On Valentine’s Day, one of the 40 self-driving Google cars on the streets of Mountain View, California crashed into a bus. While this was not the first accident involving a self-driving car, it was the first time Google admitted fault. Calling it a “tricky set of circumstances” that has “helped us improve an important skill” for navigating wide boulevards, Google conceded that it was their autonomous vehicle that made contact with the city bus.
Regardless of hiccups like this—and perhaps, precisely because of hiccups like this—interest in the future of the automobile in America is growing. Writing for The Atlantic, Edward Humes argues that “no part of daily life wastes more energy and, by extension, more money than the modern automobile.” Contrasted with other forms of transportation, however, cars are the “epitome of convenience,” which explains something about our continued dependence upon them.
According to Humes, the economic, environmental, and human costs of this convenience are significant, though frequently hidden. The first is the least hidden: the average car in America sits idle 92% of the time, and the “average car owner in the U.S. pays $12,544 a year for a car that puts in a mere 14-hour workweek.” The annual cost jumps nearly $2000 for owners of SUVs. This makes cars both inefficient and expensive.
More hidden and also more costly are the environmental impacts of our car-saturated society. Whereas some are prone to blame air travel for the lion’s share of pollution, Humes points out that air travel contributes “only 8 percent of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gases.” Cars and trucks, on the other hand, account for a whopping 83 percent.
But there’s more. The loss of human life directly attributable to driving amounts to a “quiet catastrophe,” according to National Safety Council statistics chief Ken Kolosh. In 2015 alone, the average number of traffic-related casualties in the U.S. exceeded 3,000 per month, making car crashes the leading cause of death for Americans between ages 1 and 39.
In Martin Belam’s view, we are likely living in the “middle ages of mechanized personal transport.” And the primary thing that will be transformed by autonomous vehicles is the city itself. Standing on a street corner in London, Belam “watched cars whizz by, spewing out fumes that we know are toxic, and burning fossil fuels that costs us millions to extract from the ground.” This prompted him to reflect:
It struck me how awful and primitive that is going to look in a museum display in a hundred years’ time. People stuck in movable boxes polluting the air, taking up all the space in our cities. The display will calmly inform people that by the early 21st century, thanks to huge efforts expended on safety measures, only around four people every day died on the UK’s roads due to cars.
In Belam’s view, the endgame regarding driverless cars is more certain than the near future. He believes we’re entering what he calls the “awkward decades” where driverless cars will intermingle with standard automobiles. In the future, however, the possibilities for transforming urban spaces in particular are many:
Take traffic lights. You’ll still need road-crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, but in a world where every vehicle is controlled by computers, algorithms should be able to feed vehicles through junctions faster. No more sitting at the lights waiting while literally nothing wants to cross your path. The need for traffic lights gradually fades away, in the same way that we no longer have inns where you can pick up fresh horses. Motorway junction design, roundabouts, urban parking spaces: all of these things could and will be profoundly changed.
The effects that autonomous vehicles would have on the workplace are less than clear. Given the duration of the typical commute from San Francisco to the tech-hubs of Silicon Valley and the push to “optimize” one’s life through technological developments, it is not surprising that autonomous vehicles are being designed in the Bay area. As this brief piece for the Washington Post makes clear, though the average commute in America varies widely (averaging out to 26 minutes each way), it is consistently listed among the least desirable aspects of the working day. As Christopher Ingraham reports:
This is a terrible way to live. People hate their commutes more than just about any other activity in their lives. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger asked a group of 900 Texas women to rate how they felt during various daily activities and found that the morning commute came in dead-last in terms of positive emotions, behind work, child care, and home chores.
The emergence of autonomous vehicles promises to transform this drudgery into productive time. The question is: does this humanize the workday, or simply extend it? If you can no longer plead ignorance of early-morning emails due to the fact that you were driving to work, are autonomous vehicles simply one step closer to a culture of total work?
The future of cars in America is anything but clear. Perhaps the largest challenge proponents of autonomous vehicles will face is cultural in nature: for many Americans, cars are not mere means of transportation. They are not a problem to be “hacked” through technological innovation. They are, for many, signs of our commitment to basic ideals of liberty and self-expression. What and how one drives are indications of deeply held convictions about personal identity and individual autonomy. In this way, driving is akin to dressing: it’s something we do every day, but this only amplifies the need to do it well—and with style.