Friday, January 25, 2013

Naivety on Driverless Cars

Felix Salmon argues that driverless cars are coming, and that this will result in massive efficiency gains:
If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today....Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things....therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough [] self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

Kevin Drum concurs and even goes one better:
I don't really need any convincing on this front. I think that genuine self-driving cars will be available within a decade and that they'll be big game changers. Even bigger than Felix suggests. When you're not actually driving a car yourself, for example, you don't care much about how powerful it is. So you'll be happy to chug along in a super-efficient car, reading a book or playing on your phone. You'll be more willing to share a car, since automated systems will be able to quickly put together carpools with guaranteed maximums on wait time. And of course, driverless cars will be fundamentally more fuel-efficient since computers can drive cars better than humans can.
You won't get any argument from me that driverless cars are on the way, but the idea that people will then agree to get around in networks of super-efficient automatic taxis that they don't own is, I think, complete wonkish naivety.  Yes, the overall car transportation system could be made much more efficient along these lines but to think this will happen gives average people far too much credit for rational decision-making.  The vast bulk of spending on cars in the US is for irrational emotional purposes: status display, feelings of safety, etc, not simple transportation.  If this was not so, Americans would all be saving their money and driving around in the equivalent of a $3000 Tata Nano (or $5k VW Beetle or Citroen 2CV).  That class of vehicles can get you from A to B in reasonable comfort from the weather, but hardly any Americans would be seen dead in one and so none are sold here.  Just watch a few car ads - endless fantasies of cars driving around on empty roads, barely any discussion of the realistic cost/benefits of sitting in it in stop and go traffic on the 101 or the 495.  Thus anywhere from 2/3 to over 95% of the cost of the car is for something other than getting from A to B in reasonable comfort.

I see this in Silicon Valley in spades; parking lots dotted with Mercedes and Porsches well suited to doing 150mph on an empty autobahn or 200mph around a race-track, none of which ever get to do anything of the sort.  Maybe occasionally the owner gets a break in the traffic on Highway 1 on a weekend away, but that's about it - maybe half an hour a year that they get to do what the car is actually designed for and the car ads told them it would make them feel good doing.  Yet highly accomplished and rational meritocrats will cheerfully stretch the household budget to have one of these things to show off in the driveway or the parking lot at work.

Or think of it from a different ideological/demographic direction - why is the Prius the overwhelming best-seller hybrid?  I would argue the answer is that it's the only one with a very distinctive design allowing its owner to communicate his or her concern for the environment publicly.  The Civic hybrid was similarly efficient but it doesn't communicate "environmentalist", just "small cheap car", and so it doesn't sell anything like as well.  It's a different definition of status, but still it indicates that most of what we are spending over a basic $5k vehicle is for something other than warm and dry transportion.  So if we accept that "showing it off in the parking lot" is actually one of the major functions of a car, even if we probably don't like to admit that publicly, how likely is it that people will agree to give this up in order to save money in an auto-car sharing service?  While it's true that getting rid of the parking lot would benefit society a lot, how are the first three employees who give up their own car and show up at the office in the autoZip going to feel?

If autoZip tries to start from the bottom-up, it will fail because its early adopters will secretly feel like cheap losers and will try to get rid of the stigma as quickly as possible.  On the other hand, if it tries to start from the top down (Teslas!), it will run into the problem that the top 1% (income-wise) can easily afford to have their own car lying around doing nothing all day, and that's an effective way to signal wealth and status.  The save money argument cuts nothing with the 1% because a lot of them are specifically trying to signal that they don't need to do anything of the sort.

So how does autoZip ever get started?  I don't see the business model here.  I totally see auto-driving taxis - taxi drivers are much more expensive than computers - but auto-taxis will be like taxis now: slightly grungy transportation used by poor people in a pinch, business travelers going to/from airports,  or folks in very concentrated urban areas (basically Manhattan) where the overheads of car ownership are overwhelming.  People will not use auto-taxis to get to work or go shopping - they will take their own autocars that they can then show off to others.

Update 1: And think of the incentives of the car companies.  Do they have any incentive to push consumers to make more efficient use of their product (ie sell fewer cars)?  Noooo.

