What is a car?

At Per Square Mile, Tim De Chant has an excellent piece on how cities will be shaped by driverless “cars”.  You should read the whole thing.  He captures many of the pros and cons of the issue, and goes deeper than most. Specifically, he captures one advantage which I think a lot of skeptics in particular miss (emphasis mine):

At some point, though, we’ll start thinking about cars differently. If cars can drive themselves around, passengers or not, what’s the point in owning your own car? Why not lease one from a pool? Welcome to stage four. Schedule it for your daily commute—perhaps with a price break for carpooling—and request one on-demand for more unpredictable needs. If wait times are short enough, it’ll be an attractive proposition….At this point, the lines between private and public transit will start to blur.

“Yes, yes!  He’s going there!” I think as I start reading this, “he’s getting past the car-transit divide and discussing what most people miss – “transit” AND “cars” will change!”  But then, at the end, there’s this:

Where’s public transit in all of this? That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure anyone has adequately answered. It’ll probably still exist, though in what form I have no clue. Who will ride it is similarly up in the air, but motivations will probably remain the same—time, expense, and convenience. If mass transit can best self-driving cars at one or more of those, it’ll retain its place in the mix.

Bummer.  I thought we had something there.  Transit has to “best” cars in the future as well.  Who will ride it?  Well, if it’s cheaper than a “car” and still gets you to your destination in an amount of time reasonable for you, a lot of the same people in the same places will ride it.    What Tim (and many others) don’t explore is how transit will change in a future of self-driving vehicles.  And this brings me to the post title.

A vehicle pulls up to your house to take to you to work – it’s got four seats, one of which you occupy on your trip to work while the others remain empty.  Is it a car?  Most people would answer “yes, dummy”.

What if that same vehicle arrived, but the other three seats were filled with some neighbors who happened to work near where you worked?  They rode with you to your work, some getting dropped off nearby, others remaining in the vehicle after you left for a longer trip.  Is that a car?  Most people would probably say “yes, dummy, that’s just carpooling”.  Others might recognize this as “transit”.

What if the vehicle that arrived at your house was a larger, say with 10 seats?  The route varied slightly every day to pick up passengers depending on their desire (they used their phone or computer to indicate they needed a ride that morning), but usually it took a similar route and you saw the same group of people most days.  Is that a car?  Now some people are saying, “um, that’s more like transit” or “get away from me with your crazy future”.  Clearly lines are getting blurred.

Finally, what if the metropolitan transit agency saw a traffic and/or equity benefit to encouraging people to use shared self-driving van/cars instead of each calling personal vehicles and so they subsidized those types of trips.  You usually chose the shared vehicle, which took a little longer, but cost less, only calling a personal car for special occasions or when you were in a rush.  Is that a car or is it transit?

Tim does identify how self-driving vehicles will vary:

Today, vehicles are sold on the strength of their quality and features. Tomorrow, subscriptions to vehicles will be sold based on the reach and availability of their network. Within each network there will certainly be a wide-variety of vehicles available depending on how much you’re willing to pay.

But he still usually talks about “cars”.  A wide variety of vehicles will mean you can share rides or not, trips may be longer, but could cost less.  I can imagine car companies offering “fixed” routes that operate in certain areas, at certain times with lots of seats, but at very low prices.

Clearly many are stuck on a transit-car divide.  You’re with one and against the other.  The potential benefits of robot cars make transit supporters cringe because we don’t want anything to make the car more appealing.  But what if both could be improved – transit could cost less to operate and be faster while we build and have to own a lot fewer cars and don’t use our downtowns as giant parking lots.  The age of the self-driving vehicle (not just car) could mean a lot of positive changes for transit, as well as cars, if we plan it that way.  If you define transit as at least two people sharing a ride, I wager we see a lot more transit in the future.

(As with any robot car post, I must note that I understand the many potential downsides.  Many of these are based on policy decisions, not necessarily the adoption of robot cars.  Let’s be careful moving forward).

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13 Responses to What is a car?

  1. David Levinson
    David Levinson July 31, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    This is a great post, but this isn’t something that requires future technology like driverless cars.

    Many countries have a continuum of transportation from single to multi-user vehicles, with shared rides, taxis, shared taxis, jitneys, dollar vans, and so on filling the gap between cars and buses. David King and his students have researched this in New York (which for the purposes of transportation is more like another country than the rest of the United States).

