measure the likely mass of the object and whether it should impact or swerve or brake.

  18. Much of the problems of transit advocacy is that is shift focus to ancillary/collateral effects, such as “promoting healthy lifestyles” (by walking), when it should be all about transporting people from A to B with comfort, speed and safety – within a reasonable cost.

  19. What about the instances where a personal use vehicle is truly effective, such as unusual/odd trips (that would require circuitous routes with transit taking much longer), shopping for large items you can’t carry with you, moving when you are physically disabled (temporarily or not for whatever reason), going to some far-away destination, traveling in the middle of the night after going out etc?

  20. Transportation should be ONLY about that: transportation.

    Since the dawn of mankind, technology has been developed to make human activities requiring less and less physical effort.

    It is a blessing that we can now exercise at our pleasure, when and where we want to sweat (such as in gym), instead of having to put strenuous efforts for menial activities.

  21. I’m not a fan of cars and yet I still see self-driving cars as a good thing. Unfortunately, due to the way a lot of the country is laid out cars aren’t going anywhere for a while. Yes, it looks like their overall numbers will go down but we’ll still need them. That being the case, I strongly prefer to get the human driver out of the loop. That will have all the positives you mention. We’ll probably also be able to remove lanes from roads without reducing capacity. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. We should also be able to greatly increase travel speeds on expressways. Combine self-driving cars with electric drive and you remove the two things about cars which cause the higher number of deaths/injuries. So yes, bring on driverless cars (and electric cars) as soon as it’s feasible. It’s much better than what we have now.

  22. I’m not a fan of cars and yet I still see self-driving cars as a good thing. Unfortunately, due to the way a lot of the country is laid out cars aren’t going anywhere for a while. Yes, it looks like their overall numbers will go down but we’ll still need them. That being the case, I strongly prefer to get the human driver out of the loop. That will have all the positives you mention. We’ll probably also be able to remove lanes from roads without reducing capacity. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. We should also be able to greatly increase travel speeds on expressways. Combine self-driving cars with electric drive and you remove the two things about cars which cause the higher number of deaths/injuries. So yes, bring on driverless cars (and electric cars) as soon as it’s feasible. It’s much better than what we have now.

  23. I’m not a fan of cars and yet I still see self-driving cars as a good thing. Unfortunately, due to the way a lot of the country is laid out cars aren’t going anywhere for a while. Yes, it looks like their overall numbers will go down but we’ll still need them. That being the case, I strongly prefer to get the human driver out of the loop. That will have all the positives you mention. We’ll probably also be able to remove lanes from roads without reducing capacity. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. We should also be able to greatly increase travel speeds on expressways. Combine self-driving cars with electric drive and you remove the two things about cars which cause the higher number of deaths/injuries. So yes, bring on driverless cars (and electric cars) as soon as it’s feasible. It’s much better than what we have now.

  24. I’m not a fan of cars and yet I still see self-driving cars as a good thing. Unfortunately, due to the way a lot of the country is laid out cars aren’t going anywhere for a while. Yes, it looks like their overall numbers will go down but we’ll still need them. That being the case, I strongly prefer to get the human driver out of the loop. That will have all the positives you mention. We’ll probably also be able to remove lanes from roads without reducing capacity. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. We should also be able to greatly increase travel speeds on expressways. Combine self-driving cars with electric drive and you remove the two things about cars which cause the higher number of deaths/injuries. So yes, bring on driverless cars (and electric cars) as soon as it’s feasible. It’s much better than what we have now.

  25. I’m not a fan of cars and yet I still see self-driving cars as a good thing. Unfortunately, due to the way a lot of the country is laid out cars aren’t going anywhere for a while. Yes, it looks like their overall numbers will go down but we’ll still need them. That being the case, I strongly prefer to get the human driver out of the loop. That will have all the positives you mention. We’ll probably also be able to remove lanes from roads without reducing capacity. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. We should also be able to greatly increase travel speeds on expressways. Combine self-driving cars with electric drive and you remove the two things about cars which cause the higher number of deaths/injuries. So yes, bring on driverless cars (and electric cars) as soon as it’s feasible. It’s much better than what we have now.

  26. Sure, but then a self-driven vehicle is much better than a taxi, and cheaper since it doesn’t have the cost of the driver! Nothing precludes non-car-ownership models from relying on self-driven cars.

  27. Individual, non-human powered transportation will be attractive as long as people can afford it for the same reason an automatic dishwasher or washer/dryer combo is attractive: these make things easy.

    An additional advantage of self-driving cars is that they are less likely to be drunk or distracted, freeing up the occupants to do what they now do anyway, but without having control over a deadly weapon.

    Commercial and military aviation is going the same route.

    http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/24/travel/autopilot-airlines

  28. Self-driving cars are impossible on a large scale off of closed courses. (Yes, expresssways qualify as closed courses.)