Update 2: On reflection, I have realized a compelling benefit of auto-driving cars.  It will be possible to drive down Highway 1, put one's foot absolutely to the floor, and have the computer take the bends as fast as possible while guaranteeing not to go over the edge.  That sounds like a lot of fun and I can see the ads already. :-)

Update 3: Better still, if the cars are all talking to each other via Skynet, then it will be possible to pass at high speeds on blind bends in safety, knowing that no other car is coming the other way.  How awesome is that?  Too bad about the cyclists and the deer - wait, we could solve that problem with fleets of small monitoring drones...  Screw the truckers and the taxi-drivers, count me in :-)


KLR said...

Well put. It'd never occurred to me that the Prius's shape advertised its Green in a specific fashion like that. The wheel well covers used on the early Honda Insight ably served a similar purpose. I wonder why they abandoned those on subsequent versions.

As regards the benefits of a fleet of Autocars, years ago I found out that, much to my surprise, gasoline lost due to traffic congestion in the US doesn't amount to much, about 280 kb/d. Probably I've posted this info here in the past but here it is again: Annual Urban Mobility Report — Urban Mobility Information.

Of course there are non-fuel issues related to congestion. I've no doubt some of my grey hair to blame on stop-and-go; I'll drive miles out of my way to avoid it, I hate it like the plague for some reason - the lack of efficiency/potential lost? Bit of claustrophobia? But if you could take a nap or read a book, that'd be great.

sunbeam said...

I'm not sure what to say other than maybe your view is jaundiced by the environment you've worked in for a decade or two.

I don't have a definite answer as to number of people, but a lot us us have checked out of the system to a certain extent.

Screw cars. They are a leach attached to your wallet. I will never buy a new car, ever. I drive a 92 Subaru, and when that dies, I will get something comparable.

At my age I will never get hired by a Silicon Valley company, so I have no need to play status games with that... sort of person.

I also think you may not have had much exposure to young people recently. Perhaps it varies by geographic location, but there is a sea change in them as opposed to how they thought in my youth.

I never see kids that are into cars the way they were. No dreams of a Pontiac GTO or Vette. The sheer lack of disposable income means they drive econo-boxes if they have cars at all.

Small sample, but kids now are more into cell phones and data plans than heavy iron.

I think the autozip thing has some real usefulness to myself. I develop the need for a pickup once every month or three. I had intended my next vehicle to be one.

If I could get one to drive to my house with an internet transaction, I would be that much less likely to buy one. Particularly if it had items like a Tommylift or the like on it.

I could also see myself going totally car free if the area would support it. I live in a rural area now, but if I lived in a northern city I think I would consider it.

If I wanted to tool about on the open roads I'd buy a cheap motorcycle and only use it in the summer.

rjs said...

i'd concur with your take on the salmon & drum fantasies, but i wont believe in driverless cars till i see them...

see, i grew up in the 50s, when all the housewives in the neighborood believed they would soon be relieved of their kitchen chores by the fully automated "kitchens of the future"

Stuart Staniford said...


The behavior of used car buyers is irrelevant to market adoption of new technology which is driven by new car buyers - used car drivers end up with whatever the new car buyers bequeath them. The average new car in 2012 in the US cost over $30k:

Sales volume was 14.4 million units in 2012, a healthy 13.4% growth over 2011:

That's the market that we are talking about here.

Aimee said...

Stuart - the behavior of used car buyers is irrelevant, but not the number of them. I am another person who has never, ever understood the attraction to fancy cars as a status symbol, or fantasy, or whatever. I drive a 1999 diesel beetle, fueled by homebrew waste oil biodiesel, and I will until it falls apart (but hubby's a mechanic, so that will probably be a long time.)
I buy everything I possibly can used as a way to make the energy sunk into making new products stretch as long as possible, and as a way of avoiding giving my money to certain corporations.
Sometimes societal attitudes do change quickly. Not many people twenty years ago would have predicted legal gay marriage, for example. How to effect a relatively rapid change in a desired direction, however, is a trick I don't think anybody's figured out just yet.

kjmclark said...

KLR - you really didn't notice the distinct Prius styling? My son has strictly prohibited us from getting a Prius because of the styling. He's OK'd a Volt, however. :-)

Sunbeam - you should meet my son. I'm more like you, but he assures me that when he gets rich, he's going to give me a Ferrari because I've been a good Dad. He's planning to keep the Lamborghini for himself, however.

I think the self-driving features will creep in as requirements from NHTSA. This has already started. First it was seat belts, then anti-lock brakes, and now stability control. Next we'll have lane deviation detection and collision avoidance systems required. It's a small change from there to self-driving systems, which will probably be added to meet future CAFE standards, since the manufacturers will get credits for cars with optional self-driving (the self-driving being much more efficient).

