Self-driving cars are the gateway drug to real transportation.
I will readily admit that I actively disliked the notion of self-driving cars when rumors of such creations first began to leak out of Google. I have been mystified by the widespread and eager enthusiasm for self-driving cars, and have watched their growing popularity with amusement and disdain. Teaching a computer how to drive cars won’t get rid of them. It’s a solution to a problem we don’t have. The enormous, intractable, elephant-in-the-room problem we must solve is ridding ourselves of most of our cars before they deplete all of our remaining resources.
Not only are cars burning up all of our dwindling oil reserves, their roads are shredding our landscape, their parking lots are disfiguring our cities, and their traffic jams are destroying our productivity. An alternative system of public transportation is what we need, and the fact that that is a big job is all the more reason why we need to work on it right away.
For reasons I could not fathom, people were intrigued by the notion of self-driving cars, and companies like Apple, Ford, Tesla, and Google made them marquee projects and invested millions. It’s easy to understand why prominent universities around the world wrestled with the challenge, as it’s a fascinating problem in cognition, sensor tech, AI, and engineering, but practically speaking, to what end?
We would invest huge resources to make cars more convenient, when what we clearly need is to make alternative forms of transportation convenient instead.
I know that we must get rid of most cars, and merely computerizing the manipulation of their controls won’t do that. I tweeted my disdain. I scoffed at the silliness of solving an aspect of autos that didn’t need solving. We would invest huge resources to make cars more convenient, when what we need is to make alternative forms of transportation convenient instead. I shook my head in wonder at the self-driving enthusiasts who ignored the far more significant problem of automotive-driven resource depletion.
My next shock came with the realization that the first widespread use of self-driving tech would most likely not be in private passenger cars but rather in the commercial trucking industry. This would have the effect of putting hundreds of thousands of middle class workers out of a job, while putting more millions in the off-shore bank accounts of tax-dodging corporations.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by railroads. Today, I believe that a modern, technically-advanced system of railroads would be an enormous boon for America, solving a broad array of technical, resource, and social problems. It’s possible that my love for trains has warped my assessment of them as a game-changer, but I doubt it.
The civility of streetcars in Zurich and Stockholm warmed my heart and fired my brain.
When I visited Europe for the first time, as a long-haired 20-year-old, I exalted in taking cross-country passenger trains, boarding clean, well-marked cars in light and spacious terminals that actually departed on time! I was seeking a different cultural touchstone, having grown up in the car culture of America. I was entranced by my ability to traverse entire seaboards and mountain ranges on efficient public transportation systems. I marveled at the usefulness, effectiveness, around-the-clock ease, and affordability of the London Tube and the Paris Metro. The civility of streetcars in Zurich and Stockholm warmed my heart and fired my brain.
One story that I hear with curious frequency from Asian- and European-born immigrants is an odd inversion of my rail hejira that goes like this: “I came to America after school to get a job, but the first thing I did was buy a muscle car and drive it from coast to coast.” They wanted to experience the transformative power of the American car culture the same way I wanted to experience a working, international, public transportation system. There can be no doubt of the cultural strength of a nation filled with V8 powered dream machines. The car in America is a proud statement of our rugged individualism and freedom. It is the primary mechanism for the uniquely American ability to reinvent oneself. Just drive to another town in another state and be who you dream yourself to be.
I much prefer to spend my time imagining how a multi-modal public transportation system in America would improve life instead of wasting my time fretting over how the deep cultural entrenchment of our automobile-fixations will make the former notion a quixotic pipe dream.
And then I had an epiphany…
Self-driving cars will bring about public transportation, but indirectly, through social change. They are merely the thinnest cutting edge of transformation. They are a Trojan Horse for trains.
They wanted to experience the transformative power of the American car culture the same way that I wanted to experience a working, international, public transportation system.
The way to get people to want trains isn’t by trying to make trains better, but by making people fall out of love with their cars. Most Americans willingly spend a substantial fraction of their income on their cars and an obscene amount of wasted time in traffic creeping along inside them. They do this because their car is part of their image of themselves as captain of their own fate and master of their own destiny. Giving up your dominion as driver is the first step in an inevitable journey to not caring so much about your car.
Once you abdicate the driver’s seat, you abdicate your alpha-dog dominance over the machine, the road, and your unique driving style. Abandoning your individualism as the driver means severing the tie between your car and your identity.
Once you relinquish the driver’s seat, your constructed persona becomes detached from the character of the automobile, the way you manipulate it, and the trappings with which you decorate it. Your persona, when not represented by your driving style and road manners, ceases also to be represented by your vanity plate, your fuzzy dice, your diesel exhaust, and your political bumper stickers. It’s a short step from that to even letting go of the worldly statement of year, make, and model. Soon non-drivers will be happy to own or rent cheaper cars, more vanilla in their styling and less distinct in their trade dress, sheet metal, and advertising.
It’s clear that many young urban adults are already there, having consciously decided to not own a car, and instead use car sharing services to go from place to place. Uber and Lyft, booming ride sharing services, already enable millions to eschew the heavy hand of car ownership.
Once your self-image is no longer yoked to your car, accepting a plain, generic automobile for rental, ownership, or hire is a short step. Once you’ve accepted a generic automobile, you will have no objection to that generic automobile having a few small design tweaks and added features that improve its behavior. And if those tweaks and features improve the way it works with a multi-modal, national, public, fixed guideway, transportation system, there is no problem. The cultural wall will come down just like that one in Berlin, and our American transportation experience will be very different. Let’s imagine…
You hop in the steering-wheel-free seat of your generic auto-box and punch in your desired destination. The auto-box rolls for a mile on city streets until it arrives at a tiny, underground, fully automated station and boards a still-moving train, safely latching itself in. Ten minutes later and twenty miles away, the train slows again and your auto-box detaches itself to exit at another automated station. Another few minutes of rolling on surface streets and you arrive at your destination.
The scenario wouldn’t look much different for a much longer journey. After ten minutes riding piggyback, the train itself would piggyback on a hyperloop train. Then an hour later, you’d disembark in Chicago, New Orleans, Cincinnati, or some other urban center 500 miles away.
The self-driving car is the catalyst for bringing us a multi-modal, fixed guideway, resource efficient, cost effective, public transportation system that can save us from the egregious excess of our current vision. And now I am a big fan of self-driving cars.