I was happy to be included with some fine company in the Seattle Times’ profile of “newcomers” changing the face of the city. After 15 years here, I’d quibble with the term “newcomer,” but hey. Speaking of quibbles, I’d like to revise and extend my remarks here:

And he keeps spinning visions for an even better future Seattle. “I can see a day coming when we can ban car ownership in the city, make everybody hail a driverless car to get around. They did a study on this in Singapore . . . they could have a 250,000-car fleet and the maximum wait for anyone would be 30 minutes.”

For the record I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that I want to ban cars in the city. If memory serves, I was riffing on this study from MIT, which had just come out at the time and got a lot of attention. I do think there’s a good chance that services like it will eventually have a place in lower-density areas. For major urban areas, of course, simple geometry will necessitate some kind of high-capacity transit service that doesn’t require encasing each commuter in 2,000 pounds of glass and aluminum every morning.

Anyway, the article itself was written by the delightful Fred Moody. If you haven’t read Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, do yourself a favor and get it. It’s a great way to understand this city’s psyche.

23 Replies to “A Note on Driverless Cars”

  1. Writers for this site openly talking about stuff like this in the Seattle Times is only going to do harm to the cause by building anger toward transit and urbanisation.

    1. Only if the car stalls on the streetcar track and gets demolished- which will then cause the furious car-passenger to be outvoted by a standing load of furious transit passengers.

      However, since control of the car was entirely in the (virtual) hands of a computer, upon discharge from hospital, car passenger will not have to face the certain citation- a good street rail right-of-way guarantee in Europe.

      Which will then bring about a new automated phenomenon: hands-free “Look Ma!” bicycles. At least damage to streetcars will be limited to a few scratches and some other stuff to be hosed off the side.


  2. Basic automated transportation considerations regardless of vehicle size:

    1. How does system handle sudden mechanical failure?

    2. How does it handle computer failure- usually sudden and with no warning?

    3. What happens to passengers, and the traffic they happen to be in the middle of, when above inevitable things happen?

    Honest- with present experience with both modes, might make more sense to see how much urban transportation we can teach a horse. These animals used to be able to at least get a drunken owner home.

    Mules are said to be smarter. Though they have to be convinced to do what you want them too. Have also been told by those old and rural enough to have direct experience, that a mule will decide by the pound how much they’ll pull.

    Which might also encourage passengers to exercise regularly, and to limit luggage- which airlines will also appreciate.


  3. I’ve always wondered how a driver-less car system accommodates service vehicles, repair trucks, work trucks and the tradespeople that everyone depends on. Even IF their vehicles could be integrated into the system, these trucks often have to travel well outside of the Seattle city limits in the rural areas etc. Having lived in rural areas at times in my life, I I don’t think a driver-less system could work in those kinds of conditions (deer, intermittent wireless and cell connectivity, adverse conditions, faulty/out of date maps, and off system roads/driveways). These are all questions that I think have yet to be answered.

  4. Thanks for clarifying and reiterating that the fundamental problem of cars in urban environments isn’t human error, and isn’t the fuel source, but it’s the basic allocation of space. Driverless cars solve none of those problems except possibly allowing for more optimized traffic flow and closer following distances. But parking, human-scaled street life, peak capacity needs, etc, are all failed miserably by automobiles, even if the αὐτός in question is a computer rather than a human.

    1. Zach, strong 1950’s background in Mad Magazine with a PhD in Don Martin DEMANDS!…complete with Delsarte rhetorical gesturing, angry Fester Bestertester expression, and flopped over feet..the answer to this question:

      Can’t space problem be solved with a mechanism for stacking cars on top of each other maybe twenty high to save road space? At very least, result will shortly provide sound effects that will induce Don Martin himself to return from the dead to update the website.

      Also, Archimedes and those guys will also shortly appear with suitable vaporous mystery to ascertain how one gets a single Greek word onto any website. Which would doubtless make possible sound effects like a mass impromptu driverless demolition derby in Athens.

      Which would immediately render obsolete the historic Greek practice of smashing plates and a saucers on cafe floors by way of applause.


  5. In such a system, if personal car ownership were banned, how would people go to visit out of the way areas of the state or country without mass transit? Would I be able to just wander off with such a car to places like Grandview or Port Angeles?