Once the self-driving features are in the fleet, the insurance industry will take over, and encourage their use with discounts. And people who have a self-driving car will mostly use the robotics for convenience. Eventually only high-end cars will come with steering wheels and pedals, which will be OK, since most people won't know how to drive anymore, just like most Americans don't know how to ride a horse, use the gears on a bicycle, or drive a manual transmission car. Most of the status value is in the outside styling and the gizmos anyway.

But high-end cars will always have the controls, and the option to use them.

Mr. Sunshine said...

As a 30 year Colorado mountain resident, I follow the autodrive construct with more than a bit of amusement, since no computer and sensor system will be able to handle roads that go from dry to wet, to rain to snow, to snowpacked over glare / black ice - which is what we're experiencing today.

Having just traded a 2006 Prius for a new Ford C-Max hybrid - both bought because of the distance I live from 'town,' and not to make 'green' statements, I will suggest taking a look at the Ford if one's in the market for 40mpg and more.

A Quaker in a Strange Land said...

I have been noodling the taxi network thing...

All of the points you raise make perfect sense - today.

In a driverless car future - and not only do I think that that is coming but once it is here it will be forced upon us by government or social pressure - there will be little personal "relationship" with a car. Half of the reason for the athletic or muscle cars is to give guys with little athleticism or small muscles a sense of power, strength, and status.

Those sensations do not come over one as a passenger on a plane or train or boat... and essentially, in a driverless future we will ALL be passengers.

Or maybe I am a balled up.

Stuart Staniford said...


I suppose one could make an argument that used car owners (especially those who are into voluntary simplicity) are most likely to drop car ownership altogether in favor of occasional use of rented autocars - this is essentially the Zipcar market - and certainly I buy Sunbeam's argument that the car driving itself to the customer makes a Zipcar-like service more convenient. So, ok, there's a nichy market there. Looks like Zipcar did $78m in revenues in Q3 2012 and grew 15% over Q3 2011. So a few hundred million a year and growing well but not explosively. But the US auto industry has revenues of several hundred *billion* per year. I have a lot of trouble buying that self-driving is going to shift the balance of attractiveness to Zipcar like players fast enough to have a huge impact on the overall car industry.

Stuart Staniford said...


I complete agree with the safety driven adoption path. I think the other driver will be expansion of the nav system to basically become a full auto-pilot which will provide the high level planning that merges with the low-level lane-tracking collision avoidance stuff that handles the tactical part of the job.

Stuart Staniford said...


Two points to ponder: do most mainstream people not have a status-based relationship with their house, notwithstanding the fact that they don't drive it around?

Also, do people rich enough to be chauffered drive modest cars since who cars what the chauffer's driving experience is? Or huge luxury limos?

I would suggest that "limo-light" is the way to think of the evolution of the car in response to auto-driving. There'll be less focus on a big engine and great handling, but lots of focus on having a big luxuriously appointed interior convenient for doing whatever people will want to do while being driven around by the computer.

Ael said...

I walk to work and in the past month, I have helped push 3 cars stuck in snow banks. I do this because I have been stuck and strangers have helped push me out.

I somehow doubt that I would push a robot alone which was similarly stuck.

Stuart Staniford said...

Ael - perhaps the other robots will help it :-)

Sam said...

I was thinking about why this might appeal to the top down...and I think it will all depend on the design of the autoZip. If you no longer need a driver, you no longer need the steering wheel, stick shift, mirros, pedals, nor position of the seats. Everything can be rearranged...could look like a lounge, or mobile office...which you could show off through the windows. These new designs will have to be custom small scale at first, and thus expensive and distinctive enough to make for a status statement.

dr2chase said...

In Silicon Valley, the rational thing to drive several times a week is a bicycle, and we don't see much of that, either. It's flat, the climate is benign, and (rationally) we need the exercise and (rationally) you get more bang from your time using a bicycle to overlap transit and exercise. A bike's also the vehicle of choice after a big earthquake when all the traffic lights are out and the cars are just plain parked.

The advantage of the self-driving car, when it is good enough to be truly self-driving, is time. You'll get the option to overlap something other than exercise with your transit time. Presumably Very Important People of Lesser Means will find a way to turn that into a status symbol, in the same way that cell phones did back before kids in junior high were carrying them.

Unknown said...