    See: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/10/the-illegal-private-bus-system-that-works/246166/

    Why don’t we have that here? Like in New York, it is mostly illegal, unlike New York, no one seems to be violating the law. Local transit agencies have a legal monopoly on transit service, and taxis aren’t generally allowed to serve parties going to multiple destinations, which helps keep more taxis in business.

    Breaking down the barrier requires a policy shift rather than a technology shift.

    See: http://transportationist.org/2013/06/14/technical-solutions-for-policy-problems-policy-solutions-for-technical-problems/

    • Brendon Slotterback
      Brendon Slotterback July 31, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

      Good points. I think that policy shift will be much more rapid when large numbers of people are subscribing to transportation as a service, like a cellphone plan, rather than paying up front for a whole car.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 31, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

      I agree with you about driverless cars, David? Yes… yes, I do!

  2. thebeekeeper July 31, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    ever heard of bikes you communist???

    anyways, as a lay-person, i see an economic/human nature difference between transit and cars. as it is today, “cars” are exclusive and “transit” is public which can be an “important” distinction for a lot of people. living in a city with rail transit between suburbs and the city has shown me that people can get used to it though, so you might have a point.

    sorry for all the “quotes” but you started it.

  3. helsinki August 1, 2013 at 4:03 am #

    A robotic Super Shuttle with routes algorithmically determined by user input?

    Sounds cool. But it has a decidedly “Futuristic Cities of the Past” feel to it. Like spiderwebs of elevated steam trains and commuting by helicopter.

    Maybe self-driving cars will change cities. What should change them is reducing distance between destinations. Less energy intensive and easier for the old folks to get their minds around.

    • Brendon Slotterback
      Brendon Slotterback August 1, 2013 at 6:54 am #

      No question that in many cases reducing distances (increasing density) will be a policy goal with positive/better outcomes. Robot cars will not appear in a policy vacuum (I should write a post about that).

      • helsinki August 1, 2013 at 7:28 am #

        I would be interested to read that post.

        If the robot car truly were a panacea for traffic congestion, parking shortages/oversupply, high ownership/maintenance costs, accidents, etc. – it could end up as a massive shot in the arm for suburbia.

        If commuters could be picked up at their home and dropped off at their office in a plush van driven by a computer, they could pleasantly nap or work like a commuter rail rider does while at the same time residing in a dispersed settlement pattern that would do nothing to minimize the huge energy consumption and infrastructure investment necessitated by that development pattern.

  4. Ian Bicking August 1, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    With a little change in terminology I think the distinctions become clearer.

    It’s probably best to think of something as “public” vs. “private” based on who the service is available to. I.e., is it open to the public? It might still be a privately owned commercial entity – as is common in developing countries (and apparently NYC). As such taxis also qualify – and they are even regulated with requirements to offer service to everyone (more or less – at least a taxi isn’t allowed to kick a customer out when they say they want to go to North Minneapolis). Cars are private… and so are carpools.

    Then there’s mass transit or personal transportation. Mass transit aggregates lots of people, and generally the vehicles move on their own schedules and people hop a ride. Personal transportation takes a person where they want to go, roughly on their schedule. I suppose in the middle is personal transportation with multiple riders – many “limo” services work like this already.

    If you categorize along these lines, you can distinguish features we want from features we think we need to accomplish what we want. Public transportation is accessible to everyone, which is great. But we also want affordable transportation, which is why taxis alone aren’t (currently) suitable. We want mobility – getting people where they want to go in a timely manner. We also want energy-efficient transportation, as well as minimizing other externalities (noise, heat, pollution, traffic). I’m not sure anyone *wants* mass transit – except for some melting pot arguments which feel more defensive than constructive.

    If you focus on things you ACTUALLY want, rather than things that correlate with things you want, then so what if it’s a “car”? Yes, it messes up labels – you can’t get all excited about being against “car culture” if the cars act more like transit. And you can’t create a dichotomy between transit and cars. People who have made strong partisan associations along those lines get perturbed, or people will be bothered when they’ve hung their pet issues on a category that no longer supports the issue. But it’s pretty easy: think about the urban forms you want, not the means that you currently see in use in the urban areas you like.

