The Economist is holding forth about the future Brave New World of driverless electric vehicles. This week’s special report contains five articles on the subject, each more effervescent about the future than the last.
That august publication, ever progressive and ever enthusiastic about futuristic improvements to our lives, predicts a fundamental change in the texture of our society once autonomous (self-driving) cars take hold big-time. As the face of Western culture changed with the advent of the automobile, so it will change when cars can drive themselves. Strip malls, for example, will disappear, for stores will “come to you” with automated delivery of your orders. Urban cores, already plenty dense, will grow even denser as the need to provide parking space for commuters and residents disappears.
Suburbs will become “garden cities” once the need to park residents’ vehicles goes away. People will use the streets to walk on, not to drive on. (Uh huh…and these wondrous shared vehicles? They’ll fly?) Garages and driveways will be replaced by gardens.
And (the editors hope) people will no longer feel the need to own a vehicle at all. Everyone will get around on a combination of ride-hailing and public transit. If the light-rail that takes you downtown (elbow-to-elbow with your friendly drug-addicted panhandler) doesn’t go right to your office’s door, you’ll simply hail an Uber to pick you up at the station and take you the rest of the way.
Roads will, they allow, remain congested: crowds of commuters will be replaced by crowds of delivery vehicles. So if you ride from Outer Gardenville to your job in downtown Rabbit Warren City, it will take you just as long to get there in the rosy future as it does now. Well, probably longer. But buck up! You’ll be able to work — or better yet, sleep — the whole way!
How d’you like them beer and skittles?
Seriously: Are you looking forward to this, or does it sound like Dystopia Redux to you?
As a practical matter, they may be right that when fleets of driverless ride-sharing vehicles become commonplace, a lot of people will want to shed the expense, hassle, and space demands of private cars. And the things probably will be very expensive, indeed. Plus to keep people off roads, legislators may inflict tolls — some would like to do that right now. So the trade-off for convenience, safety, and mobility in old age could be a pretty pricey ride.
And convenience may not be one of the benefits the price purchases. The cars may be so expensive that most people (Economist editorialists hope) will be forced to rely on ride-sharing services.
Consider: if you have to call a cab every time you want to go to work or run to the grocery store or take the kids to soccer, you will have to factor in substantial wait times. And your calculation will be influenced by a whole slew of variables:
- The day of the week
- Time of day
- The season of the year, if you live in a tourist destination
- Weather conditions
- Major-league athletic events
- Whether any civic shindigs are going on
- What roads are torn up
- How far a vehicle will have to come to reach you, and from what direction
- How much it will cost to get from point A to point B
And probably a whole lot of other eventualities I’m not thinking of just now.
Then there’s the question of whether you really want to “share” a ride with everybody and his/her little brother, sister, and long-lost cousin. These vehicles, absent a custodian to ride herd on the Great Unwashed, are likely to be very dirty. The last rider lit up a cigarette: you get a ride that stinks. People will chow down on smelly fast foods and leave the wrappers on the floors. Mothers will change their babies’ diapers and leave the dirties under the seat. Drunks will vomit, leaving you a mess to enjoy on your way to the baseball game. Drug addicts will leave needles for your kids to play with.
Additionally, the companies that operate the vehicles will be able to track your every move, and they will have a centralized set of records available to anyone who can hack it, subpoena it, or pay enough for it. Privacy is already a scarce commodity in our own Brave New World. In the BNW of the endless rent-a-ride, it will be extinct.
Many people may consider true autonomy — owning one’s own vehicle rather than having to rent every ride — to be worth even a pretty exorbitant cost.
So what will happen? The roads will grow far more congested. If every store and restaurant converts to the Amazon model and every purchase you make is delivered to your home in a self-driving truck, then we’ll all be sharing the roads with that many more vehicles. This extra burden of vehicles will crowd roads and slow down traffic enough. Add to that the likelihood that a car that knows what’s best for you will move v-e-r-r-r-y slowly, and voilà! A drive that takes you 20 minutes now will take you 40 minutes or an hour in the balmy future.
Personally, I would very much welcome a self-driving vehicle: it would mean I could stay in my home until I die (with any luck), and hugely improve the odds against my having one day to check myself into a warehouse for old folks. BUT…
- Only if it were my vehicle.
- Only if it and the roads were available when I need them, not at some regulator’s behest.
- Only if the cost were less than the cost of moving into an old-folkerie.
- Only if it didn’t jack up the cost of my power bills to unaffordable levels — i.e., more than the $40 to $60 a month I pay for gasoline now.
- Only if it were as reliable as a Toyota.
- Only if it were not tracking me and reporting my comings and goings to a central server.
- Only if…only if…only if….
Communal living has never appealed to me. Communal riding doesn’t look much better. I do not play nice with the other kids and do not want to share…let’s be frank about that. And I’ll bet that most Americans, deep in their hearts, feel the same way. That, after all, would be why we have sprawling suburbs of single-family homes and vast herds of sheeple driving to work over bumper-to-bumper freeways.
It’s a trade-off. And the choices Americans have already made say something about how they’ll receive the scheme to “improve” private transportation with fleets of driverless ride-shares.
How about you? Ready for the brave new driverless world?