Monday, October 15, 2012

Who’s Behind the Wheel?

The evolving story of the driverless car, the technological challenge into which Google’s Sergey Brin has been devoting a portion of the corporate profits, has become increasingly interesting.  Interesting to the point that we can talk seriously about what driverless cars could mean to urbanism.

The Brin/Google team has made remarkable progress with the technology and with public approval.  Driverless cars are now legal in three states, most recently California.  To commemorate the last, Governor Jerry Brown made a morning commute in a driverless car to observe the new technology.    And many of the Google Streetview pictures in Nevada are now being collected by driverless vehicles.

For now, all state laws require a human continue to occupy the driver’s seat.  The passenger/driver must be ready to assume control if the computer system finds a situation it’s not prepared to handle, such as street construction.

Beyond that, I wonder how a computer system can handle eye contact with a pedestrian at the next street corner, trying to determine if the pedestrian intends to cross the street or is only looking for an overdue girlfriend.  Or to spot the cat trotting across a lawn and intuit that the cat may next dash under a parked car and into in the street directly in front of the driverless car.

But given the progress that all technology has made, it’s likely wrong to assume that these concerns with driverless technology problems can’t be solved.

Which leads to the question of the implications for urbanism.  I can conceive two very different paths.

If the problem of the driver needing to be continually in place behind the wheel can’t be solved, then I see that the relationship between car and driver will become closer than ever.  If a driver must assume control at a moment’s notice, it will be essential that the driver be fully comfortable with the vehicle.  We will become more wedded than ever to our personal vehicles.

And with the driverless cars making roadways more efficient, longer commutes may become possible.  Perhaps it would be reasonable to commute from Petaluma to San Mateo on a daily basis if you can move along briskly while responding to emails and voicemails during much of the commute.

Urbanism should still progress under this path because there are an increasing number of folks who are disposed toward a walkable urban lifestyle.  But it wouldn’t receive the boost from a paradigm shift in how we view our cars.

But the paradigm shift could result if the need for a human to be behind the wheel can be solved.  If we can just hop into a back seat, point our phone at a reader, speak our destination, and arrive effortlessly, cars would effectively become taxis without the labor cost of a cabbie.  And probably far less expensive than individual car ownership.

The emotional connection between ourselves and our car would be severed for many.  We could live in places, whether single-family or multi-family, without garages, as long as we remain close to a place where driverless taxis can be rented.  Or perhaps taxis could be dispatched from an automotive livery stable to our addresses.

Freed from the requirement to provide parking, urbanism could thrive, creating settings in which more people would want to live.

Two very different paths.  I hope I’m alive to see which we take and where it leads us.  Although I also wouldn’t be surprised to find that technology points us toward a third path of which I haven’t conceived.  The future often works that way.

It should be noted that the driverless technology has little impact on the other looming issue for the automobile, the use of hydrocarbons.  I would expect that driverless technology to result in slight mileage improvements, but not enough to greatly change the looming hydrocarbon issues.

The increasing use of electrical vehicles is a good thing, but in much of the country coal-fired generation remain the baseload electrical supply, so the energy source remains hydrocarbon.

Increased use of solar, wind, and other “green” technology is also positive, but remains a long way from covering all of our electrical needs, especially if we continue moving more of our automotive energy needs onto the electrical grid.

Unless scientists and engineers can find a solution to the automotive energy issue, it could become the ultimate limit to car usage, despite all the resources of Google.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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