  5. Joe Scott
    Joe Scott August 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Picture this: you get on the bus. There two dozen other passengers. Now picture this: you get into an ambiguously defined robotically driven transit vehicle with exactly one of those people. Are you having a good time? Maybe, maybe not. Sounds really awkward to me. I think this is being viewed through too technocratic a lens. I mean, would it be more efficient if we all carpooled in robot cars, compared to the current system of most of us driving our own cars? Probably. But, I gotta say, it just sounds really horrible. As someone who has used craigslist rideshare to travel around the country, you never know when you’re going to end up with a racist old dude dropping N-bombs all the way to Wichita. I think we’re going to find that minimum size for a vehicle in which you can comfortably sit with a complete stranger is about the size of a regular old bus.

    Besides, isn’t the elephant in the room here that the massive underfunded road infrastructure necessary for point-to-point travel in regular cars would be just as necessary for robot cars? Slowly turning cars into public transit is a convenient way to justify spending public money on roads that can’t be sustained on fuel taxes, but it’s far from a good solution to most of the problems it purports to solve.

  6. Faith August 1, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

    What happens if you schedule your robot car and then you find yourself running late – can’t find your keys, phone, etc…. does it wait? can you catch the next one?

    What’s the social norm of getting in a vehicle of a small number of people you don’t know? Do safety issues come into play? Are there video cameras in every vehicle?

    • nobody August 2, 2013 at 5:06 am #

      There is already a norm. It is called the commuter vanpool. They are available and cost effective but not terribly popular.

      As everyone knows, there have been some horrible crimes committed in Super Shuttles. Being on mass transit with multiple strangers and multiple employees does provide a sort of illusion if you will of safety. Of course transit management nationwide is busy trying to remove all the employees and replace them with plainsclothes cops. I’m sure that makes everybody feel great.

      The post above who talked about reducing commute miles (so you could use human powered transportation, like walking to work at humans did for the first two hundred years of the industrial age) was right on the nose.

      There is such a thing as an instant carpool line. That’s three to a car, and the two passengers get on at the same time, to ride an HOV-3.

  7. James Kennedy, Transport Providence August 2, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    I’m not sure I particularly understand why people would be more likely to carpool with driverless cars than with person-driven cars. Of course, I’m hopeful that that’s how they would be used, but the jump to the notion that there’s something about driverless vehicles themselves that would make that happen seems really tenuous to me.

    The other big issues I see are:

    1. I can’t see how driverless cars would deal with pedestrians and bicycles in complex crossings. I realize this is also a problem with actual drivers, but the computation involved in these kinds of decisions seems fraught with peril, should there be a failure.

    2. If we had driverless cars as a regular feature of life, would most of us stop knowing how to drive? What happens if the mechanisms fail? Is there an override? And would any of us bother knowing how to work such an override (I suppose this could be dealt with through licensing somewhat, although it seems to me that that atrophy from non-use of a skill is almost as bad as not having the skill at all–I think of the Mark Twain quote about people who can read but don’t being worse than people who are fully illiterate).

    3. And of course, I realize that our current car technology has a lot of computer-associated technology in it (fuel injection, for instance), but what are the implications for adding to that, in terms of pollution? Our society seems bent on assuming that computers are a clean technology, but they’re full of all sorts of horrible things. Right now, I know that a car’s manufacture and demise account for 40% of its lifetime pollution. How will that change if there is more intensive computer technology involved (perhaps it won’t, but it’s worth asking).

    Such a shame that the other author you cover doesn’t see the advantages to this for transit. I hope that changes.

  8. Brendan August 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    There is actually a more specific question I would ask about driverless cars than the more general question of what they mean for transit. We are looking at first market introductions of driverless cars, at least on a demonstration scale, in 3-5 years according to people I talk to in the industry. It will likely be at LEAST 10 years (just my gut), before we’d see widespread introduction.

    But we are planning 20+ year major public investments in mass rail transit. And the economic analyses I’ve read suggest that driverless cars may well offer a superior service to mass transit, and a considerably lower price than mass transit. if a purpose-designed, one-person, driverless pod can take you from door to door for less money, why would anyone pay more to spend a lot more time using a bus or train that requires a significant walk.

    My sense is that this technology is real, and its coming. The question is when. And it raises a LOT of question for urbanists and policymakers. It isn’t clear yet whether its good or bad for our issues. One of the big questions is whether we’re putting too much investment in massive transit investments that could be rendered obsolete.

    To be clear, I’m posing questions, not answers. Hope to post more on this soon.

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