Stuart - Thanks for this post - I had the same reaction when I read both articles. I first heard this idea a few months ago from Salim Ismail of Singularity University. He breathless described a world in which a car drives itself to a designated parking area to await instructions. It's a nice image but think this techno-optimism by so many people in the Bay Area (and elsewhere) fails to consider society as a whole. My initial thought was along the lines of your Update 1: most car companies would hate this idea - look at how resistant they've been to increasing their fleet fuel economy.
I wouldn't even consider this necessarily a more 'green' approach - raise the fuel efficiency average of new cars to above 40 mpg, create incentives for car makers to install start-stop systems to reduce emissions during idle/traffic and GHG emissions/local air emissions would go way down. Considering that the EU's ELV requirement has required most car makers to make their vehicles 99% recyclable, cars aren't the big source of waste that some people may think. In fact, the use of additional electronics in cars to make them autonomous would have a negative net environmental impact.
I've worked in the sustainability field since the early 90's and while it would be nice if there was a technological solution to our problems, from my experience, a lot of these ideas don't take into consideration the human behaviors that created these problems in the first place. Personally, I'd rather see higher fuel economy, auto makers that stop using horsepower as a benchmark for performance and more interest is developing public transportation than robot cars.

Douglas said...

I see a big(ish) market for self driving cars among the elderly and disabled. Losing the mobility of car is one of the biggest fears of older adults ...buying a self driving car provides a bit of insurance that you'll still have some freedom.

At the same time, this will just contribute to the stigma of owning one among the young/healthy.

Electric bikes haven't taken off for a similar reason -- you feel like a bit of loser using one next to all the fit cyclists riding to work under their own power.

I think the main way self-driving cars will become commonplace is as an option like cruise control. Something people can use from time to time when they feel like it.

Cyrus said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I am really a bit more bullish on the implications, potential capabilities, and the need for us to pull together and consider autonomous vehicles as a path for emission reduction. To me the killer app is fully automated vehicles ~50kg. Trains of these should be able to completely eliminate traffic and enable productive time inside the vehicle. Trains of these light vehicles should be able to completely change the calculus of fuel consumption. One could even imagine a driving simulator that would entertain the drivers with the illusion of control.

As an aside, I remain uncertain which will be more problematic and disruptive – running out of atmosphere and the associated collateral damage or just running out of fossil fuels in just ~100 years. Both are clearly to me very very bad but it seems that in my mind the no more free lunch on the energy front is going to be more painful. Why are you so convinced that climate change is worse than running out of fossil fuels? It is blasphemy but I also fear that Moore’s law is much closer to the end than people will admit publicly. This means the blissful “future cures all” wont have the continued exponential increase in transistors that has fueled tech cycles ~1970 till now.

But if we are to preserve our fossil inheritance a bit longer, perhaps autonomous vehicles can be part of the solution toward reaching that goal.

Thanks again for the awesome blog!


Mark said...

Maybe it's because I'm English...but I can't help thinking that for those of us that can't afford a driver it could be guilt free nights out at the pub that will be the real draw of a driverless car. Home via the kebab shop please! Some interesting opportunities there (I wonder how that kind of thing will be legislated?).

Stephen B. said...

Kind of along the lines of what Sunbeam was saying, there was a report out recently detailing the changing utilization and attitudes of younger people towards cars.

This from the executive summary:

From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the [21st] century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.

The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting—even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons—higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences—all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

Read the rest of the report for yourself if you'd like:

I grant you that the Public Interest Research Group has always been very anti-car and very pro urban, pro-"hip", progressive, young person, but the data speaks for itself to a certain point as well.

Stephen B. said...

I also have extreme doubts that driverless, and indeed, cars and light trucks lacking controls such as steering wheels will ever be a hit in deeply rural areas. I mean, my road in Maine is shown on Google Maps as having an outlet on its north end with another road, when in reality it terminates in a neighbor's barn yard and potato field, the road having been closed by the town years ago and surrendered back to a landowner. Will the computer figure that out? If so, when? After it drives my car into a 100 acre, muddy potato patch? More importantly, what happens when I want to take the controls-free replacement for my Ford Ranger out in the back pasture to haul back more firewood or do some other rural, farm chore? Will the computer sufficiently navigate the wet spots on my old cow and logging paths out around the back pastures, or how about avoiding the mud holes in my rip-rap driveway come the last few weeks of March? Or, lastly, how about when I go past the toll gate into the North Maine Woods private (and ever changing) logging road system? You think Google and the car's computer will be up to date on which internal gated roads will be open and which won't, or which bridges are good and which are closed due to spring wash outs? Okay, maybe the computer will be up to date on the American Realty or Golden roads (main roads in the MNW system), but how about the side roads going down to innumerable streams and ponds? NAFC.

