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Monday, January 07, 2013

"Driverless Cars" As Dead-Ender Car Culture Apologia

Also published at the World Future Society.

While I do not deny the existence of reasonably working prototypes, I do not expect driverless cars to transform the transportation landscape in the way their boosters claim. Indeed, I am a bit surprised that anyone would consider such transformative claims the least bit more plausible than the patently ridiculous claims once made with comparable fanfare on behalf of Segways. It would seem that advertorial hype, the bread and butter of professional futurism as with its cousin PR disciplines, is the one product citizens socialized as consumers and users simply never can get enough of.

The paradox at the heart of most futurological handwaving about the "driverless car as revolution" is that they are simultaneously premised on the recognition that a radical transformation of car culture is demanded by its total failure -- a monument to extravagant waste, catastrophic pollution, maddening congestion, less walkable and hence less livable cities, horrific accidental deaths, unsustainable and anti-social suburban sprawl -- while engaging at once in a refusal to contemplate the one change without which no transformation could be adequate to the demands of this failure, let alone remotely "revolutionary": the actual relinquishment of car culture itself, the relinquishment of the cars.

I do not agree that driverless cars provide better means of satisfying the needs that trains, buses, and taxis do, and so I simply argue for more reliance on trains, buses, and taxis that actually already do provide for them instead. I do not agree that there is anything about driverless cars that facilitates good practices like car sharing, ride sharing, and collective car ownership and so I simply argue for car sharing, ride sharing, collective ownership arrangements on their actual merits instead.

The futurologically-inclined will no doubt see this as "negative" talk and "backward-looking" thinking. After all, why pooh-pooh putting one more option on the menu for a more sustainable future meal? But I do not agree that there is anything "positive" about enabling denial. I do not agree that there is anything "forward-looking" about efforts to solve problems that are less concerned with actually addressing the problems but with ensuring incumbent interests maintain their positions with the least cost. I happen to have noticed that ubiquitous cars are pretty much all we have on the menu already, and hence a "new option" of ubiquitous driverless cars looks to me a lot more like just the old menu peddled as a new menu.

People want to drive cars and own cars because they want a high level of control over the terms of their personal transportation. This fantasy of autonomy is almost entirely a romance without substance inculcated by a relentless torrent of car culture conceits: road movies in which true friendships are forged and rites of passage in which immature individuals are delivered into sovereign adulthood, mythic car chases in which the action hero in his cyborg shell obliterates all obstacles and achieves escape velocity to a wet-dream of freedom, ads in which sleek curvilinear fetal-metalized space capsules whoosh through cyberspatial freeways surrounded by glimmering skyscrapers, dreamy forests, vast desertscapes bereft of insurmountable barriers and usually bereft even of any other cars, ecstasies of agency as a frictionless "traffic" suffusing car culture no less than digital-utopianism as the prevailing figure of the techno-fetishistic post-WW2 American exceptionalist myth.

It is interesting that the driverless car, to the extent that it were actually used as such, would require a relinquishment of the very romance of autonomy and control without which car culture cannot rationalize itself in the first place. Without the romance of the car as a sort of super-hero costume worn by mass consumers in mass societies trying to impersonate rugged individualists there is nothing beyond the inertial tug of elite-incumbent interest to hold us fast to the catastrophe of car culture. It is for this reason that I personally doubt that the "driverless car" is really anything but a slightly souped-up version of already-available thoroughly non-revolutionary cruise control, to be used as such.

The irrational passions that drive car culture will also circumscribe the uses to which this feature will be put. Driverless cars will not be the revolution that transforms the transportation terrain because almost nobody who really wants such a revolution would want a driverless car in the first place, and almost nobody who actually recognizes the need for such a transformation would spend their time cheerleading driverless cars rather than advocating real solutions like more public transportation investment and changed zoning policies to encourage walkable cities.

As a practical matter very few people would actually be inconvenienced in the least by the necessity of making recourse to sensibly funded and maintained public transportation and the occasional taxi. Indeed, millions of Americans, millions here and now, millions who would not seriously contemplate the possibility for a moment would find their lives enriched and not diminished by the relinquishment of their cars (obviously there are exceptions, but the point remains), even with the dire state of our actually-existing public transportation infrastructure. There is every reason to re-shift our budgetary and policy priorities to facilitate mass transit options and make our cities more walkable, bikable, livable, sustainable.

Those who would shake their heads at the naivete of this claim are free to do so. I believe they are wrong, and I am happy to argue with them on the merits, given our shared economic and ecologic problems, and given the centrality of sustainable cities to so many of the solutions to those problems actually within our collective grasp. But I despair of arguments with people who don't believe in the practical possibility of solutions equal to our problems who will not concede the fact of their disbelief, but instead pretend to be collaborators in the work toward solutions the better to promote pseudo-solutions ("geo-engineering" "driverless cars" "online universities") that distract our intelligence and effort away from that work, and even exacerbate the very problems at hand.


jimf said...

