I am Not Impressed with Your Driverless Car

In fact, I’m a bit annoyed by it because it’s throwing time, money and resources at solving the wrong problem about traffic, mobility and danger to people from traffic.

A driverless car is still a private automobile. It’s still, for the most part, one person in one car, needing expensive roads and fossil fuels. It still needs to be parked, preferably at both ends, taking up space and–frankly–looking ugly.

You’re still sitting in your driverless car, in gridlock, an hour each way on a good day. But hey, now you can look at your phone without killing someone.

Driverless cars do nothing to solve the real problems with car culture. It’s inefficient for everyone to be driving themselves door-to-door all the time. It feels more efficient. You can leave the second you’re ready to–no waiting for the bus or the carpool or sticking to the commute train schedule. But that’s not actually efficient; it’s convenient. It’s also not entirely true.

What if you need to stop for gas? Or circle for twenty minutes to find parking? Or traffic is so heavy it takes three light cycles to get through a single intersection? Your driverless car might solve the first two (it goes for gas when it’s empty! How convenient for you! You don’t have to sit in the traffic headed to the gas station, or circle the block looking for parking, your car can do it alone!), but in solving the first two problems, it’s still creating the third.

And that’s why I am not impressed with driverless cars. And a little annoyed that money is being poured into them as a solution. We already can’t pay for the auto infrastructure out there and we already intend to pay for it before we pay for sidewalks, commuter trains, high speed rail or biking infrastructure. And that is ass-backwards.

The problems of car-culture do not begin and end with how annoyed the drivers are by traffic, nor how unproductive the hours alone–driving–in your car are, nor how difficult it is to find parking. The problems of car-culture begin with too many cars on the road. That’s what causes noise, congestion, wasted time, aggressive driving, pollution, and ever expanding stretches of roads which need serous maintenance.

You don’t reduce any of that by taking the need to be the driver out of the equation. You reduce that taking the need to drive at all out of the equation.

I wish this money was going toward developing better mass transit and creating the culture shift which gets people to use it without feeling like they are making a great personal sacrifice.

Once that happens, places will be safer for pedestrians and cyclists and the odd person driving.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Groceries in my basket, last fall. I was carrying a messenger bag.

Groceries in my basket, fall 2012. I was carrying a messenger bag.

My husband, yesterday, called me an extremist when it comes to cars. He’s probably right, although generally I  think he is wrong that the world can never be configured in a way to reduce the need for regular solo trips in a private automobile. Not everything is a dense urban center, but there’s a long way between a dense urban center and those tiny towns surrounded by farm land that don’t have any retail district at all. For instance, my parent’s home in their surburban-styled town (the town is actually older than Chicago but is functionally a suburb) is less than half a mile from the grocery store (and a few other every day need stores) and about a mile from the train into the City. There’s a nice central commercial district (which is more recreational than functional because the place is now suburban-styled). But there are no sidewalks that go the whole way from my parent’s house to the grocery store a half-mile away.  It’s a problem of design. If you design things so that people don’t have to drive, they won’t, at least some of the time. That’s the first step that the priority in places should be the people in the places. We’ve created a culture that equates the passenger vehicle to the people in a place, which is actually a perversion.


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