    1. Yeah, I was going to mention that part as well. In Europe you can get just about anywhere in a bus or train, but we aren’t Europe. There is no bus or train to the most popular hiking destinations (e. g. Snow Lake) let alone more obscure ones. One possibility is that you could simply store your car on the outside of the city. For example, there could be parking garages in Issaquah, Lynnwood and Kent. But then that requires either multiple cars, or driving through the city (or around it) to get to your destination.

      Obviously another possibility is to have lots of rental cars. Take transit to the outskirts of town, then rent a car from there. The big challenge then becomes paying for it. I know someone who uses his Prius almost exclusively for hiking. He has put over 200,000 miles on it (over many years). He has taken it up many a nasty logging road. This would be a violation of most rental car agreements. Even if that part of the deal was OK, it would have cost a lot more to rent a car (any car) do do all that driving. That being said, I don’t think the idea is so far fetched, and we are definitely moving a lot closer to it. I could easily see car co-ops (instead of rental car companies) popping up. The trickier thing is cutting down on drivers abusing a car. But I could easily see this being solved by simply tacking on surcharges based on driving behavior. If you drive a car too hard (including driving too fast on a logging road) then you pay a fee (car computers can easily monitor this). Of course, if cars have an automated driver, this eliminates this problem. This seems like it would be a long ways away, but not as farfetched as it might seem.

      To get there, you would want to improve public transit substantially. Not only in the city, but city to city. Port Angeles is actually a pretty easy problem to solve — simply run a passenger ferry from Seattle to the dock (which already exists). I would ride that thing today, actually (then rent a car and spend the day on Hurricane Ridge). Places like Grandview would require better bus or train service. But if this happened, it would be fantastic. For example, I like to visit Artist Point, which is at the end of the Mount Baker highway. This is a very long drive from Seattle, which is why I only go up there once or twice a year. But if there was a high speed line to Bellingham, followed by a cheap and easy rental car, I would love that.

    2. Point of personal experience, Point: motoring along Oregon coast a few years ago, noticed that navigator on the Acura seemed to be desperately making up its own map the farther we got from the highway.

      Have also read that one of these systems will occasionally be correct about the road, except for the short ferry crossing required for all vehicles except ones fitted with a hull and a propeller. Though this is perhaps the only advisable use for a flying car- if it could suddenly use a short runway.

      Driverless car doubtless safest in places with no other wheeled traffic at all, just hooves and paws, which can either run or climb trees to escape. But for every vehicle with driverless capability, human driver should have to demonstrate skill of being able to take over the control at a nanosecond notice- same as the speed with which a computer generally fails.

      But whole technology could use a discovery by the Acme Rocket Assisted Skateboard Corporation back in the 1930’s: the natural ability to keep traveling in a straight trajectory until person, animal, or vehicle discovers that it has run off a cliff.

      Parachute can then be engaged with minimal leisurely effort. After which result will depend on whether the mechanism was bought from the Acme company.

      “Yawoooohoooohoooohooooo….!” As my late partner Wiley would often say.


  6. Thanks for the recommendation of Moody’s book — I’ll try and get that from the library someday. I read Skid Road (by Murray Morgan) years ago and enjoyed it. It is always interesting to read about a city that, in my estimation, punches about its weight. By that I mean Seattle has often felt a bit bush league (although less so over the years) while some interesting things have happened here (and its style was quite rough and tumble). I think the best book I’ve read about Seattle was Still Life with Woodpecker. it didn’t focus just on the city, but the chapter that mentioned life in the city was pretty much spot on. Interestingly enough, that world has pretty much disappeared. We have reinvented ourselves, like any big city — maybe we aren’t so bush league after all.

  7. As far as automated cars go, I could see things going two ways with them. The first would be good for transit. It would mean they basically replace taxi drivers. Given the cost, this seems like a logical step. Very few people would pay an extra fifty grand for an automated driving feature, but for a cab company it would pay for itself very quickly. Cheaper cabs means fewer drivers, and a city that functions like New York.

    The other possibility is that it simply becomes another fancy luxury item. I think BMW is playing around with this idea. You drive when the driving is tricky, but switch to “auto” mode when it isn’t. It can help you park, or give you complete “cruise control” on the freeway. This could encourage more driving, and more car ownership, not less. One of the big advantages to taking the bus is that you can interact with your computer (and that includes a smart phone). It might cost a bit more time, but it isn’t dead time. But if you can do the same thing on your drive to work, then this advantage goes away.

