Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Who wants a driverless car?

Jerry Stratton, April 19, 2017

Maximum Overdrive semi: The Happy Toyz clown semi from Maximum Overdrive.; Stephen King

Is this what self-driving cars mean?

There are a lot of people in the car-talk industry wondering what will happen when driverless cars are perfected. A lot of people looking back fondly on their own car ownership, and wondering why kids today don’t care so much about owning a car.

Shelia Dunn on the NMA blog asked, “do you want a driverless car?

I’m not a control freak by any means but I bristle when I read that the driverless car is inevitable—a foregone conclusion. Is it just me or does anyone else feel like that the driverless car is being crammed down our throats at a break-neck pace by over-zealous techies who think that the driverless car is really cool, so we must all want one too?

I agree with Dunn that the current push for driverless cars is an artificial one. It may actually delay their acceptance, especially if the driverless cars pushed on us aren’t as safe as they need to be. I especially think that most people probably don’t want their own car to be driverless.

But think about the steps toward the driverless car. Think about all of your friends who hate parallel parking. Think about all the parallel parking spaces you’ve seen that were big enough for your car, but too small to ease into. A driverless car that works would be able to park in those spaces, spaces you would never be able to park yourself.

And what about taxi service? Would you prefer your taxi to be driven by a human or by a reliable computer? If you had the choice in some future city, which would you choose? Personally, I’d prefer to drive my own car, but I’d definitely prefer my taxi to be automatic.

Especially if it’s cheaper. How much of a taxi driver’s cost goes to maintaining the car, and how much to the driver and the driver’s managers? Only the maintenance cost remains with driverless cars. All of the costs that come with hiring and maintaining drivers disappear.

How much of the inconvenience of taking a taxi goes to finding one when you need one, with a driver who is reliable enough to get you where you need to go on time?

Driverless cars also solve several other parking issues. Imagine parking your car in the 15-minute loading zone right out front of where you need to be… and it’s programmed to leave and find a better parking space on its own, and return when you need it.

Or instead of leaving your car in the airport parking lot, you drive to the airport, get out in front of the terminal, and your car drives itself home, parks itself in your garage, and comes to pick you up a week or two later, knowing from your phone that you just landed and will be out front in about fifteen minutes?

A truly driverless car is where you need it when you need it. How much would you pay for that?

Or for the ability to devote all of your attention to an important phone call, or your kids, by turning the car over to autopilot?

Or, when your car needs service, have it drive itself to the garage and back, instead of you having to juggle dropping the car off at the garage for its regular tuneup with getting to work, getting the kids to school?

Much of what passes for carpooling today consists of making sure everyone’s car is in the right place at the end of the night. When cars can drive themselves home unattended and pick you up automatically, that goes away. Dropping the kids off for school after you need to be at work, and then picking them up before you can leave work? Cars that drive themselves make this a non-problem.

Driverless cars will be one of those things whose uses we don’t even imagine yet. There are so many things we do because we have to work around managing baggage several times bigger than we are and far too heavy to lift. And so many things we don’t even imagine because it isn’t possible to juggle the transportation of one or two vehicles and three or four people to and from five or six places.

And those are all assuming that car ownership remains a thing in the world of driverless cars. Think about why you own a car. I mean, think deeply about it. Why do you go to all the trouble of dealing with the ongoing paperwork, taxes, and management of owning your own car? Most likely, it isn’t because you want to own a car, but because you want to be able to do things for which having a car on hand makes possible.

Driverless cars mean you don’t have to own a car to always have one on hand. With driverless cars, what’s to stop us from always using a rental service? The benefits of rentals go up, and the cost goes down.

You probably won’t even need insurance for rentals of this type: you don’t own the car, and you don’t drive the car.

It’ll be more like having a personal taxi service.

Owning a car is a hassle, and more of a hassle today than it was yesterday. Those of us who are used to owning a car put up with the hassles. But if we were coming at the decision fresh fewer of us would. Sally Dunn’s feared push toward driverless cars goes much further than government pushing the technology. There’s a reason younger people don’t find cars as attractive as do people from earlier generations, and it has nothing to with public transportation. Public transportation remains chaotic and unreliable.

Red bumper car: Bumper car at St. Louis Museum of History.; St. Louis; amusement parks

What steering wheels will someday evoke.

What’s changed is that government regulations discourage car ownership. Insurance costs rise because of government regulations. Because courts encourage lawsuits. Government fees are rising.1 The cost of cars themselves are probably twice or more what they should be, because government regulations impose solutions, and even get rid of older, less expensive cars. A kid can’t buy a twenty-year-old car like I did in 1984. They were destroyed under cash-for-clunkers, which should have been called out-price-car-for-kids-and-poor. Further, the government-mandated parts wear out and make cars undriveable. And further yet, those regulations reduce the choices we have; most cars look alike today and have similar feature sets because of those regulations.

Meanwhile, Stephen Green wrote about the steering wheel:

I don’t care who builds it or how intelligent the automation is—it’s going to be a long time before I get into a car with no steering wheel.

He expanded on it later:

Being behind the wheel is being in control of your own destiny—so it’s easy now to see it being mandated out of existence.

As much as I agree with Stephen Green about the need, or at least my desire, for a steering wheel, I can’t see how it stays in self-driving cars once they’re actually self-driving. Steering wheels take up a lot of space that could otherwise be used by the passenger; if you are in the market for a self-driving car, you are in the market as someone who wants to do something other than drive the car. Steering wheels will get in the way of whatever else it is driverless-car buyers want to do.

Even if only a small percentage of people want driverless cars, which is very unlikely, that small percentage will almost all prefer that space not be wasted on a steering wheel.

They don’t just waste space. Steering wheels are dangerous in accidents, and perversely at the same time get in the way of the safety features regulators love to require. “Driver”-side air bags will be a lot safer when they don’t have to be designed around the steering wheel.

At best, steering wheels will transform into something other than wheels—buttons off to the side, or somehow combined with an also diminished gearshift.

But even those of us who want the steering wheel will probably forego it. If we have self-driving cars so good that they don’t need steering wheels, I think most people won’t even own a car. They’ll just rent one for the necessary duration. Remember, the car can drive itself to wherever a person needs it and it can drive itself back if they don’t want it for any duration in between—no more need to rent a car for two weeks when going on vacation when all you need it for is getting there and getting back.

What’s the benefit in owning your own car when you can requisition any car you might want at the moment to pick you up where you are at the moment? Instead of having to choose between one or two types of vehicles, you can have a minivan when you need a minivan, a sedan when you need a sedan, a pickup when you need a pickup.

You can have whatever car you want, and when you’re done with it, it goes away. It doesn’t take up any resources, space for storage, time to maintain, or money for either.

Driverless cars turn cars into software. When cars are a service rather than a thing that you own, they can be a truck when you need hauling, a subcompact when you need to park, an SUV when it’s time to haul the kids around, and a sedan when you need to travel to another city. Think about that, and what it does to short-hop air travel when the transportation to a nearby city comes to you and drops you off exactly where you need to be.

When predicting the future, don’t look at what people lose from an option. Look at what people gain from it. That’s how to know if a change will be successful. When driverless cars finally exist, they will completely change transportation, both personal and mass.

  1. Gas taxes are a huge part of the cost of gasoline: the federal government imposes an additional 18.4 cents per gallon, and states add anywhere from nineteen cents to fifty-eight cents. And they’re still going up. California just jumped into second place by adding a 12-cent per-gallon increase to the already-high fifty-six cents extra their drivers pay at the pump.

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