> I am a bit surprised that anyone would consider such
> transformative claims the least bit more plausible
> than the patently ridiculous claims once made with
> comparable fanfare on behalf of segways.

Oh, have you heard about Dean Kamen's latest invention?

Don't pop your cork, Gladys!

You know, I think this is within striking distance
of a Moravec Transfer machine. I for one am looking forward
to having my brains sucked out and flushed down the

Uh, aren't I?

Anonymous said...

If you were partially paralyzed and legally blind, a driverless car could potentially vastly improve the quality of your life.

Dale Carrico said...

Where public transportation and taxis are accessible and reliable I do not agree that the introduction of driverless cars would "vastly improve" the quality of life in the way you say. This seems an application of the point in the actual article, "I do not agree that 'driverless cars' provide better means of satisfying the needs that trains, buses, and taxis do, and so I simply argue for more reliance on trains, buses, and taxis that actually already do provide for them instead."

Anonymous said...

Where I live (not in a large city) there is a bare minimum of public transit that is essentially useless. You can't get to any of the jobs which tend to be in large office complexes on the outlying edge of town. Taxis are too expensive for day to day use, we don't have trains at all. We have a bus which goes almost nowhere useful only a few times per day. In the USA, there are almost no useful or reliable forms of public transit outside the very largest cities. I can't drive due to a medical condition, so... I often _can't work_ !

Dale Carrico said...

As I said, obviously there are exceptions. These do not undermine in my view the thrust of my point that far fewer people would be inconvenienced by the loss of their cars than think they would even now, let alone in a world more sensibly arranged -- even if you personally would be so inconvenienced and hence shouldn't be forced to be so, any more than general policy should be made to reflect your extraordinary circumstances -- and that policy and budgetary priorities should facilitate mass transit and walkable cities to better arrange that world just so and end the catastrophe of car culture. The end of car culture is not the same as the end of all cars, but the prioritization of more sustainable and sociable transportation alternatives.

Anonymous said...

You are way out of touch with the realities of lower income life in the USA. W/o a car, life is impossible in 75% of the USA.

Dale Carrico said...

Life is impossible without a car for 75% of the people? Impossible?

You are simply, obviously wrong. And to the extent that there is a qualified truth in what you say, concerning the fact that public transportation should be made far more accessible in the US, especially in its cities -- a point already made in the article to which you presumably are responding -- this point hardly justifies an insinuation that resistance to catastrophic car culture is a matter of out of touch elitist boutique politics so let the good car times roll, vroom vroom!

You may not have noticed, despite your vaunted superior touch with lower income realities, but lower income folks in cities disproportionately depend on public transportation and would benefit from its improvement most of all.

Maybe you're just the same Anonymous asshole who has been trolling this blog lately for the questionable thrill of irritating a well-meaning stranger in an online setting (get help), or you are a different asshole who just wants his car and doesn't care if it destroys the world, but either way, it looking pretty clear that you're an asshole. Live it up.

Anonymous said...

You are nothing but a troll, Dale. And you aren't even a very funny troll.

Dale Carrico said...

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Anonymous said...

Even a large city like Seattle has a miserably inadequate public transportation system which has had its budget slashed recently. And Seattle has one of the better ones. But try to get to work and back on it, if you can do it - it is 4 or 5 hours of transport added to the day when the workplace is a mere 11 miles away. Real, actual experience, there versus your Ivory Tower bullshit.

Black guy from the future past said...

Dale, simply put, you always make me see things in a different way. You astutely cut right through all the hype and bullshit, and get right at the heart of the matter.

Dale Carrico said...

Then what is your solution? More public transportation or more cars? Are you implicitly endorsing the driverless car triumphalism I criticize here? What's your point?

The article to which you are presumably responding included explicit recognition of the sort of problems you allude to here, and hardly warrants the "Ivory Tower" charge you level on that ground. Are champions of driverless cars cast as the "realists" in this weird drama you are indulging? Remember, "driverless cars"? The topic of this post, and presumably the focus of this discussion?

The claim that public transportation in Seattle takes five hours to travel eleven miles suggests in its palpable idiocy that you may be the same Anonymous asshole who claimed "75%" of Americans would perish in a world that eschews car culture because life without a car is "impossible," and probably the same Anonymous, too, who howls that I permit "no dissent" on my blog while actually publishing most of his, even when it derails comment threads or repeats itself interminably.

If so, you seem really nice and smart.

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks, BGFTFP!

jollyspaniard said...

It's actually very easy to live without a car if you're in the right environment. I love walking everywhere which is why I hated Toronto, it's a brutal landscape for a pedestrian. There's tiny patches of pedestrian friendly ground in that city spread in little pockets over eight hundred square kilometers.