Driverless vehicles might make sense in the suburbs or city, but in the outskirts of 04730 and surrounding zip codes? Again, NAFC.

Greg said...

I agree completely with you, Stuart--up to the updates. ;-) I'd only add this:

The market for "green" autonomous cars is rental and leasing firms, company fleet vehicles (couriers, utilities, etc.), and taxis. Not a huge market in relative terms, but not a small market either. These buyers are not hung up on cars as status symbols, and some of them pay attention to fuel economy in their life-cycle cost analyses.

So there will be hope for people wanting to buy used, economical self-driving cars.

Greg said...

On reflection, I think that self-driving cars may well increase traffic congestion and fuel use.

In soccer-mom-land, the advent of self-driving cars means that the kids can have a car each, as well as Mom and Dad (or other Mom) having one. No need for Mom (or other Dad) to be an unpaid taxi driver any more; she (or he) can drive to the Mall and have coffee with her (his) friends while the kids go from school to oboe lessons to Mandarin tuition to soccer practice to art appreciation to volunteer-work at the AARP center get the idea.

More importantly, self-driving cars lift the limit on maximum acceptable commuting time. So instead of being limited by the frustration and effort of driving to living up to one hour away from work, people can live two hours away from work. After all, they can snooze, breakfast, apply make-up, book faces and pin trests, or catch up on the emails in the car.

So why not live a little further out, where prices are lower and the neighbors not so oppressive? The kids can still go to the same school...

Unknown said...

I think currently we are in need of hybrid cars or vehciles that are fuel effcient instead of driver-less cars.

Sara William
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Stuart Staniford said...

Greg: The point about kids (at least older ones) is an excellent one I hadn't thought of.

Stuart Staniford said...

Stephen B: It's the same where I am - Google Maps keeps trying to take me over the ridge east of my house on a little road that hasn't been passable to anything but an ATV for decades. However, I imagine the databases will keep getting better over time. Plus no doubt they'll need systems capable of recognizing something has gone wrong in the road and backtracking and going around. Even on main roads, the systems are going to have to cope with landslides and accidents blocking the road and the like.

dr2chase said...

Robo-cars as (fat) kid taxis is depressingly likely, and is probably the ultimate route to mass-market dominance. If the car's been driving you around for years already (as a young teenager), is it really worth the time and expense for driving lessons, practice driving, and the cost of auto insurance for a young driver? And it's EASY to be a better driver than a teenager, so everyone involved wants that young driver in a robo-car.

This doesn't necessarily lead to a big increase in driving/fuel consumption right away, if the robo-car is small, and if a parent was doing much of that driving already.

And I assume it would be futile to point out that in certain other countries (e.g., the Netherlands) they feel that children younger than eight years old should be able to cycle alone to school:
And they have the safety stats to prove that they know what they're doing.

Stephen B. said...

I think in regards to the rural issue, there will always be a need for an ability to override what the computer is trying to do, that is, go around the road that ends in a potato field, and so on. I do suppose, however, that the ability to take control over from the computer need not be total. That is, the ability to somehow command it into an alternate path or go around attempt without the car's human passengers having to actually assume full control via the steering wheel, foot controls, and so on, is probably desirable, much like current auto-throttles (aka as cruise control) let one speed the car up or down without assuming full control of the throttle directly. Even people incapable of fully controlling a car because they are not sufficiently licensed, practiced, or have health/vision/coordination issues such as the elderly, probably could "assist" the computer here and there by occasionally redirecting the computer at its task. Some kind of sophisticated voice command like "That's a dead end up ahead. You have to go around via Shanks Rd" or "the town doesn't plow Willy Rd. because it's not a public way" would be a cool way to be able to assist the computer. Even my now legally blind 86 year old aunt could still make a meaningful contribution to car operation via something like that.

As for multiple robo-cars taxiing teens around, thereby freeing up Mom or Dad - wow, that would be a big plus that indeed be a big hit in at least some affluent communities, but still, what is the lower age limit that a parent would be willing to send their kid off alone in a car at? Just because a car might be able to drive to school with no input whatsoever from the on-board 6 year old, that doesn't mean I would risk it.

sunbeam said...

