Why Self-Driving Cars Matter, Plus Mobility on Demand

by Reihan Salam

The environmentalist Alex Steffen tweeted an objection to Google’s self-driving car initiative:

Ice caps melting, 100s of millions at climate risk, transp largest GHG source: #TED showcases DARPA-funded car blind people can drive. 2:43 PM Mar 3rd via web

Another improved means to unimproved end: Google robot cars .#TED 2:49 PM Mar 3rd via web

We already, btw, have a great technology for cutting car crash deaths. It’s called a walkable neighborhood w/ transit+ traffic calming. 2:53 PM Mar 3rd via web

Be nice to see what’s considered world’s most important conference to be more innovative+ foresighted about real role of cars on planet #TED 2:59 PM Mar 3rd via web

I have to say, I found this churlish in the extreme, not least because of the potential environmental benefits offered by self-driving, including but not limited to a marked reduction in idling and improved traffic flow. And that’s leaving aside a marked reduction in fatalities. As Tom Martin suggests at Winding Road, questions about land use will remain:

 

For many years, public planners have argued that because global warming and energy dependence are major long-term issues, communities must shift away from a car-based, personal transportation model. Planners cite clogged roadways, pollution, and high-cost infrastructure maintenance as reasons to promote higher-density communities and minimize suburban sprawl.

Electricity-powered driverless vehicles could enable us to drive 50 miles a day while consuming relatively few resources, which undercuts the argument that the optimal urban pattern is the one that eliminates the car. These vehicles support lower density because they enable us to travel long distances more efficiently. But they may also enable higher density because one reason people settle in the suburbs is to avoid urban traffic snarls. These cars will enable us to go farther and faster safely and in a more enjoyable fashion—having teleconferences and reading the paper instead of driving.

That development will force communities to explore how to structure their roads according to how they value community interactions and connections, and will allow people to choose where to live on the same basis. [Emphasis added.]

But the case for easing building restrictions to facilitate the market-driven creation of walkable urban spaces is a sound idea regardless of whether or not we have self-driving cars. The suburbs aren’t about to vanish from the face of the Earth, and neither are automobiles. To call for more walkable urbanism at this late date is not exactly groundbreaking, and neither is fantasizing about the abolition of the automobile. Dramatically increasingly mobility while sharply reducing emissions and the enormous economic damage associated with congestion does seem like a good idea worth celebrating.

The same is true of new opportunities for shared ownership of vehicles, including the new “mobility on demand” or MOD concepts Ryan Chin described in The Futurist last year:

Simply redesigning the vehicle is only one part of the solution. We have also created a new use model, called “Mobility on Demand”(MoD), which utilizes a fleet of lightweight electric vehicles (LEVs) that are distributed at electric charging stations throughout a metropolitan area. The LEVs are designed for shared use, which enable high utilization rates for the vehicles and the parking spaces they occupy. The use model mimics the bike sharing systems made popular in Europe, whereby users simply walk up to the closest charging station, swipe a credit card, pick up a vehicle, drive to the station closest to their destination, and drop off the vehicle.

And these vehicles overcome a huge hurdle to electrifying our automobiles:

We believe that MoD systems will work better than private automobiles in cities because you never have to worry about storing the vehicle. In many cases, a MoD charging station will be closer to your final destination than if you had to park in a private lot. A typical urban trip is short, however; much of the time spent is not actually driving, but rather walking to the vehicle and finding parking once you get there. A recent study by the Imperial College in London showed that, during congested hours, more than 40% of total gasoline use is by cars looking for a parking space! [Emphasis added]

I have to say, reducing gasoline use by 40% sounds like a pretty decent idea. And this is where innovation in the automotive space is heading. Many instinctive car-loathers are, I fear, indulging in an aesthetic rather than an environmental crusade. 

Let’s hope the regulators don’t stymie this discovery process, but rather work to facilitate it.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.