Tuesday, May 10, 2011

As Predicted

I was asked, so I shall oblige to opine on the idea of driverless cars, a presentation of which can be seen here:

Like a lot of what plagues architecture and urbanism these days, it is more about the graphic than the reality. Which in a way might even suggest that architects are not at all functioning as thought leaders, but followers. Intellectual products of the system, not solvers of said system.

So we have this idea, which sounds pretty whiz bang at first. But, what problem does it really solve?
  • Pedestrian conflict points.
I want you to notice even in the Tron-like dystopic future imagined above, the pockets of pedestrians (presumably, if we've evolved into firefly-like creatures by this point in the future) isolated by the streams of traffic. The way I understand this very infantile technology is that it is an evolution of the self-parking Lexi (Lexuses?) where it senses the other cars positions. Furthermore, it likely could be tied into a smart system which sees a convergence in traffic modeling, GPS, and said car-on-car hot techmology (sic).

The first question is, can they sense people? The sensors would have to be awfully refined (but I'll get back to this point at the end. So for the sake of argument, let's say they could. And the ultimate purpose is to make traffic safer by taking human error out of the equation and quicker, by smart systems avoiding stoppages, the traffic is able to flow (kind of like a street full of pedestrians would).

Because they never stop, because of this incessant need to prioritize the movement of vehicles over other forms of transportation, they create these isolated pockets of pedestrians. I mean, theoretical pedestrians, because the graphic would actually have us believe that anybody would want to play a game of real life frogger to get into a gigantically overscaled plaza to meet with other theoretical bot-like people. Perhaps once we can imbed our smart phones in our heads they can help us navigate the rushing tides of on-coming driverless cars.
  • Cost...and costs...
The questions this technology will have to answer (beyond my later ones which get into the psychology and sociology of cars) is, can it be afforded. And I don't even mean the scaling up of the means of production (which is another major issue in a rapidly-becoming poorer world -- these are the same questions electric/hydrogen cars have to answer when prototypes cost several million $). Can we afford the infrastructure of private automobile use at such a massive scale. All proof suggests otherwise.

  • Dendritic system
Speaking of costs, nothing about this suggests we don't still need a massive overhaul of the nationwide/citywide/metroplex-wide road system. The current dendritic system which places us from smallest (driveway) to increasingly larger roads (cul-de-sac, local road, arterial, highway, etc.) funneling us all onto the same roads. This creates a situation where all of our places in American cities are either "invaded" or "abandoned." Neither is ideal. Lastly, for a smart system to work, it has to be an improved, stronger, more interconnected grid. That means tearing out the dendritic detritus.
  • Who wants to just ride in a car?
Doesn't the entire scheme take something away from the very reason we like cars? The open road, the freedom (sounds heretical for me to say no?). Think about the absolute IDEAL of cars, car commercials. They are almost without fail in one of two settings: either in high quality walkable urbanism where there are enough cafe go-ers and poor ass pedestrians to broke to have the super cool ride you're in to admiringly watch you and your date cruise past. Or they're out on the Pacific Coast Highway or some other natural setting, on curvy 1- or 2-lane roads. This is actually exactly what I suggest for cars. They have a place, but they're aren't stuck in traffic jams on strip center-lined arterials and desolate highways. Which do we prefer - the Matrix Reloaded freeway or car commercials?
  • Distrust?
Getting back to the very first point of pedestrian conflicts. What happens with the first accident? The first time the technology fails us and an out-of-control car blasts into one of those theoretical crowds of super happy pedestrians cheering on the ever so dull buzz of driverless cars zipping past.

Their point is not an incorrect one. We simply haven't evolved to move or have the reflexes at 60mph. It's not a mystery that traffic is much, much safer at 20-30 mph, and when we're able to make eye-contact, two things closer to our humanity than traffic jams on I-35/45E. Despite the technology intended to make us safer, protect us from the 40,000 deaths per year in the U.S. that automobiles cause, something tells me we'll be a little bit more forgiving of Grampa when he decides to drive through Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica than the Toyota Terminator. After all, we still are far quicker to blame guns for the dipshits, a-holes, and cowards incapable of expressing themselves like civilized adults. My guess is this technology either is never cost efficient, or the first testing failures cause its funding to be slashed.
  • Copenhagen.
Perhaps the technology that will make our trips between places of want and need safer and the cities around those trips more enjoyable is actually a far older, and far smarter form of technology. You know the way a bird is far more efficient than a plane? Or that a spider web is infinitely stronger and more energy efficient than anything we can produce with gobs more energy/effort.

Copenhagen (and Denmark) have set performance based goals for themselves. One of which is zero-auto related fatalities. Ironically, wunderkid architect from the above video, is Danish. From Copenhagen. Not so ironically, he shows in another presentation that he happily lives (and designs) in the absolute most dreary, auto-mobile-centric, modernist part of Copenhagen. It's density! But without the interesting, vibrant street-life! Wait, what was the point of this development again?

Sorry, back to the point, which again tracks back to earlier in this post about the "ideal" of cars. We make fun of car commercials, but in actuality that SHOULD be the ideal. Copenhagen is trying to get traffic related fatalities down from 5 per year to 0. You know how they did it? By disciplining the automobile. By making it pay its own way. By making it share space in the city with bikes, and buses, and trams, and trams, and pedestrians. Because they deserved room too. Because everybody should have the choice of being able to get around to where they want to HOW they want to.

As i tweeted the other day, if your critics are asking how? No longer why? Or what? Then you know you're on the right track. Because figuring out how is always the last step in making a new idea work. I'm still asking why.