How self-driving cars could make everything worse, and what to do about it

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It will require effort to get the heaven outcome? Get use to hell.

But what if the cheapest way to "park" your autonomous vehicle is to have it endlessly circle the block while you're at work?

While I’m sure that autonomous vehicles will come with social drawbacks in addition to benefits, this one seems a bit silly. Even in crowded downtown settings, you could have your car go find a parking spot a few miles out, or at worst, you could send your car home. Both would be cheaper than running a vehicle constantly.


This was created by the founder of ZipCar, a service that lets you rent a car for brief periods. The “Heaven” scenario she suggests is basically an automated car variant of her existent business model. This is the most self-serving piece of futurism I’ve seen in a long time.


It isn’t about parking parking, it’s about keeping dibs on the vehicle so you get immediate access to it later - if the car stopped, it would be available for someone else to rent.

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No, the promise of autonomous cars is to have a chauffeur you don’t have to pay a living wage to, so we can read, sleep, or get drunk while commuting to work. It’s to go to a bar and not have to worry about how to get home after a few too man tequila fanny-bangers. It’s about being able to toss Jr. into the car and have it take her to soccer practice instead of having to leave early from work and drive. It’s about being able to make calls, text, watch dvds, and generally enjoy life while traveling without it being illegal or having to take some form of public transport. The fantasy that people will give up private ownership of vehicles is one that goes against every historical transportation trend in recent history. Think of the worst vomit-scented, ejaculate stained cab you’ve ever ridden in – without a human operator, shared vehicles will be this, or worse. People want their own vehicle so that it consistently meets their own standard of cleanliness, so that they can store the belongings (tools, baby carriers and other children accessories, mid-expedition shopping purchases, etc.), so that they can set it up the way they want it – as a mobile office, or a traveling bordello, or drive-around theater. Some will want a mobile home that they can move to a new address every week, others will want an open-top convertible so they can get the wind in their hair and bugs in their teeth. Many, at least at first, won’t want automation at all, in the belief that their above-average driving skillz will keep them safer than the sheep that let the car do the driving. Some will want an uber-luxury solid-chrome radiator grille hand-made land-yacht, others the cheapest commuter vehicle that gets good mileage. Private cars are here to stay, sharing is a niche (possibly a large one, but still a niche) mostly for those in urban environments which have enough density to ensure a rich car-sharing ecology, but the vast majority will own.


I totally disagree with the idea that it’s a lot of effort, the solution is simple, if the car is not a member of a ride sharing system it cannot drive unoccupied by law, and it cannot circle regardless. In the rideshare if it’s not going to charge, back to base or to pick up a passenger it cannot drive solo. Have the fine be something upwards of $2000 or more. Hell solved.

Although I see transit-as-a-service becoming really popular, as you don’t have to own the car. I don’t want to own a car, I’d much rather have it as a service.


I disagree, I think automated cars will greatly reduce individual car ownership if we have good services that can be used. People greatly will favor lower cost and greater convenience of using a service.

There’s a lot of downsides to owning a vehicle, and all of these are things I don’t want to deal with myself. Using a service means I don’t have to pay for the car or insurance, don’t have to fuel it myself, I don’t have to worry about it getting stolen or damaged, I don’t want to carry out the routine and acute maintenance, I don’t want the hassle of finding parking when in congested areas, etc, etc.

What do I get if I own a car? I get a large metal box on wheels that I have to put a lot of money into that I only have because I need to get from place to place. I use public transit whenever I can, but the problem is the systems fail for most people because it’s woefully inadequate outside of certain parts of certain cities.

The rise of the ride sharing apps really shows that people are, in general, looking to get their transit as a service and not as something they own. Being able to push a button and 10 minutes later a car shows up to take me where I want to go sounds a lot better than ownership to me.

Plus, it’s bound to be much cheaper to use ride services than owning a car. All the expenses are going to be spread out amongst all users of a service.

If you’re worried about cleanliness, I ride public transit as much as I can. It’s not that bad. Driverless cars won’t be bad, if they do get bad and a company that handles them neglects it, well then their ridership will sag for a competitor. This is a factor that competition really does have a way of optimizing.


I’m actually quite optimistic about this. I think in the long-term the lazy/economic/sensible choice would be to not own a car even without having to force a fine on people. I’m curious what the long-term effect will be on property values as roads fall apart.


So, the problem with road use taxes is more one with electric cars rather than self-driving cars and one that is still trying to be figured out. I think if automated cars were used much more greatly with services than private individuals (which I think is likely, again with the rise of Uber, Lyft and the like) we can just tax those services based on zone-mile-use in aggregate without worrying about personal privacy issues. Private electric cars are another issue all together.

Right now, since private electric car ownership is seen as something to be encouraged they haven’t had road use taxes associated with them. The best way I see things happening for road use taxes in this case is to keep pushing the burden more and more onto those who use gasoline or diesel cars until we have a tipping point. Once we have that tipping point, we’ll need to implement a new road use tax (it could be registration fees, tolls, other taxes, something), and have that on the electric vehicles, while the gas vehicles still have a heavy road use (and now pollution) tax associated with them (keeping the fossil fuel cars higher cost than electric).

