Sunday, January 27, 2013

More on Driverless Cars

Closet Porsche driver Kevin Drum now argues:
Second, though, I think commuting will be changed. The hard part of carpooling right now is finding fellow passengers. With rare exceptions, it's not practical to round up a new carpool every day, so you need to find one or two people who (a) live near you, (b) work near you, (c) all work regular hours, and (d) all work the same regular hours. That's pretty hard.

Once they reach critical mass, fleets of driverless cars completely transform this. When you need a car, you click a smartphone app that immediately starts searching a central database for matches. As long as there are lots of people looking for rides—and drive time is precisely when lots of people are looking for rides—you have a pretty good chance of finding a match anytime you look for one. What's more, because the car is driverless, it has more flexibility: a human would want everyone to have destinations really close to each other, because the driver doesn't want to spend tons of extra time dropping everyone off. A driverless car doesn't care. If it has to drive a few extra miles, it's no big deal.

This is obviously better for the driver, since she can now read the paper or play Angry Birds instead of driving. It's also better for the passengers, who don't have to worry about being precisely on time every day and also don't have to worry about whether the other passengers are precisely on time. If you're running a little late, no big deal. If you work flex time, no big deal. If you have a doctor's appointment and need to leave for work an hour later than usual, no big deal.

I think this is a stretch.  While I'm willing to grant that algorithms can be gotten to the point where they can drive, the problem of repeatedly picking several strangers to share a small space before anyone has had their coffee, and to do it with a very low risk of an irritating social interaction, strikes me as extremely hard.  And if the risk of an unpleasant carpool partner is more than trivial then we'll all keep taking our own cars, thank you.

This is not to say no-one is willing to sit next to strangers - many of us do it on planes, trains, and buses all the time.  But I think it's worse in a small group, versus a crowd, and my bet is few people would do it if they have a ready alternative they are used to (their own car).  It's noticeable on a train with open seating that people will invariably pick an empty seat group if one is available, and only start doubling and tripling up once they have no option.  In fact, it's something of a breach of etiquette not to do this.

Again, I think it's very important to understand that the average American new car buyer is not stretching to buy basic transportation.  The average new car in the US costs $30k, but basic cars can be manufactured for as little as $3k-$5k.  The difference is going for some combination of comfort, convenience, safety, and status.  Ie most of the cost of the car is for those things.  If your driverless car service reduces those factors, it will not sell to the mainstream of the US new car market.

My commenters to my last post made several excellent points worth up-leveling.  Commenter sunbeam argued that services like Zipcar would be made more convenient by having the car come pick you up at your house, and would allow you to use a different car than you normally own (eg a pickup).  This is undoubtedly true.  I can imagine this could help the growth and profitability of Zipcar-like services.  Still, Zipcar is a company with a few hundred million in revenue (growing at about 15%) in a several hundred billion dollar car market, so it's going to be a long time before they are anywhere close to transforming the situation.

Commenter Greg makes the excellent point that self-driving cars will allow parents to stop having to chauffeur kids to endless lessons, sports games, etc.  This might actually cause some people to live further out of town (and thus increase VMT).  Clearly this won't be true in the early stages of self-driving, in which the system will be basically an autopilot but a driver will still be legally required to be at the wheel.  But I imagine that restriction will be dropped as the technology matures, and then kids will indeed be able to go anywhere without the parent dropping them off.  This will indeed allow families to spread out, potentially.  I would also argue that the modern over-scheduling of kids is basically the middle-class solution to the problem of kid demands for addictive TV/video-games.  Rather than endlessly saying "NO", it's easier just to have the kids scheduled in constant improving activities.  Self-driving cars will further enable this.  They will solve the babysitting problem too since the kids can be driven off to some class/game or other on a Friday night!

Finally, on an aside, I was interested to read Kevin's car owning history.  I also am a former Honda Prelude owner (2000-2010), and bought mine in favor of a Z3 because, while I could have afforded the Z3 at the time, I just couldn't justify to myself that I was getting an extra $15k worth of value.  The Honda handled beautifully and was plenty fast enough.  At the time I bought it, I was regularly driving back and forth between Arcata, CA and San Francisco for work - a four-five hour drive on gorgeous empty Northern California roads so I really got to enjoy its driving qualities.  I loved that car and my kids loved it even more - they still haven't forgiven me for selling it.  Now I drive a Jetta-TDI Sportwagen which uses about half as much fuel as the Prelude, is more practical for bringing things back from the hardware store for honey-do projects, and is still pretty fun to drive with good handling and the low-end torque of the diesel.  Again, I looked at Audi TDIs at the time I bought the Jetta and just felt the value wasn't there - I was basically paying an additional $10k for leather seats and to show off an Audi badge.  My next car will be an electric or plugin-hybrid.


jhm said...

