Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cars are terrible ... but there is hope

I read an Earth Institute report recently, "Transforming Personal Mobility", that, well, transformed the way I think about personal mobility. (Also known as: cars.)

Last week, an Amtrak train derailed spectacularly, and this was rightly treated as huge news, an unbelievable disaster. The death toll was 8 people, sadly. Meanwhile, cars kill 35,000 people a year in the US alone, but this is never news. That terrible number is actually a huge improvement over previous decades, believe it or not, and other countries have it worse. In total worldwide, cars kill 1.2 million people a year (and injure countless others). No one seems to think this is a problem. There are no news stories about it, no one is in front of the White House picketing cars. We all just accept that this is a totally normal price to pay for the convenience of personal transportation.

The sheer inefficiency of cars is a huge contributor to global warming, wasted energy, and air pollution. Manufacturing them uses huge amounts of energy as well: building one for every person, and then every few years, building another one for every person.

In addition, cars are also extremely expensive per person, not least because of the insurance required (due to all that aforementioned death). If subways or trains or buses were available and efficient everywhere in the country, an individual doing a cost/benefit analysis would rarely opt to own a car.

Cars also have more subtle consequences that are no less awful. Increasingly, evidence is showing that long commutes make people miserable. These commutes are long (even if they're not by car, though most are) because our suburbs have been designed based on the concept of cars. I just finished the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, which examined the deadly consequences of destroying urban communities to put highways in cities, as we did throughout the twentieth century. The book posits that over-investment in highways (and thus, less funding for schools, hospitals, and police) and their disruption of communities contributed to New York's decline and crime wave in the 1970s and '80s. Only recently have we started learning better ways to organize cities and undo that damage.

Wait, there's more. Think of all the space wasted by parking garages, and the ugly blight of street parking. Cars line every street in every city, doing nothing but taking up space. The vast majority of people who own cars use them primarily for commuting, meaning they sit idle 90% of every day, decaying.

Lastly, consider the geopolitical implications if we weren't as reliant on oil. At a minimum, several dictators worldwide might have a harder time holding onto power, and we wouldn't need to help them. The people who argued that the Iraq war(s) were ALL about oil never made sense to me, but nor do those who deny it played any part at all. Oil is always at least a factor.

To sum up, self-owned, self-driven cars:

  1. Kill and injure millions of people.
  2. Are a huge contributor to global warming.
  3. Are responsible for much of our air pollution.
  4. Drastically increase our energy needs.
  5. Are unecessarily expensive.
  6. Make people miserable.
  7. Take up lots of room.
  8. Destroy cities and communities.
  9. Encourage wars and prop up terrible regimes worldwide.

So how can we transform this dire situation? Well, one possibility emerges as a plausible solution if the following trends continue:

  1. Right now, ride-hailing apps such as Uber (ugh) and Lyft are booming. They make it easy to just press a button and get a car to appear at your doorstep and take you where you want to go.
  2. Other alternatives to owning a car, such as ride-sharing and temporary rentals like Zipcar, are emerging as well.
  3. Self-driving cars, advocated by Google, are finally on the cusp of availability. Eventually, they will likely become mainstream.
  4. We are all now addicted to social media and entertainment and would much rather watch a movie and tweet about it than drive. (I enter as evidence all the car accidents now caused by people texting.)
  5. We are also pretty desperate for more free time.

Where do those lead us? Let me walk you through one way the future might go:

  • Once self-driving cars become legal, companies like Uber jump on them. Their expenses will go way down if they don't have to pay drivers, nor do they have to worry about variable quality.
  • Individuals buy self-driving cars, too. It's much more pleasant to watch a movie on the way to work (or even do work) than drive. This change alone doesn't help the environment or our energy needs, but it will quickly improve safety. Once perfected, self-driving cars will be much better drivers than us humans.
  • Once a critical mass of self-driving cars are on the streets, accidents decrease, and as a result, insurance premiums could go down. With the money saved, more people can afford new, self-driving cars (ideally, in the form of upgrades to existing cars.)
  • Now accustomed to not driving cars themselves, people grow less attached to them. If they are no longer an extension of our wills and decisions, they will no longer seem like extensions of ourselves.
  • This creates an environment ripe for many companies, or even the government, to offer self-driving on-demand rides like Uber and Lyft. Without drivers, these organizations could afford more cars on the street, making their service even better. They would be able to extend their service to more suburban areas, not just city downtowns.
  • The cost of using that service is so much less than owning a whole car, that many people switch.

Here's the epiphany: Eventually, we have a world in which no one owns a car, but just requests a driverless one on-demand whenever they need a ride.

The streets would be filled with these cars; there is always one available instantly. The interior of each car adjusts to each person's personal settings, and is a rolling workstation/entertainment center. You could watch a movie or conduct a meeting in one; some might even offer lunch. No one will ever waste time commuting, since commuting will just consist of doing whatever we were doing anyway, but in motion. Regular commuters would have pickups scheduled, with no risk of unavailability. The number of cars on the streets would be the same as today, but each car would be more energy-efficient than a mistake-prone human driver. One-person trips would use smaller cars, that don't have to be larger based on the off-chance four people need a ride. There would be no need for parked cars at all - just like how you don't see many parked taxis today - the fleet is always in motion. So the total number of cars manufactured would be much fewer. This would free up millions of acres of room and just plain make all our streets look better.

The main downside is that self-driving cars would put a lot of people - taxi drivers, chauffeurs, truck drivers - out of work. Hopefully the transition would be gradual. And the savings would be equally spread to all car users. Only the world's richest people can afford to have drivers waiting on them today; soon, an equivalent could be available to all of us for a fraction of the cost.

At no point would we need to make people-driven, individually-owned cars illegal, of course. Compelling incentives to voluntarily change are always better than a ban. A few eccentric people would probably continue to own and drive cars, just like today's vinyl record-collecting hipsters or the few superstitious writers still using typewriters. Eventually, these drivers would be shunned for the risk they put everyone else in.

I haven't driven a car in almost ten years. I'm excited for the possibility that by the time my daughter reaches driving age, this will have become the norm instead of the exception.