There really are things going on in the world other than the upcoming election (which can’t come–and go–soon enough!).
For example, Architectural Record recently weighed in on the apparently inevitable advent of the driverless car.
First it was Google, mapping the known world with autonomous vehicles. Then it was news of various efforts to perfect the technology, and an announcement that Pittsburgh is going to be the site of an actual demonstration.
In fact, the day when a phantom chauffeur will charge an electric vehicle on its own, analyze the route, exchange up-to-the-moment information with other cars on the road, and pick you up for work—or your kids for school—is no longer sci-fi fantasy. Many of the manufacturers expect fully autonomous vehicles (AVs), requiring no human supervision or backup drivers, to hit the market around 2020—letting you sleep, read, work, or entertain guests as an unmanned sedan ferries you door to door.
As the article notes, the most important promise of driverless cars is a vast improvement in safety. The least reliable part of a car is the driver, and worldwide, 1.2 million people are killed in car accidents every year. Ninety percent of automobile accidents are attributed to driver error.
Architectural Record then explored the questions we should all be asking: assuming the inexorable shift to such vehicles, how will that change both the built environment and our housing choices? How might it change the way we go about our days?
A major consequence could be a radical reduction in parking space. And slots could be packed tight, given robotically nimble maneuvers, not to mention the area saved when no one needs to exit or enter a parked vehicle—ever. (After dropping you off, the car would “valet” itself.) Even curbside spots could become unnecessary, allowing for narrower streets—an efficiency boosted by sensing-and-reaction mechanisms that permit AVs close driving distances, increasing road capacity. The gains could be huge. As Ratti puts it, “Parking infrastructure in the United States covers around 5,000 square miles—an area [43-percent] larger than Puerto Rico.” The freed-up land could be converted to creative and socially enriching uses, providing for art or recreation..”
It’s an open question whether self-driving cars will promote urban density—or suburban sprawl. The article suggests arguments for both options. Some of the potential changes AV’s may usher in have the sound of science fiction:
“Autonomous vehicles promise to have dramatic impact in blurring the distinction between private and public modes of transportation,” says professor Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. “After taking you to work, ‘your’ car could give a lift to someone else in your family—or to anyone in your neighborhood, social-media community, or city—rather than sitting idle.” While the average automobile in the U.S. is unused an estimated 95-percent of the time, a robo-vehicle has the potential to reposition itself continually, with network-optimized efficiency, from one passenger to the next. Theoretically, self-driving could lend everyone—including the blind, elderly, and very young—unprecedented mobility, providing a shared system of individually customized, on-demand travel with a fraction of the cars currently on the road.
Reading the article (which I recommend) leaves me with a question that is becoming a daily preoccupation: how can humans be so good at science and technology, so innovative and creative–and so terrible at governing ourselves?
We can invent wondrous things. Why can’t we learn to live together harmoniously?