Perhaps there would be a cross between a car and a bus that would be most likely to be the 'car' in these hypothetical carpool scenarios.

Even if there were no self-driving involved, some subscription based, custom bus/van routes, might be worth envisioning.

Tom Bennion said...

You know you all should be talking electric bikes and covered weatherproof cycleways, with coffee carts dotted along them ....

Mr. Sunshine said...

Combine this: with a driverless car and things could get really interesting. Automated ambulances. House calls.

Fred said...

Stuart - 1) I think an informal or casual carpool system can work very well as it does here in the Bay area. Folks have the option of getting picked up at about 2 dozen East Bay locations. Cars stop and pick them up in order to use the carpool lane going into SF - a big time saver. Leaving SF is not as easy but there is a pickup location. I don't know how many use it, but it's probably in the hundreds at the location I go to.

2) Jitneys - These private little buses or vans operated very effectively in SF. Their advantage over buses was that there always seemed to be one available and they were cheap. You still seem them in developing countries. In SF they competed too effectively with the the City-owned transit and were eventually squeezed out.

Stuki said...

The time spent alone in ones car during commute, is for many the only time alone they get all week. No effing way will they (voluntarily) trade that off for carpooling with 4 other grumpy guys in a tiny Prius.... I wouldn't be surprised if one of the reasons California is so much more "entrepreneurial" (SF) and "creative" (LA) than similarly educated New York, is that it's residents actually get to spend a minute alone on occasion, instead of being caught up in an absolute 24/7 crossfire of smalltalk and bickering.

BUT, selfdriving cars should allow for much tighter following distances, allowing "everyone" to "drive" in their own car while snoozing off, reading, texting, working or playing video games; with traffic still moving ahead at a decent clip. That's an improvement over the current situation.

Windchasers said...

I also doubt that people will carpool much more. People value their privacy and space. So, unless we get sectioned cars, with barriers between different areas, carpooling will be mostly limited to friends and family members.

In fact, driverless cars *detract* from some of the relative benefits of carpooling: Right now, carpooling lets some of the people goof off (check their email, sleep, etc.). After driverless cars, everyone can goof off, whether you are carpooling or not. If you don't need to carpool to get some of the benefits, carpooling is less attractive.

This is made more obvious by considering the extreme case: Right now, would you rather make a 12-hour drive with another person, or by yourself? And why?
I generally say "with another person", because you can sleep or eat while they drive, take breaks from driving, etc. But if you can get all of these benefits regardless of whether you bring someone else along, you'll only travel with them if you particularly want to. The opening scene of "When Harry Met Sally" would never happen.

I'd also say that it's pretty obvious that driverless cars will increase sprawl, since usually the worst thing about living far from your job is the commute.

Nick G said...

I suspect driverless cars will make car-sharing much more attractive - having one's car close at hand is a big reason for car ownership, and driverless cars could be mighty convenient even if dispatched from a distance.

On the other hand, I only take the train because it's safe, and I have a chauffeur. I think driverless cars will help kill mass transit.

Finally, Vehicle Miles Traveled will explode:

First, driving becomes much, much easier, even attractive.

Second, who would ever pay for parking?? You'd hop out of the car and tell it to circle the block until you're ready. Any city with sufficient congestion to require paid parking will instantly have much more congestion from all those cars waiting for their owners - an enormous positive feedback loop! Those additional cars will drive very efficiently, so they may not slow traffic down, but they'll be there.

I think EVs (partial and full) are the only way to reduce vehicle oil consumption.

Anonymous said...

Driverless commuter automobiles sounds to me like having millions of tiny single-car passenger trains to build, deploy, maintain, and for which infrastructure maintenance is required. It would be more cost-effective, and more pleasant, at the individual level to pay higher taxes for an expanded light rail system.

I must admit, the whole concept of driverless cars leaves me cold and I suspect I'm not the only one with a negative emotional reaction to the idea. Americans love their cars because cars represent a kind of freedom — an enhancement of personal agency beyond the merely utilitarian. For example, packing up my Forester and heading to the mountains for an unitinerized (is that a word?), open-schedule camping trip is a real mental break that couldn't be had with a driverless car that requires accurate street addresses and unblocked satellite access.

Take away the driving part and you've taken away the personal agency part. I just don't see it catching on, in America at least, for this reason. There's no quality-of-life improvement here that can't be had by more cost-effective means.

Aaron Markowitz said...

I was wondering what your opinion is on what effect autonomous control systems will have on the shipping industry.

Namely, will companies like Old Dominion replace their truckers with autonomous control systems? Why would they continue to pay a person, who needs to take breaks, when your autonomous semi-truck can go without stopping?