    This is because people have an tremendous fear of being killed by robots. People are way more comfortable being killed by other humans. Don’t ask me why, but it’s well documented.

    The result is that the liability question will never be solved for “self-driving cars”. And the liability problem will sink them in the market. Sure, they’ll have “pedestrian detection”, and perhaps in very limited environments with controlled weather they’ll be safe and reliable enough to satisfy people’s high standards for robots.

    But will they be able to drive on rural roads in the driving rain, or will they constantly detect obstacles and stop? Probably they’ll either stop or crash, and driving on rural roads in the driving rain is what people buy cars in order to do.

    People claimed that electric cars had severe limitations; they don’t, the main limitation is price. Electric motors are OLD technology, and reliable. “Self-driving” cars have extremely severe limitations; they can’t deal with the weird, the unexpected, the bizarre… and so far they can’t even deal with roads with no lane striping, let along dirt roads. Who wants to buy a car with these severe limitations?

    It’s possible that cars with a “robot driving option” will be sold, where the driver can turn the option on or off as needed. And where the driver gets prosecuted if the robot driving option fails. This may be popular, but eventually it will cause people to avoid the robot cars, which will expose them to personal liability for programming errors.

  29. Self-driving cars are currently completely hopeless on dirt and gravel roads, grass parking lots, unstriped rural roads (even if paved); they are incapable of handling severe weather, whether extreme rain or extreme snowfall; et cetera et cetera. These problems are not going to be solved in the near future.

    This means they are not very useful. I suppose the self-driving feature could have a limited application in expressway driving in good weather. The trouble there is, everyone follows too close, so the self-driving cars will constantly go slower as they are constantly cut off by bad drivers.

  30. That’s what I thought, BJToepper. Electric cars exist and are being sold, with no legal problems, no political problems (apart from “how will we replace gas tax income”) and no technical problems (apart from “how do we make cheaper batteries”).

    Self-driving cars have very serious legal, political, and technical problems. The legal problems are the most dramatic, but the technical problems are serious too: ordinary cars are able to “drive anywhere” (including on grass lots and dirt roads in bad weather), which is really one of their selling points over public transporation. Self-driving cars can’t handle the variability of conditions, and never will be able to.

  31. Everything I’ve studied about trains says that they are ideal for *high volumes* — huge numbers of people. Period. They scale up better than anything else.

    Bikes are fundamentally a lower-volume solution, but there are a lot of lower-volume problems.

  32. The self-driven car won’t be able to handle odd trips of the sort which involve going onto dirt roads and grass.

  33. It really is. Self-driving cars are hopelessly impractical for genuine rural applications, as I’ve been pointing out. Since they’re also stupid for city applications, that makes them a suburb-only option.

  34. Diverless cars can never be mandated, because they will never work for a large number of applications, including driving in blizzards, driving on dirt roads, etc.

    They could be mandated specifically for specific expressways or something like that. But they cannot be mandated in general.

  35. Yep. The driverless car owners will find it super frustrating as they get cut off repeatedly.

    Now, this wouldn’t happen on quiet rural roads… but the tech doesn’t WORK on quiet rural roads. So the driverless car isn’t usable there either…

  36. (I will say that I’d love it if someone developed a reliable robot car for rural applications, but we don’t even understand how humans follow dirt roads in that context, so how do we program a robot to do it?)

  37. FWIW, the high-end buyers who are buying Tesla Model S’s are mostly installing solar panels. (Which frequently pay for themselves within a few years.)

  38. In addition, people ARE continuing to switch to trains. If we replace half our current automobile fleet with electric cars and the other half just goes away… that reallly helps with the electrical generation problem.

  39. Doesn’t matter whether the technology is safer. Robots-replacing-humans actually have to be at least one order of magnitude safer before people will accept them. That was proven in airplanes and other technologies.

    That’s not going to happen for rural road driving or blizzard driving. Maybe for “conventional” suburban expressway driving.

  40. You have no idea how fast artificial intelligence is progressing. The biggest reason self-driving cars are limited now is a combination of not having fast enough computers and not knowing how to program the ones we have to make intelligent decisions. Human drivers are none too great in the conditions you mention, so why should it come as a surprise that robots aren’t either?

    The idea of mixing robocars and human driven cars doesn’t make sense. In the beginning, we can start be having a robocar lane on expressways. As the technology evolves and starts to be installed on most of the existing vehicles, you can increase the number of robocar lanes on expressways until expressways are entirely robocars. That leaves the local streets. You can keep those under manual control until such time as we’re happy that robocars can successfully navigate complex environments (my guess is that issue will probably be solved before the expressways go 100% robocar. In any case, by the time the complex driving problems can be handled by AI nearly 100% of vehicles will already be set up to drive themselves. It will be a simple matter of updating all the software. Once robocars can safely navigate local streets you ban human-driven vehicles from everywhere but race tracks. My guess is this could happen in less than a decade. Today’s computers are about 100 times faster than the ones from 10 years ago. Another 100 times faster and we’ll have machines which can think and reason better than humans.

