Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Return of the Bubble Car

The driverless car meme has started to evolve in some interesting ways. After the simple joys of the robot chauffeur, the predictions of the future are now starting to focus on the real estate potential and the remodelling of the urban landscape. Much of the speculation is nonsense, but the claims made are indirectly revealing. A good example is an article in the New York Times this week entitled Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities.

Amusing claim number one: "Inner-city parking lots could become parks". The theory behind this is that autonomous vehicles, probably shared on-demand ones (i.e. Zipcar with added robot chauffeur), would deliver us to the doors of our city-centre offices and then whizz off to some remote corral, returning promptly at 5 to pick us up. It's a bit like the London Bike Scheme, but without the need to find a docking station that hasn't already been emptied. The implicit extra travel burden is easily dealt with: "Though this would increase miles driven, and thus conceivably increase gas used and congestion, driverless cars will be so efficient there may not be an increase in congestion or gas consumption". I wouldn't bother asking to see the data that backs that claim up.

Bonkers claim number two: "[The] city of the future could have narrower streets because parking spots would no longer be necessary". Where roads were laid out before mass car-ownership, parking often makes the street too narrow. Remove the parking and you would allow cars to move freely in both directions. That's a clear benefit, but one that would be promptly lost by narrowing the street. As cars stop to make deliveries, or allow passengers to alight, the flow of traffic would be halted, much as it is today. There is an argument to be made that high land values in the centre of cities would encourage the conversion of street parking - i.e. offices and shops could expand a bit - but this assumes there are lots of parking bays in situ. The higher the value of the land today, the less likely this is to be true (e.g. New Bond Street or Fifth Avenue). The big development opportunity in city centres would be to demolish and replace multi-storey car parks. In other words, they won't become parks, they'll become office blocks or flats.

Dubious claim number three: "If parking on city streets is reduced and other vehicles on roadways become smaller, homes and offices will take up that space. Today’s big-box stores and shopping malls require immense areas for parking, but without those needs, they could move further into cities". Suburban malls and retail parks work on the principle that you, the customer, will make the deliveries. With autonomous vehicles, you could schlep over to the mall and back in an on-demand car, but you could just as easily order online and have the car deliver the goods to you. The suggestion that driverless cars might arrest the decline of the high street is just an attempt to dream up pro-social benefits for what is an anti-social development. The really transformative potential of driverless cars is to turn suburban malls into "dark stores".

Worrying claim number four: "Traffic lights could be less common because hidden sensors in cars and streets coordinate traffic. And, yes, parking tickets could become a rarity since cars would be smart enough to know where they are not supposed to be". Given the pioneering work in this field by Google, and bearing in mind the recent Prism revelations, it should be obvious that driverless cars are an invasion of privacy on wheels. Not only will the car know where it is "not supposed to be", it will know precisely where you have been and where you are entitled to go. Strangely, none of the cheerleaders for driverless cars have mentioned the impact on crime, e.g. the obsolesence of the getaway driver and the joyrider. Autonomous cars mean a reduction in personal autonomy and an increase in system control. While there are genuine benefits to this, such as efficiency of travel and reduced accidents, the potential for the state to over-step the mark should be obvious.

If that sounds a touch paranoid, consider Tyler Cowen's views (common among right-wing economists) on the need for parking spaces to be charged at a realistic (i.e. expensive) market rate. Though his argument is couched in anti-subsidy and pro-environmental terms, what he's essentially proposing is that city-centre parking be the preserve of the rich. When Westminster Council tried to introduce charges for hitherto free evening and weekend parking, this was widely interpreted as an attempt to raise revenue to offset central government cuts. In fact, the gradual restriction of parking and the increase in charges has been a long-term trend under governments of both left and right, variously sold as pro-public transport and pro-environment. Parking is increasingly framed as a privilege, not as a right (a well-worn false dichotomy of neoliberalism).

Revealing claim number five: "driverless cars will allow people to live farther from their offices and that the car could become an extension of home. I could sleep in my driverless car, or have an exercise bike in the back of the car to work out on the way to work". This gets to the nub of the matter. The "car" that is envisaged here is clearly closer to a Winnebago, with bathroom and diner, despite the previous claims that pool cars will typically be smaller (as most trips involve only one or two passengers). As an "extension of home", it should be seen as just another property - a mobile pied-a-terre. There is no suggestion that this sort of convenience will be extended to those who don't work in city-centre offices, or who do manual jobs that don't necessitate recourse to an exercise bike.

As I've previously noted, the economics of driverless cars require that they be mandated by law if the major benefits are to be realised. This would be difficult to enforce nationally at a stroke, so I suspect the most likely scenario is that they first become mandatory within a city's limits. This will create a de facto border zone, opening up possibilities for the control of movement into and out of the heart of the metropolis, as well as commercial opportunities for transhipments and tolls. I imagine Boris Johnson will see some upside to this. Congestion charging and the bike scheme have familiarised us with the concept of transport zoning in London at precisely the same time that the centre of the city has morphed into an enclave for the wealthy. The domain of the robot chauffeur is already taking shape between Fulham and Shoreditch.

Many city-dwellers will find they can no longer afford their own car and will instead be obliged to use pool cars. This will be sold as a positive lifestyle choice, with the environmental benefits to the fore. With the potential for car platoons during commutes, it's possible that autonomous vehicles might in time substitute for trams and light-rail trains, and perhaps even the underground (without the need for large gaps between trains, the same passenger numbers could be transported in greater comfort and privacy). Society will be further atomised - the bubble of ear-buds and book replaced by bubble cars.

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