I kind of touched on it in an earlier post, but I think people, especially young ones are getting priced out of car ownership.

I'm kind of tired now and am not going to google anything, but:

1) Mechanical skills and being able to work on your own car is something that younger people just don't seem to learn anymore. I'm constantly astounded by things they have no clue about. I've always been able to keep a car running. They can't do anything on their own. If the starter went out on my car I bought a new one and put it in.

I have no confidence most of the younger people I've met could do that. It's a limited sample, but I don't think I've met any with a socket set even.

Plus the design of newer cars makes things like this a lot more complicated now to diagnose and repair.

2) If you can't do your own maintenance, that is a very good reason to buy a new car. And new cars have a much bigger purchase price, with wages apparently not having risen in a long time for a substantial part of America.

And that's not including gasoline, or insurance costs which I think have risen in the past decade comparably.

And the maintenance costs which I have already mentioned.

TiradeFaction said...

> Update 3: Better still, if the cars are all talking to each other via Skynet, then it will be possible to pass at high speeds on blind bends in safety, knowing that no other car is coming the other way. How awesome is that? Too bad about the cyclists and the deer - wait, we could solve that problem with fleets of small monitoring drones... Screw the truckers and the taxi-drivers, count me in :-) <

Is that last sentence sarcasm? I can't tell, since you've often expressed skepticism of automation and hesitation of the increasing surveillance state in the US.

Exhausted_Auk said...


Great post!
I do think you are underestimating the influence of used car buyers on the market. The high level of fuel taxation in Europe absolutely killed the market for larger cars there. I'm not talking so much about the BMWs and Mercedes, but things more akin to the Ford Crown Vic and Chevy Impala. The reason was that more frugal used car buyers had no interest in these gas guzzlers, and so they suffered from precipitous depreciation. Most people who buy new cars need them to have a decent trade-in value when they come to make their next purchase. If today's used car buyers exit the car market in droves, it will have a profound effect on the behaviour of new car buyers.

Stuart Staniford said...


The smiley was meant to indicate that the comment was tongue-in-cheek.

That said, I will readily confess to mixed feelings about these kinds of developments. In general, all these technology/automation type things improve the quality of life of the still-employed middle to upper classes, while making it harder and harder for folks lower down the income class to make it. Taxi-driving and truck-driving, for example, allow millions of working-class (mostly) men an adequate income to support a household. I recognize end of those career-options will be an unfortunate development, and I simply don't see a good end-game to this kind of thing as the E/P ratio for non-college folks drops lower and lower.

That said, I personally have an upper-middle class job and don't face any obvious near-term threat to my employability, so I personally benefit from these kinds of changes. And, yes, I do enjoy driving fast on windy roads.

Stuart Staniford said...


Fair point - I agree that channel exists to some degree.

Unknown said...

I see two problems:

First, a social one: why would people want to share their cars? It's one the primary pull factors for owning an automobile: your own little home, with a big shell around it to protect you from the outside world. People preferring cars because they're scared of other people will certainly not willingly agree to let total strangers into their car, in particular because what's left of social pressure to behave on public transport is absent.

Second, a technical one: I'd say that the densities (of employees, employment, roads) required to make it work basically require a city - a place where other forms of shared transport would work also.

ZZGare said...

Speaking of reduced infrastructure, how much would it save on highway construction if we eventually create long legged vehicles that can step on top of known tiny concrete pilings driven into the earth instead of acres and acres of concrete.

Also, how long before we hang wifi tags and GPS on cattle (& deer & buffalo?) that cars could detect and avoid, and eliminate all fences to get back to open range.

Ken Novak said...

Disruptive technologies grow by addressing underserved markets with services that are cheap and slightly sub-standard, but available to large numbers. (See Christensen, etc). Who are they, for self-driving cars?

- Old people, who are growing in numbers
- Children going to and from sports, etc.
- Young adults (under 25) who have other priorities and have expensive insurance
- Partiers who want to drink and get driven

Note these are not car owners -- they will use the auto-taxi fleet.

Also, many families have one status car, and one extra car (for the second earner to commute, or a van for family driving.) This second car is usually older and cheaper. It could be eliminated at great savings with self-driving fleets.

So there's a real market for these cars. But, we may wind up with gas-driven cars, with large capacity for creature comforts (think SUV-sized), that do nothing for emissions efficiency. Status and comfort for the commuter drive could drive a market instead, enabling very long commutes (while working, sleeping, or eating). In this case, emissions could increase.