The autonomous automobile’s future: Does it even have one?

Read an interesting article (Apr. 8, 2016) by a writer who believes self-driving cars aren’t needed and explains in no uncertain terms why that is. Written by award-winning writer Rebecca Solnit, it was The Guardian newspaper that featured the said (op-ed) article.

Aside from what Solnit covered, I, personally, wonder if the concept will ever catch on. Meanwhile, the article’s author had absolutely no qualms about pointing out that computers can fail and be hacked into and she doesn’t see computers ever responding in a way that humans can and do when it comes to how we interact with our environment. Put somewhat differently, computers will never be human.

Furthermore, the autonomous automobile, as with any automobile, is still an automobile. A car is a car is a car, in other words. Moreover, if the expectation exists that self-driving cars will make roadway travel any less crowded, Solnit doesn’t think so.

Think of the op-ed’s full title (and long subtitle) “We don’t need self-driving cars – we need to ditch our vehicles entirely: The driverless revolution may seem convenient, but public transportation means we can already skip driving. Not only is it better for the planet – it also keeps us out of traffic jams,” in the context that with driverless cars roaming the streets, both more traffic and more congestion will result.

Want to know how?! Solnit explains it thus: There is the expectation that Americans will be driving seven percent more miles than what were driven in 2007 by 2017, according to a report in Grist, which Solnit, in her article, just so happens to have made reference to. In 2007, Americans drove a collective cumulative 3.031124 trillion miles. Point taken as, in 2015, American drivers logged a grand total of 3.148 trillion miles behind the wheel – a record.

Solnit reasons also that with autonomous vehicles at people’s disposal and plying the roads, this will provide yet another opportunity for people to “automobile” it more. (I am careful not to use the word “drive” here as it relates to our “riding” in autonomous vehicles as people won’t in fact be driving; that’s the thinking, anyway). Beyond that there are associated greenhouse gas emissions. The part of that emitted from transportation, as Solnit points out, is a healthy 27 percent. (“Healthy” may not be the best choice of words, but I believe you get the picture). Eighteen percent of that – or two parts in three – is car-attributed. Adding more vehicles – self-driving or otherwise – to the existing traffic mix will cause a further greenhouse-gas-emissions rise, unless, of course, these vehicles are pollution-free.

The advantages autonomous automobility has to offer potentially could be enormous, the implications could be far-reaching. Even so, as I see it Solnit is by no means or measure ready to take the self-driving plunge as she feels there are more efficient and smarter and better and, no doubt, healthier ways of moving about the planet and that includes automatically and non-automatically alike.

What I would like to add is that I think there is this false notion that driverless cars, by virtue of the premise that riding the roads “hands-free,” automatically means that the road-traveling experience will be better than even the best of such user experiences possible today. Already, about three-fourths of roadway commutes are done in vehicles that are occupied by only one person – the motorist.

As far as my exiting this conversation, I will leave with a couple of questions: 1) What are the odds of this changing in any appreciable way or that congestion will be far less or a thing of the past simply because automobility’s operating platform may be evolving – and plainly and simply – into what’s being billed and hailed as “driverless”?, and 2) If it ever does, what are the chances people who choose to embrace this method of movement and opt to travel this way will demand that these vehicles not pollute such that there will be a significant difference made?

Oh, and speaking of questions, want to know what Solnit’s take on this issue as well as additional others related to the idea of hands-free road-riding? The answer: you needn’t look any farther than the aforementioned The Guardian op-ed with the full and long title. Incidentally, and speaking of which, I don’t believe that the title and subtitle could be any more to the point.

Tampa Int’l. Airport people mover
Tampa Int’l. Airport automated people mover

Image above: © by James G. Howes, 2009 (used with permission).

2 thoughts on “The autonomous automobile’s future: Does it even have one?

  1. It’s probably true that computers will never be human. On the other hand, it is entirely predictable that in not very many years, they will be superhuman. They WILL be able to drive cars.

    The idea that public transportation is sufficient is the thinking of a committed urbanite who never leaves her big city except to travel to another big city, and never wants to poke into those odd corners of her city where public transport does not go, or only goes infrequently and on an extremely sub-optimal schedule. The road less travelled is travelled by private automobile.

    • The op-ed author makes the valid point that, here in the U.S. emissions from cars is two-thirds that produced in all of transportation. Here in California, the percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation registers at 38 percent and in the San Joaquin Valley, it is at minimum 40 percent.

      Citing a Union of International Railways (UIC) report, meanwhile, entitled: “High Speed Rail and Sustainability,” released in Nov. 2011, mentioned is that of all CO2 emissions-producing sectors (i.e., energy production, transport, industry, residential and other), transportation is the only sector seeing an emissions increase even with all of the technological advances made with the following (by mode share, global transport CO2 emissions in 2005) breakdown: Road 73%, Int’l. Shipping 9%, Int’l. Aviation 6%, Domestic Aviation 5%, Other 3%, Domestic Navigation and Rail at 2% each. And, between 1990 and 2010 in Europe, transport emissions rose by a quarter, the UIC found. And, this is just for the GHGs and doesn’t include other emitted pollutants such as the ozone-forming pollutants NOx and VOCs, or particulates.

      I favor utilized ways effective that get positive results in terms of addressing harmful emissions in the air we breathe. If this means more train travel as opposed to roadway travel, then so be it. In Hong Kong, 73 percent of all travel is done via public transit while, in the U.S., that figure is 1.5 percent, according to Jeff Speck in his book: Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (p. 141). That’s quite a disparity.

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