Why you should care
Because mass transit would be the real revolution.
Imagine your very own air-conditioned pod that drives you to the office, leaving you free to sleep, work, text, put on lipstick or just gaze out the window. That’s the dream of the driverless car, a dream that’s loomed ever larger in the consumer imagination, as Google and other would-be automotive revolutionaries make noise about eliminating the most dangerous part of the driving equation: human drivers.
But that dreamy experience — you, the lipstick, the mantra, the quiet— is already available to many of us. It’s called public transit.
Yes, subways, buses and streetcars are at times crowded, sweaty hellholes, but the problems of public transit are the sort you can throw money at. Can’t get a seat? You could, if more buses ran. Not enough stations? The city could invest in more comprehensive routes. Takes too long? Try parking downtown and get back to us. The dream is not “Imagine not having to drive your car,” but rather “Imagine not having to own a car.” So why are we panting for driverless pods?
Hype, partly. With models cruising around Mountain View, California, and Austin, Texas, the driverless car has taken on an air of imminence. (When we asked Google about its timeline, a spokesperson directed us to a TED Talk by the program head, who implies they’re four or five years away.) But most of us won’t have access to them anytime soon, says Paul Lewis, director of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “And even if you do have one, it’s going to be very expensive,” he adds. This tech won’t spring fully formed from Larry Page’s forehead, but will come instead in dribs and drabs, and then there are all the legal and ethical issues too. Who’s liable for crashes? How will users be licensed? Etc., etc., etc. All this will cost serious money, and investors, public and private, are expected to pony up some $102 billion by 2030, according to Lux Research.
In the meantime and well beyond, the U.S should be aiming to shore up public transport. Let’s face it: Cars are not part of anyone’s civic dream environment, and for all their shiny robotic newness, self-driving cars won’t alleviate “all the environmental issues and land-use intensity issues,” says Nigel Wilson, director of MIT’s Transit Research Program. They probably won’t lessen your commute either, or reduce ugly sprawl, or make you less fat. We all know this. Polls consistently find that most Americans think the country should shell out more for public transit — millennials, in particular, are train aficionados and apparently don’t buy cars. Yet the U.S. spent almost three times as much on highways last year than it did on public transit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Driverless could still be put to good use. Autonomous driving is useful in trains and buses — in fact, it’s already being used around the world. Buses, with their regular, predictable routes and limited fleets, would be relatively inexpensive and easy to automate, and trains, with their dedicated tracks, are an even better bet. While Wilson predicts driverless cars won’t be ubiquitous for 25 years, he thinks driverless bus fleets might only be five years away. So let’s ditch the idea of driving ourselves to work, but also quit imagining we’ll be alone on the trip.
What are you waiting for? Get on the bus already. Or at least let us know what you think.