    I think as long as it is expensive, the first situation is more likely. Then again, that requires cities to allow it. One of the stated objections to having too many cabs in a city is that it can clog up the streets. But that objection is based on cabs being hailed, or cabs double parking while they pick up someone or drop someone off. That would be pretty easy to regulate against, actually. The problem becomes one of finding parking — even temporary parking. To address the situation, cities would have to do some work (e. g. provide a few more load-unload parking spots). It wouldn’t surprise me if cities simply drag their feet on the issue, and hold back a technology that could greatly reduce car ownership.

  8. What about energy?

    Mass adoption of driverless taxis maybe (maybe!) solves the problem of more auto throughput in less road space (at the expense of anyone else being able to use that space — yet another pushcart war), it probably solves the most pressing safety problems, it probably requires less total space devoted to parking and allows that space to be located farther from destinations (though there’s still a pick-up/drop-off problem, which you’ll know if you’ve ever seen a truly busy suburban train station, i.e. not one on the US west coast, at kiss-and-ride time — airport terminal roads are a more modern solution for places with lots of all-day pick-ups and drop-offs, and you can hardly consider that a utopian urban vision).

    But what’s the energy source that lets us operate a fleet of single-occupant vehicles like this over the distances that form of transportation allows (if you believe ubiquitous, hands-free automobility will shorten typical travel distances I have a bridge to sell you, one that crosses the Skykomish River), for a growing population? What’s the energy source that lets us build all these large vehicles, and source the materials they use?

    A driverless car utopia, as opposed to just a few driverless cars navigating the roads — akin to the difference between having cars navigate existing city streets and developing new kinds of roads and urban forms around them — requires booting all other users from high-capacity driverless roads and interchanges, and I think that’s a real problem for urbanism. Mass driverless car adoption concentrates vehicle traffic around busy building entrances instead of dispersing it across parking lots (the difference between stadium parking lots and airport terminal roads) and I think that’s a real problem for urbanism (pick-up and drop-off areas may be the parking lots of driverless car-oriented cities). But the serious problem is that driverless cars aren’t much more energy-efficient than ones with human drivers — certainly not the improvement that we need going forward. We don’t have a clean, abundant, reliable source of energy. When we do, dream on. Until then high-energy-use mobility misses the point.

    1. I mentioned some of those issues with my previous post (I think we were typing at the same time). I think automated cars could actually perform better at airport terminals because they could all be programmed to follow the same rules. There would be congestion, but more cars all crawling at 2 MPH, instead of some cars being completely stopped, while others lurch forward. Part of the problem with airport terminals (and similar situations) is that people aren’t sure what the other guy is going to do, or wants to do, or how much they can get away with. This could all be eliminated.

      But regardless, I think the idea is not that automated cars simply replace regular cars, but that automated cars also represent a small subset of the trips taken. Again, I think New York serves as a good example. I am talking about an idealized New York, really. Imagine New York without private vehicles (that really isn’t a huge stretch). Now imagine if we had invested in subway improvements that we should have invested in years ago. The vast majority of riders take public transit, and the cabs simply supplement them.

      1. Airport pick-up/drop-off areas are surprisingly safe, considering the number of vehicles going through and trying to park in them, and the number of people near the vehicles. But they require a large amount of space in a massively anti-urban arrangement. Crossing on foot or traveling along the corridor by bike would be insane, and even automotive through-traffic has an entirely separate limited-access road to do it on.

        So consider the implications of other sorts of popular destinations needing this level of pick-up/drop-off access. Office towers; apartment buildings; stadiums; shopping centers; churches. Traditional buildings (of all these sorts!) are oriented toward public street access; newer ones are oriented toward their parking lots or garages. Buildings of this future world would be oriented toward their automated pick-up/drop-off areas, which would be essentially off-limits to any other sort of vehicle. And access from public streets, supporting walkability? Consider SeaTac’s public street access (it’s… not exactly the most prominent access), and then that it’s one of the few major airports whose terminal even can be directly accessed from a public street!

