We Aren’t There Yet

I have just finished reading Dan Albert’s wonderful history of the car, entitled “Are We There Yet: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless.” I recommend that you spend some time with this excellent work of social, technological and cultural history.

Are we there yet

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As I read, I was struck by two significant facts. First: car makers make no profit building cars and haven’t for decades – car makers make their profits from financing the acquisition of cars. If Ford and GM – and all the rest – had to rely on selling what they make alone, the automobile industry would long ago have vanished in a cloud of smoke (fumes).

model t exhaust

And second, we are at a pivotal moment in our national automobility as we move from owning cars – this is not happening at breakneck speed, but it is happening – to renting space and time with cars. Examples of this potentially critical shift in our national life can be witnessed in the rise of Uber and Lyft, and in the ongoing and now increasingly substantial investment in the R and D of driverless cars.

uber

We face a sea-change ahead, but there is a hitch. Developing driverless cars is fairly easy – much of the technology has been around for quite a while. But developing driverless cars that are truly safe is not easy, and Albert warns that we cannot leave this work to the current automobile industry. They have a lengthy and quite wicked history of ignoring the safety of their products: the examples are legion, and really quite appalling.

wreck 2

Whoops.

To Albert’s credit, he does posit the right way to proceed with the development of driverless cars. And he leaves us with a substantial sense of skepticism about whether his plan will be implemented. Read the book to find out more – it is worth your time and effort.

I might add here that the ecological implications of continuing to point all of our resources at the manufacture of mobility, whatever its format, have to be carefully and thoroughly considered. The unintended consequences of our passion for the seeming freedom and license of cars has wrought a global catastrophe that we may or may not untangle. Driverless cars need to be weighed as a part of this unfolding dilemma.

As I was saying, all of this got me to thinking. For more than a century the automobile has been critical in defining the shape and form of our cities. Before cars, and also essential, streetcars shaped our cities. As I have said on these pages earlier, most American cities still retain vivid and clear evidence of streetcar urbanism – our Rochester certainly does. But the impact of cars on urban form has been far more powerful, and inescapable. In the 20th century, and now into the 21st, we have sacrificed almost everything about our urban environment, and our urban life, to cars. We have destroyed the older walkable and connected fabric of our metropolitan geography to loop roads and beltways, parking, expressways cutting across our neighborhoods, parking, a scattering of daily destinations in our lives whether work or school or leisure. We have sprawled across our landscapes in transformational fashion, and we are all still looking for a place to park.

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Downtown in our town – a place to park.

Some of us have investigated the damage here, and it’s staggering, as in many other cities. Way over half of the land in our downtown is given to parking. But wait….

Suddenly, we don’t own cars anymore. If we want to go somewhere beyond our feet, or our bikes, we push a button and a driverless pod pulls up, whisks us to our destination, and later whisks us home again. And then the driverless pod goes away, on to its next call. Shocking perhaps, but maybe the pod picks up a few neighbors headed in the same direction. Now what – conversation?

driverless pods
driverless pods 3

driverless pods 2

Driverless pods?

No driveways. No garages. No on-street parking. No parking garages downtown, or surface lots. No parking lots at the mall. In fact, perhaps no mall. No strip centers – no strips of parking and stores.

Here it is – the public realm before we begin.

the public realm before

Here it is after we have worked on it for while:

the public realm after

Now we can reimagine our entire public realm: all of the old constraints are altered.

Major cartway sections 1929 cmp

Major streets in Rochester, 1929.

Let’s assume for the moment that a driverless pod is 6.5 feet wide (length unimportant at the moment). And let’s assume that these pods can maneuver with laser-like precision. So I propose a lane width of 7.5 feet. With a lane in either direction, that means we need 15 feet of paving. Yikes!

My mostly quiet residential street, currently with one-sided parking, is about 30 feet wide. A nearby street with two driving lanes and two parking lanes (between these two we have covered most of the city) amounts to 40 feet. Think of it: that 40 foot wide street can now become just 15 feet wide.

And all of our garages can become “accessory dwelling units.”

adu 1

adu 2

I am reeling at the possibilities. I may have to go lie down. But instead, I will stop here to catch my breath and listen to your thoughts before I go on reinventing the city….

2 thoughts on “We Aren’t There Yet

  1. So here’s my problem with this utopia of driverless cars: we already have the technology to have cities based entirely on shared autonomous vehicle; they are called taxis. By vastly increasing the employment of taxi drivers, we could, with current technology, achieve a society where nobody owns their own private vehicle, and a taxi cab is available at their doorstep at any time within minutes to whisk them away wherever they need to go.

    But we haven’t done this. Why is it likely to happen just because the cars are robotic? Do we really hate dealing with other human beings so much that driverless taxis will revolutionize cities when human-driven taxis have not?

    I think it is far more likely that people will continue to prefer to own their own vehicle, even if it is capable of driving itself.

  2. Jesse, I have several thoughts. First, while driverless cars may free us to re-imagine and potentially revive the physical public realms of our cities and towns, thinking of those vehicles as a utopia would be a mistake. The landscape of driverless cars is filled with countless (and perhaps quite steep) ups and downs – we will have to watch as all of this unfolds.

    Second, as you may have read, the taxi industry is having quite a struggle right now, even before such things as driverless cars exist. The taxi industry has sued the new carriers – Uber and Lyft – several times to try and control their numbers on city streets. The cab gang wants Uber and Lyft to be controlled in a fashion similar to how purchasing medallions controls the number of cabs in our cities. Taxis have lost each time. The fight is on for lower and lower labor costs in the taxi industry – we will see how this unfolds as well.

    This is to say that in the world of our mobility, labor costs are centrally defining criteria at the moment.

    And finally, it is indeed true that many will prefer their own vehicles for a time, once and if driverless cars are introduced. But this may – or may not – change. Recall that in 1908 Henry Ford started building the Model T, and in 1910 he sold almost 20,000. Ideas that connect can make society-wide changes very quickly. Edison lit NYC only four years after he said he would. When he announced that he was going to light Manhattan he had no light bulb, limited generating capacity, no wiring – almost nothing. Four years later there was light.

    We will see what we see.

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