  41. You’re thinking solely from a US point of view where the lawyers are in charge. In countries with a less hostile legal framework robocars will be perfected and demonstrated to be much safer than human drivers. At that point there’s not much the lawyers will be able to do to keep them out of the US. Let’s be realistic-the lawyers are inventing all the liability issues you mention because robocars will put lawyers who make money off collisions out of business. For that matter, robocars will put auto insurance companies out of business. Both are good things. Lawyers and insurance companies are a net drain on the economy in that they cost society money, but don’t increase the net wealth of society.

  42. Yes, exactly. Bikes can fill urban transportation niches which trains can’t. That’s exactly why I feel we need to make human-powered transportation faster in cities through a combination of non-stop infrastructure and better, faster human-powered vehicles (i.e. velomobiles).

  43. Realistically, how many dirt roads are there? And why is navigating dirt roads such a hopeless proposition in your mind? It’s a simple matter of using radar or lasers or some other thing to detect where the path ahead isn’t blocked by trees or other large obstacles. The part not blocked by trees is your dirt road, and that’s what the car will follow. We just need sensor tech and AI to advance a few more years and the problems you mention will be solved.

  44. You *don’t* mix human-driven cars and robocars on any road. That’s a recipe for disaster because most humans can’t safely drive. Once robocars are up to the capabilities of driving on a given type of road you ban human-driven cars from those roads. First will be expressways as that’s the easiest problem to solve. After that you’ll ban human driven cars on local urban roads. Last to go would be rural highways and dirt roads as those represent the most difficult problems to solve.

    BTW, how many humans can drive in blizzards? I would think robocars would have an advantage there because they can communicate with other robocars to determine where they are. They can also use sensors to detect other vehicles in ways human drivers can’t.

  45. In a way, just lilke the car has been all along. Suburbs were built for cars, and they also helped cement the dominance of the auto, leading to all sorts of problems in non-suburban spaces.

    Alas for the hope that the automobile would die, and end its evil effects on cities and social structure. It seems it will live on, “self-driving,” zombie like, continuing its reign of terror…

  46. Joe,

    Your first sentence is “You [meaning “one”] *don’t* mix human-driven cars and robocars on any road”. Then you posit a time of transition during which at first expressways, then urban local roads and then (perhaps) all roads will be embargoed to human-driven cars.

    (Presumably racetracks will still be available?)

    Well, as you read this I expect you realize exactly what I’m about to say: the time of transition to an embargo of each class of road must necessarily be a time when human-driven and robocars are mixed on that class of road.

    Especially fraught would be the time during which robocars reign supreme on limited access highways while human-operated ones are still allowed on urban roadways. Since houses are not normally built with driveways connected to limited access highways (that old “limited access” means you, too), the robocars will have to navigate those same roads to which the human-piloted are banished.

    Perhaps they can “time-slice”?

    So, you have a hard time getting there from here.

    And you haven’t addressed the “gearhead” problem. If you think the gun nuts are a pain in the ain, well you have not seen anything until you try to make the Phil Hill-wannabes in their 427 ‘stangs share the road.

  47. This is the standard Futurist pipe-dream: people “engaging in creative pursuits”. Well, Charley, most people get a lot of satisfaction from work, even if they objectively despise it for being repetitive and menial. They aren’t particularly “creative” and will eventually be left with sawdust for a life without some form of objectively rewarded work.

    And the death of profit? ROTFLMAO! Formal “profit” as an accounting term is a relatively recent development in human history, but the desire to maximize self-interest is as old as archaea. It’s built into DNA.

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What impact will self-driving cars have on cities? The range of potential outcomes is enormous. In the best-case scenario, private car ownership gives way to shared fleets of autonomous cars, freeing up vast amounts of land that used to be devoted to vehicle storage. Then there’s the scenario promoted by Tesla, in which everyone owns their personal autonomous […]

Florida Republican: Vote Down Transit Because Driverless Cars Are Coming

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St. Petersburg doesn’t need better transit, according to local Republican state legislator Jeff Brandes, because self driving cars are going to make transit irrelevant. That’s why Brandes is fighting a ballot issue to be decided today in Pinellas County that would expand bus service 65 percent, he told Fortune. It’s a tactic that transit opponents have been using for decades […]

High Stakes for Cities as Feds Start Regulating Self-Driving Cars

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Last week as part of his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a $4 billion investment over the next 10 years to test autonomous vehicles and get them ready for the market. Two days later at the Detroit Auto Show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that federal regulators would begin to develop coherent safety regulations for […]