Friday, November 15, 2013

Driverless Cars and Technology

I've been struggling with driverless cars for some time.  Partially due to the poor coverage and discussion about them and their future impact, but mostly because the future isn't written nor easily deciphered.  It's difficult to see how it will all play out because the expectation is that they become ubiquitous.  But can they?  And if not, then what?

Most of the coverage is still fascinated with the technology like a baby that found its first shiny object and sticks it in its mouth.  Finally, Dan Hill of City of Sound starts asking some of the more pertinent questions:
Again, this is the inherent conservatism within the Californian Ideology - they actually don't want to change the socio-cultural patterns that they have done well by. To them, technology enables them avoid talking about changing an unsustainable lifestyle.
And that's the crux of the issue.  It's a fantasy that we can simply continue the failing state around us with the mere addition of new technology improving the same old, same old when the real problems are different than the solutions.

At the end of the day, what is driverless technology solving?  Human fallibility.  We're pretty horrible drivers by and large.  But does it even do that?  Can the technology scale up so that every single car on the road?  Can everyone afford that?  What if then there are still faulty human drivers on the road?  What if one runs a red light while shaving and texting and applying makeup and shushing a whiny toddler in their backseat car seat?

That's the thing about the techno-religiosity (and I like technology!  Cars too!  What I don't like is fantasies and being trapped in someone else's).  It only imagines a utopia.  All that free-flowing traffic that will never collide huh?  Well, as I posed to a group of Masters level design students in a crit session as they worked on a competition about a city with driverless cars:
Why does the engineering have to follow contemporary standards and strictures?  And that's an open-ended question.  These cars apparently can sense pedestrians.  What if I walked right out into the middle of a highway and stopped traffic?  Does that allow us design to be more adaptive and less top down in our design of street and block networks?  Will desire lines and behavior then govern design as it emerges?   
Does that allow more medieval block patterns (along with smaller streets via smaller cars) because the cars can navigate them via GPS better than humans could?  Will that increase the mixing of cars and pedestrians?  I suspect not because of the ease at which any person place or cow wandering across the street could disrupt the holy grail of flow.  Instead, it will increase the segmentation and segregation of disparate transportation modes, forcing a competition that ends up being parasitic economically in terms of the developed economies that emerge around diverging movement patterns.   
But to understand that, you have to first understand that traffic equals value but that congestion can be good or bad.  It's not either or but a design problem.  For example, Champs Elysees is some of the most valuable real estate in the world because it moves 600,000 people/day.  100k in cars and 500k pedestrians (which presumably count the metro riders who disembark to then walk along it).  It's high value because it is high design and high traffic.

635 is the center of life of DFW.  It has the most traffic.  250k-300k vehicles/day (and presumably no sentient, living beings).  It's bad traffic because it is high speed, dangerous (when it's moving at all) and sociofugal.  It scatters people rather than attracts into clusters which is necessary for economic clustering, development.  It still happens because of the traffic numbers but it is undesirable because the movement patterns are inhumane.

Now take McKinney Avenue and the Katy Trail.  We could argue that those are both good forms of traffic (although McKinney isn't great, but it's getting better).  However, the value associated with being near one or the other is less than that if those two sets of movement were combined, ie the pedestrian, bicyclist, and vehicle movement all through one corridor is super-linear in terms of economic clustering, greater than the sum of the two parts because those two parts compete rather than cooperate.  I'm not saying one or the other is bad, but that Champs Elysees works so well is because it manages to concentrate activity without eroding quality of place (which they did from the 60s to 90s when it went to all car and businesses closed because they lost pedestrian activity, their lifeblood.  The place became less desirable.).
And that's where we start to get into the real question, just drop the tech part.  Can we all afford compulsory car ownership, forget for a moment about the technology?  The answer is proving that we can't nor should we be coerced into debtor status simply to participate in the economy.  Not everybody can afford it and then there are people like me who just don't enjoy the experience of being boxed into a fiberglass and metal and glass chassis.

That's just the car part, the tool of the trade.  What about all of the supportive infrastructure it takes to allow the illusion of free flowing traffic to infect parts of our minds?  All that expectation of expansive, available parking, free roads, and free of traffic roads?  How do we afford all of that as our over-extensive and poorly designed infrastructure is crumbling all around us?  We're in the final act of that Greek tragedy and driverless technology is a last ditch effort to maintain that captive market to be separated from their time and money.

And that's the bigger issue, the spatial problem of compulsory car culture.  The long trip separates us, dilutes tax base, while adding tax burden (infrastructure + car ownership/operation/maintenance).  The funny hilarity is that Tea Party/Agenda 21 types 1) hate taxes and 2) think people like me are trying to take their freedom by providing choice of transportation to others.  They don't understand that the costs of driving are only going to go up in the form of 1) taxes, which people won't want and then 2) user fees, which are a pigovian tax and thus will compel more people to shift away from the automobile meaning less revenue and more costs on fewer and fewer freedom lovers.

And guess what?  I'm in favor of driverless cars.  Because you're too busy texting to see where I'm walking.  But that still doesn't solve the deeper question and problem of compulsory car dependence coerced by possibly corrupted and certainly economically ignorant transportation network design.