The town I live in now is about five kilometers strip that hugs the coast. Most of the action is concentrated in a one square kilometer section. We've got about three or four hundred pubs, loads of beautiful squares, a one kilometer stretch of lawn, and there's always loads going on.

I went back to Toronto last year for a visit and I was bored out of my mind within 24 hours and frustrated in my attempts to walk anywhere. Yes you need a car to get anywhere in an environment like that but that's not an argument for more cars in my opinion. It's an argument for transforming such places or moving somewhere else.

jimf said...

> It's actually very easy to live without a car if you're
> in the right environment.

I managed to live without a car from the time I moved to
New York City in '78 right up until '90, when I took a job
on the **explicit condition** that I own a car. This was
with a consulting company based in Manhattan, but they
told me firmly that they did not hire carless (or licenseless)
people, and sure enough, right after I was hired they
sent me on a semipermanent assignment to a client site half an hour
away (on I-80) from my place in New Jersey.

I suppose I could've refused the job, but it would've been
inconvenient -- many former co-workers of mine from the mid-80s
had ended up there, so I was something of a shoe-in. Also,
the entire subsequent course of my working life would have
changed if I hadn't taken that job (and not necessarily for
the better).

Funny thing is, I still have that Geo Prizm I bought back
at the end of '90 (an end-of-year model, lightly used by
the dealer, with 10,000 miles on it, for about $10,000 --
those were the days!). It's been incredibly reliable --
runs as good now (with almost 200,000 miles on it)
as it did 22 years ago (after, of course,
innumerable oil changes and brake jobs and exhaust systems
and batteries and a radiator and several sets of tires).

I haven't actually had to use it to commute since '95, when I changed
employers again and once again was able to commute to
the city on the bus. (The insurance company required a
photocopy of my New Jersey Transit monthly bus pass to
reduce my premium to non-commuter status. ;-> )

But the writing is on the wall -- a low-speed collision a
couple of years ago punched a hole in the front bumper, which
turned out to be no longer easily replaceable -- it's
patched with black-painted duct tape in order to be able
to pass inspection. Similarly, a total replacement of
the exhaust system last summer (including catalytic
converter, and an emission sensor which was original
equipment) was touch-and-go to locate the replacement parts.

I would love to be able to just donate the car to charity and return
to the carless life I enjoyed 22 years ago, but my knees
have deteriorated in the meantime, and I can't walk long
distances as easily as I once did. I'm not looking forward
to buying a new one, at 2 1/2 times the price of that Geo,
and overloaded with chirping electronics :-( .

Anonymous said...


jimf said...


This is mine (same year, same model, same color):

(Now somebody's going to track me down and murder me. :-0 ).

But seriously, I haven't been an aficionado of "car culture"
since I was 10. And the older I get, the tighter I grip the
wheel when I venture out on the road.

Oh, that reminds me. I had a charming adventure some years
ago one weekend. I had spent a Saturday afternoon at
a Barnes & Noble on Route 17. I was driving home, and
a pack of roaring motorcycles began zooming past me,
one by one. This was distracting enough that I was
splitting my attention between my rearview mirror and
the road ahead, and suddenly, one of the motorcycles
decelerated abruptly and came almost to a complete
stop ahead of me while deciding whether to turn
into a -- I don't know -- a Burger King, or something.

When I saw him stopped ahead of me, I slammed hard on
my brakes, and I swear that (with tires squealing)
I came to a stop within six inches of him. If I'd hit
him, he probably would have died on my windshield
that fine day. I hope to God he realized that,
and peed his macho leather pants over it.

This incident was similar to what some people stage
in a car in order to commit insurance fraud --
something called "swoop and squat". It's hard for
me to believe anybody would be stupid enough to
try that on a motorcycle, though.

Unknown said...

Jay here. It seems highly plausible that over 75% of Americans live in areas where carlessness is not a practical option. Outside of half a dozen cities, there's pretty much no public transportation in the US, and most of the country is zoned in ways that make locating businesses within walkable distance of housing difficult. I used to live near DC, and even with a car my commute was 1.5 hours each way.

I recall reading that when a driver's license is suspended, there is about a 98% likelihood that the driver will continue to drive.

I'm all for better public transit, but local homeowners tend to object, as neighborhoods that cannot easily be accessed by poor people command a premium price.

Dale Carrico said...

It seems highly plausible that over 75% of Americans live in areas where carlessness is not a practical option.

Not to me. Unless "practical" denotes the convenience (so-called) of a life indistinguishable from one shaped by lifelong personal car use. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to agree with you that a non-negligible proportion of the rural and suburban population presently does need access to cars for now, hence that the focus should be, as we already agree, on the expansion of public transportation infrastructure, electric carshares, and zoning for walkable cities for now. Else, I now know from ample experience this conversation becomes roughly as impossible without needing to be as conversations with people who think gun safety regulation is taking their guns away or freedom of conscience kills baby jebus and so on.