Still Looking for That Magic Highway

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re thinking about the reinvention of cars. At his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent has written a two-part piece about how best to enable innovation in car design. His starting point is a review in The American Prospect of a new book called Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century,
which takes a gung-ho approach to futuristic, nimble, hyperconnected
vehicles that will essentially drive themselves. It’s a dream that goes
back generations, and it’s still quite robust.

 

In his first post on the topic, Avent framed the problem this way:

Every weekday, tens of millions of Americans get into vehicles that are
full of passenger space which won’t be used, with engines capable of
horsepower and speeds that won’t be attained, holding fuel tanks that
could power the car for distances that won’t be traveled. The result of
all this over-engineering is that cars cost way more than a vehicle for
daily commuting need cost, and they consume way more energy than a
vehicle for daily commuting need consume. This all adds up to a
remarkable waste of resources, even before you begin talking about
things like congestion. Why are we stuck in this wasteful equilibrium?

Avent
goes on to suggest that because there is no road space in which to use
radically redesigned cars, innovation is stifled. He writes that one
solution would be to create "open roads" — city streets where more
experimental vehicles could be used, allowing entrepreneurial
manufacturers to try out more efficient, lightweight and intelligent
designs without having to meet the current requirements for
roadworthiness. He also argues that waiting for a top-down
reconfiguration of streets and highways to accommodate the
hypothetically smarter cars of the future is not a workable option.

In his second post, Avent addresses commenters who take issue with his premise:

What you want to do is create a space where firms can experiment
with new designs and compete for customers. That’s hard to do, when the
rules of the road have been determined and institutionally reinforced
over the course of a century. But I think it needs to be done. The
reason we’re all stuck with the car is that there’s no road space
available in which alternatives can operate and potentially thrive.
Apple can’t sell millions of little iCars, because there’s no place for
buyers to use them. They’d have to sell plain old cars, which is an old
and tired business, gradual shift in propulsion notwithstanding. Create
space for innovative new designs, and you’ll get innovative new designs.

The
question is, of course, where is that space going to come from? It
seems unlikely that drivers of conventional vehicles will give it up
easily. Taking a lane, or a sidewalk, from bikes or pedestrians seems a
lot more probable politically. That was what the folks at GM suggested
doing with the PUMA,
their most recent prototype for a reconsidered "personal mobility
device." (One of the authors of "Reinventing the Automobile," Christopher Borroni-Bird, is also not-so-coincidentally one of the GM execs behind the PUMA.)

And
the scenario of lots of little experimental cars zooming around at
speeds of 30 miles an hour or so in an urban or suburban environment is
rather terrifying, even if they’re all quite beautifully designed.
Because while the dream of removing the human element from the piloting
of a car remains, the attainment of that dream seems still very far
away. Drivers are drivers. Drivers are human. And far too many are like
the ones Sustainable Savannah discusses in a post today — people who say things like this:

"People can do what they want while they drive. The state
representatives cannot stop anyone from reading and responding to text
messages. It is neither their phone nor their car, so they should back
off."

That’s an attitude that technology is never going to solve — unless humans are entirely removed from the driving equation.

We’re
interested in hearing what you have to say about this question, and
about Avent’s thoughts on the subject. Let us know in the comments.

  • Anyone that discounts, out of hand, the practicality of already existing devices like the bicycle for urban transportation should likewise be discounted in their opinions. The author of these blog posts intentionally chooses to discount or ignore devices and means of locomotion that have proven they can work to solve the very problems the author is concerned with!

  • “Radiant heat will keep the highway surfaces dry . . .”
    —–

    Wow, they knew about climate change even back then! :)

  • I like to mix margaritas while I drive. Government, stay out of my car.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Photo: Credit Now Auto Sales
STREETSBLOG USA

What Comes After the Auto Bubble?

|
Vehicle travel in the United States has experienced a resurgence in the last two-and-a-half years, following an unprecedented decade-long per-capita decline in driving. Low gas prices are likely a big reason why; recent increases in incomes and employment as well. But an additional factor has been relatively unexplored: the effect of changes in credit markets on vehicle purchasing and ownership.
STREETSBLOG USA

Driving While Human

|
Our local paper recently ran the story of Edith Cameron, killed in a car crash on a road we sometimes use. We anxiously scanned the column looking for that something that one of the drivers involved must have done wrong—the thing that we surely would never do, like hit the road without a seatbelt or […]

City Considering Free Parking for Zero Emission Vehicles

|
Only the more rare white stickers would get the free parking benefit. Some ideas just refuse to die.  Less than a year after the City of Los Angeles moved to end it’s free-meter parking for hybrids program, a new proposal to allow only the highest tech and cleanest cars to park for free has resurfaced.  […]