The road use tax issue extends much further than self-driving, and really only applies if the self-driving cars are electric (that’s where the issue lies, since gas versions would be paying the same road use tax). It’s more of a matter of how we want to tax electric car use.

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Well, it’s not so silly if you’ll have plenty of fuel to get back and the fuel cost (electric or gas) is cheaper than the parking around you. But having the car go to a far away parking, home, or circle will be a net social negative but a positive for the person (granted, again the fuel cost is cheaper); a tragedy of the commons type thing. We’ll get more congestion and more use of whatever fuel it’s using having them be in holding patterns or traveling unoccupied. That’s something that I think needs to be forbidden for private owners, they should be only allowed to be used to ferry passengers and not allowed to drive empty.

Yes, it doesn’t seem that investing in non-car-based transit systems is part of the plan here. Part of the reason to live in a city (as opposed to a bedroom-community suburb) is that you can get around without needing a car at all.

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Be great if you get a tax break for allowing your autonomous vehicle for use, Uber/Lyft like, while you’re not using it. Instead of taxing people for using things incorrectly, reward them for taking on the risk of supporting a new kind of mass transit system.


I think both are fine, but I do think we have to prevent zombie cars from clogging up the roads. We don’t need people creating more congestion by having empty private autonomous vehicles roaming the streets. The only real way we can prevent that is to make it illegal, and attach fines sufficient to discourage and recoup societal costs based on it.

I’d say if a rideshare company leased your private autonomous vehicle from you, it’s fair to give a bone to the owner. I, though, don’t think those companies will be leasing from private owners; I think in this case they’ll outright own the vehicles. There’s a lot less risk for the company if they have full control of the vehicle rather than letting private owners muck around with them.

Almost 50% of Americans support a political party that believes “proactive public policy” is exactly the same thing as communism (and also believes communism is bad.) Any steps toward the “heaven” scenario will be ruthlessly blocked in Washington and also state legislatures. Think about it - 1/3 of all states are still refusing free federal money to give their citizens health care. Free as in free beer.

On the other hand, I think the “hell” scenario is based on the assumption that on January 1, 2020, we all drive our cars into the landfill and rush out to buy the Toyota-HAL-9000. Because we all drive Teslas today, right? And nobody wants to feel a surge of power when they tromp down on that gas pedal. And nobody likes motorcycles. And so on.


How self-driving cars could make everything worse

Oh, that’s an easy one. Maximum Overdrive.


I don’t get these comments about having the car circle or park or go home. Surely the most likely situation is it would go off and transport someone else. When you need a vehicle again another would be dispatched to be ready when you step out of the building.

While I think the potential for greatly reduced numbers of vehicles is exciting I’m more than a little concerned about the potential for greatly increased vehicle km due to more people using passenger cars (young, old, unlicensed) and for journeys that don’t occur now but would be enabled (send the autonomous vehicle to go and pick up a pizza for you).

But I think we would have to become a lot more flexible in our working practices to avoid the need for loads of vehicles at peak times which would be idle for the rest of the time. More work from home, more public transport (which would be much more efficient with far fewer vehicles around), flexible working hours, active travel etc must be rolled out on a large scale or we’re going to be locked in to a continuing, unsustainable, car-centric future.

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Surely the most likely situation is it would go off and transport someone else.

I doubt it. A lot of my junk and maybe my dog is in the car. I hope it doesn’t drive away.

One thing that all these articles never address is why Americans will stop buying cars when sharing is cheaper. We already spend far, far more on personal vehicles than we need to. The average price of a new car is over $30,000 now. Self-driving cars are going to be far less expensive to buy, require less maintenance, and be far less expensive to operate. If we were sensitive to the price of cars today, then the average new car price would be far less than $30,000.

My prediction: cheaper cars means more cars will be sold, not fewer. When the cost per trip drops, the number of trips made will rise. I suspect that at some point, most of the cars on the road will be shuttling stuff, not people and there’s no need for those vehicles to look anything like a car today.

I think when you need to go from point A to B, you will choose from various options:

* get there in 20 minutes for $2
* 30 minutes for $1
* 45 minutes for $0.25

When I’m sending my car to the dry cleaners to get my clothes or to the UPS depot to pick up my package, I’ll go for the cheapest option because I don’t care if it takes hours. If I’m sending my kid to a soccer practice, I’ll chose the first option.

One problem I don’t see addressed is inventory for peak usage. In NYC getting a rental for a summer weekend is an Olympic sport. People take the trains far out of town to get a car. This will potentially be worse. I sometimes go kayaking on the spur of the moment. My car has most of the gear living in it during the summer. If I wasn’t sure I could get a shared vehicle with a roof rack at short notice, I’d not be a sharing customer.

The suggestion for no passengerless trips is silly, that eliminates sending Jr to soccer and having the car return to take Jr2 to dance.


Agree totally. I don’t share Robin Chase’s optimism about our ability to solve problems like this anymore.