        If automated personal vehicles are significantly cheaper than taxis, cheap enough for the masses to use for daily errands, why would this result in the kind of denser, more walkable living arrangements where mass transit actually works? We’re talking here about technology making trips of any length, from anywhere urban/suburban to anywhere else urban/suburban safer, more reliable, and more convenient than driving is today. You can spend your time working or browsing Facebook instead of paying attention to the road, which should increase people’s tolerance for long trips! There are benefits to such an arrangement, just like there were benefits to mass motorization when that happened, but more urban consolidation is the opposite of what you’d expect. New York looks like it does because of the trains, not the taxis… and mass motorization only spared New York’s trains (as in other big cities) because of the legacy of its dense and productive core. Cheaper and more efficient taxis, without draconian suppression of private cars, would erode support for mass transit in newer cities, not boost it… especially as the urban form changes to support the taxis in pedestrian-hostile ways.

      2. Speaking of idealized New York, it seems to me that there are densities and then there
        are densities. Manhattan and some parts of other boroughs may fit the ideal, but a lot
        of the Big Apple is just about as problematic as great swaths of American suburbia around
        other major cities.

        Living in a dense and pretty well transit-served neighborhood in Seattle, I am so often
        aware of the real problems of an automobile free life so long as friends and relatives continue to live out in the burbs–or even, gasp, Laurelhurst after 7 pm.

      3. No matter how cheap taxis get, as long as transit has a dedicated right-of-way that always moves, while the cheap taxis are crawling along at 2 mph, the demand for mass transit will always be there.

        Autonomous taxis cannot solve New York’s traffic problems because the road space that any any car – autonomous or not – will consume is still a problem.

  9. Thanks for the clarification.

    I was told by someone who should know that our local excuse for a daily paper (now going by the name of Oregonian media group) pays its staff based on how many comments they generate on the web site. If that is the philosophy of the press these days, be prepared for any quotes to be edits and misconstrued to generate the most inflammatory responses possible.

    1. It’s just an extension of what the mainstream press has done for decades: focus on sensational articles that generate a lot of views for advertisers. It ends up distorting people’s perception of what’s going on. People see a terrorist or rapist around every corner, they think celeberty news is all that’s happening and don’t hear about more important things that affect their lives, they know a lot about the US and little about other countries, and they know more about national or regional cities than their own town.

  10. I’m still waiting for the driverless system that can safely and accurately follow the instructions of a traffic cop at an accident site or a construction flagger. And can follow detour signs around an unexpected road closure. Or maneuver at night during a power blackout. Until then, I suggest we not spend too much time designing urban futures around driverless automobiles.

    1. We didn’t wait for human drivers to be able to do these things well to start designing around human-driven cars — pretty much everywhere cars are introduced the first generation that drives causes a horrific amount of death and destruction. Then a combination of education, adjustment, and engineering gets the damage down to a level we, for some reason, tolerate.

      The automated vehicles are, at least, very good at understanding their capabilities and conditions, and at not running into stuff. It’s a matter of time before they can mostly get around without capable drivers on board, and if they prove themselves useful the infrastructure will adjust as much as the cars themselves. So… we’d better be thinking about urban futures before the cars are done. They’re coming whether they’re done or not.

      1. Question, Al: Who told the cars to start making themselves in the first place? Just curious.


      2. Mark, I have no earthly idea what you’re getting at. People make and consume cars, like anything else. They make them if they can profit doing it, and they buy and drive them if it benefits them in the moment without regard to longer-term or external impacts or trends. All I’m saying is we’ve got to think about those trends.

        I don’t think anyone had traffic jams in mind in the early days of American car culture. Or the terrible highway structures we’d build to try to escape them, or the isolated form the new cities built with automobility as an assumption would take. Kids used to cruise around town to be seen on the main drag. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a promenade for drivers into some project for Pittsburgh that never got built with a similar idea in mind. Today you’d be honked at if not run off the road! And the cars themselves have taken on sinister, dystopian appearances, they just look mean, I’m not sure anyone predicted that exactly. In the space of a generation children lost the ability to navigate their own towns and parents became chauffeurs. I don’t think anyone anticipated that.

        The thing is, whatever we think are the big “gotcha” flaws of automated vehicles, if they become useful enough, people will use them, and people will profit making them. If they’re useful enough we’ll partially remake our cities around them (and totally make new ones around them) even if some of the things we think of as big problems today are never fully addressed. That’s why we’d better put on our futurist hats and think hard about the implications of automated vehicles, and not put our heads in the sand and pretend they aren’t coming just because we think they can’t understand a human directing traffic. Nobody did the math on how big parking lots would have to be when we first dreamed of auto-utopia. Maybe this time we can do the math on how big drop-off areas will have to be when we dream of robo-taxi-utopia.

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