Sunday, May 29, 2011


There was a post on Marginal Revolution today about self driving cars. Tyler Cowen argues in the New York Times that we should not regulate them out of existence, rather we should be encouraging the technology and see if it takes off.

I agree with that to a degree. Driving is about the most dangerous activity we undertake. As I pointed out in an earlier post, driving is more dangerous to the average person than a nuclear reactor, and the streets of the third world especially are slaughterhouses. More people are killed in collisions on a daily basis that the world's various wars and famines.

Driving is notoriously prone to human error. Where I live in the alcohol-soaked state of Wisconsin, drunken driving seems to be unpreventable no matter how severe the penalties, and the results are tragic. Plus, you have to add in the fact that the only requirements to drive a car seem to be a pulse, we let children drive cars (sixteen years old is a child), and we have all the electronic distractions we can't bear to pull our selves away from even for a second (cell phones, texting, etc.) causing drivers to not pay attention to the road. Finally the aging of the suburban population means people too old to drive will drive rather than be stranded, no matter what. Driverless cars seems like an ideal solution to a lot of this stuff.

Personally, I never understood the love obsession with cars. Cars are the worst money pits imaginable. Between the loan, interest, gas, insurance and maintenance, they eat up half your income. Driving is the most stressful activity I can imagine. Most people on the road or mentally disturbed or worse. Studies have shown that cortisol starts pumping into your bloodstream the minute you turn the ignition. Your fight-or-flight response is constantly on high alert while you are locked stationary inside your metal box, and you are unable to lower your cortisol levels by moving the way evolution intended. Certainly all the time spent in cars is a major reason for Americans poor levels of overall physical and mental health.

In my comments to the article, I pointed out that the most intelligent and most efficient way to deal with excessive commutes is by eliminating the need to commute in the first place. Commuting is stupid on so many levels. It makes sense to live close to where you work, and for most of human history, this was a necessity. Initially short commutes have given way to mega-commutes of several hours as suburban sprawl, traffic jams, etc. have made commuting a major time waster. Suburban sprawl is immensely wasteful of both time and energy, and has to do with the horrible way we have used our space in our cities.

Being an economics blog, I made sure to point out the economics behind sprawl - the fact that these lifestyles are heavily subsidized, and that suburbanites do not pay for all the externalities for their way of life. I don't wish to get into this in great detail; entire books have been written about this, most notably by James Howard Kunstler. Check out his books and podcast in particular for discussion about this topic. I wrote my comments rather quickly, not by best writing by a long shot.

Anyway, I like the comments by one poster who pointed out the folly of indivisual car ownership. His comments were:

A great benefit of the self-driving car, is that it should bring an end to the ‘self-owned car’ – which is a horribly inefficient way for society to distribute expensive machinery.

Already, the internet has allowed companies such as i-go or zipcar, to be profitable in urban areas – despite the numerous inefficiencies of the system. Currently you have to know you are using a car hours or days in advance – then you have to somehow get yourself to the car.

Now imagine a city of 30k, and add 8000 self-driving cars under the zipcar model. You decide to take a trip – so you pick up your iphone and hit the “request car button”. The phone gps knows where your car is located, and by the time you’ve put on your shoes, a car has driven around the corner and is sitting in your driveway. Put in your destination on the car gps, and you’re on your way.

The efficiency gains will be spectacular. Almost all American families own at least one van/truck/SUV – despite the fact that 98% of the time, the extra space is entirely unnecessary. Under the shared car model – some number (perhaps 80%) of the vehicles would fit one passenger only. You can easily request much larger vehicles, if your needs demand it.

These developments could also reshape cities. Parking centers will barely be necessary in downtown areas (electronic cars can position themselves into extremely dense clusters – since we don’t care about what order the cars come out in).

But his comments have nothing to do with self-driving cars, really. The central point is that everyone needing to own their own car is a tremendous financial burden that most people can ill-afford. Most of the time the car sits idle. The financial burden of owning a car takes money out of the pockets of people that would be better spent elsewhere in the economy. When cars ffirst began, few people owned them, and indeed few needed them. The first buyers were actually farm families who could finally escape the farm on weekends and go into town. Eventually, the car companies were able to leverage the government to make sure everyone needed a car - GM executives got into government and spent money on massive road-building schemes, and bought up public transportation systems around the country simply to shut them down and rip out the tracks.

Then came the suburban sprawl detailed so well in many books, including The Geography of Nowhere. There are many causes of suburban sprawl, but I think the major unacknowledged reason is race. The bussing of the 1970's caused white flight, and businesses followed suit. To this day public transportation is a resource for minorities, while upstanding middle-class whites fetishize their cars. This unfortunate attitude toward public transportation is unique to America.

So if can dispense with the inefficiencies of individual car ownership, what would a sensible transportation policy look like?

1. Inter-city travel: bicycling is by far the best - it gives needed exercise, produces no pollution, and gets you from point A to point B. After bikes, car-sharing makes the most sense for city-dwellers, self-driving cars or not. We can reduce the need for parking, which is the least productive use for space imaginable, and re-densify our cities, the way they should be.

Personally, I think this would allow for car electrfication. Changing out entire auto fleet to electric is problematic, but if we eliminate all the needless cars, it could work. Personally, I would like to to see MIT's stackable city car concept take off:

And let's not forget good old-fashioned carpooling (and hitchiking).

2. Public transportation is by far the most efficient way of moving people. There are any number of green options for intra-urban public transport, from biodiesel-powered buses to electric trains. Even monorails are making a comeback.
3. Transport from major clusters of urban areas should ideally be accomplished by trains, as is done in most other countries outside of the United States. Currently, even relatively short inter-urban trips are accomplished by jet airplane (when people from our Minneapolis office come to Milwaukee, they often fly!). This is more efficient than buses or cars, especially if trains were upgraded to more modern versions.

4. Low-density, rural and isolated areas are the only areas where indivdual auto ownership and long-distance gasoline powered vehicles makes sense. By definition, this is only a small fraction of the population. If only these people needed to drive, our oil imports would be a lot more reasonable. Most of the gas we have is wasted in useless commutes that hurt our productivity, make us ill, and even cause social maladies. I can see this small subset of vehicles being powered by ethanol or biodiesel (produced differently than the way it is now, of course). I cannot see the current US auto fleet switching to these fuels - we cannot possibly grow enough corn.

5. Transport of goods should shift back to rail transport. Since it is far more efficient than trucking, it should be cheaper as gas prices rise. A good argument for this is here:

Imagine all the money that goes to insurance, court costs, ambulance-chasing lawyers and interest on car loans instead going to really useful things instead. Imagine a future of intermodal transportation less dependant on oil. But it all starts with how we design our cities. Long-distance trasport of people should be the exception rather than the norm. The most-efficient and low-tech solution is to reactivate our neighborhoods so that we don't need to drive at all. It's the most time and energy-efficient solution of all and it's sustainable forever.


It is a commonplace that most westerners have many more of nearly everything than their community needs - everyone has their own vacuum cleaner, their own lawn mower, their own 2 cars - even if they only need 1 1/2 cars, they don't share. Even people who want to conserve are often uncomfortable entering into a shared relationship with others, and find negotiating such things intimidating. But public resources are different - they are *for* sharing. And creating them means enabling people to do without in a private sense - that is, as the price of energy rises, those who can't afford cars or washing machines are least damaged if their needs can, tosome degree, be met through local, public infrastructure, by say, public buses and laundromats.

Public Resources, Private Resources
i.e. it is more efficient to pool shared resources than for everyone to have something that they need only for brief periods of time.

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