Imagine this: you want to go somewhere across town, so you tell your phone. A few minutes later, your phone tells you that the car is waiting. You go outside and get in, and spend the trip finishing the movie you were watching before you left. You are feeling lazy; you know you could be working, but you don’t feel like it.
The car travels at about forty kilometres per hour, faster on freeways, slower when the traffic is complicated. It is a networked robocar, hooked in to the traffic plan of the entire city. By making tiny adjustments in its speed, it is able to smoothly integrate itself into the traffic flow at every intersection, every roundabout. The only time it comes to a stop is when an unexpected pedestrian crosses the street. It doesn’t need to stop for pedestrians crossing at lights: that’s timed into the traffic flow. The electric energy required to make the journey is about half the amount that used to be required in the early twenty-first century when the typical fuel was oil-based. Even though the traffic is heavier than it has ever been, even though your car’s top speed is relatively low, your trip is faster than it ever was in the old days. The car stops outside your destination, you get out, it takes itself on to its next assignment.
Once upon a time you couldn’t make that trip without ‘driving’ the car. This means you had to have a ‘driving license’. You had to concentrate; you had to steer; you had to brake and accelerate; you had to change lanes, forcing your way between vehicles driven by other people, people who didn’t want you to be there because your presence on the road was directly related to their difficulty in reaching their destination. To drive your vehicle you had to know where you were going and make irritating choices about the best way to get there. If you made a mistake while driving, you might have an accident, and accidents were then about a hundred times more frequent than they are now. Even worse, because the accidents of the past often took place at higher speeds between much heavier vehicles (because, in the old world, where everything was stop-start-stop, the collision speed was often a net 100km per hour, or even higher), the rate of injuries and fatalities was one thousand times as much as it is now.
So now it’s safer, much safer, and so much easier as to be laughably easy. Anyone can take a car. But that’s not all. Once upon a time, you couldn’t take a car unless you owned a car, or you were prepared to pay a frightening high fee to ‘hire a taxi’. The taxi fee was so high that people generally only used to pay it when they had no choice. Most people ‘bought a car’, and that meant they were saddled with a car all the time. They had to give up part of their home to house their car. Their car sat in their home, doing nothing except losing value, for 90% to 95% of the time, or maybe it spent 60% of its time at home and 30% to 35% in a parking lot somewhere else, but the weird thing was, most of these cars spent most of their time doing nothing at all, but that was the only way people could be sure that when they wanted to use a car, one would be there for them.
Because most cars were actually moving people around for only 5% to 10% of the time, this meant that there used to be about seven times as many cars as there are now. The reduction in car numbers would have been even higher, except that cars are effectively more available than ever before, and have been used to replace some of the less efficient mass-transit systems of the past, giving more people access to individualised transport than ever. Cars these days spend about 50% of their time transporting passengers, 20% repositioning themselves, 20% doing nothing, and 10% in maintenance and recharging.
Streets used to be jammed with parked cars, particularly around popular destinations. Effectively, this made most city roads much narrower than they are now, because one or two lanes were always blocked with parked cars, cars doing nothing at all except getting in the way.
Getting rid of all the excess cars made a huge difference to traffic problems. In the old suburbs of the inner city, little streets and lanes that had become clogged with parked vehicles emptied out, and the historic streets once again looked like places for people. And the big roads that had not been big enough for the traffic seemed suddenly larger, because the parked cars had vanished.
Now instead of one car for every two people, there is only one car for fourteen, but because they are shared and networked, always working and on-call, there is always a car available for everyone, everywhere. The total sum of money invested in cars has gone way down: it is less than a quarter of what it used to be. This is why everyone can afford to call a car when they need one. In fact, the car network provides cars at multiple price-points: some people only want the best, and others only want the cheapest.
Let’s have a look at how cars changed as we made this wonderful transition:
- They went electric: no more hazardous exhaust gases; much less noise. This did not eliminate carbon pollution — the batteries that ran the cars still needed to be charged — but it did reduce the problem, as power stations produce less carbon pollution per unit of energy than the old-fashioned cars.
- They became lighter: because of the changed travelling conditions, the requirements for acceleration/deceleration and (theoretical) maximum speed were much reduced. All the functional engineering components became smaller and lighter in response. Many elements of the driving interface disappeared. All this did reduce carbon pollution, because the lighter cars took less energy to make, maintain and use.
- Cabin space was refocused on providing the optimal passenger experience. Wifi and internet capability improved. The car became a travelling office or lounge room.
- Design refocused on safety and durability (to some extent, this militated against the trend to lighter vehicles).
- Design responded rapidly to the constant data collection about passenger numbers, travel purposes and luggage requirements. A large part of the fleet was remodelled to cater for the typical work-related trip: one passenger with little luggage. Special purpose vehicles were designed to cater for shopping expeditions, tourism, family outings, long distance journeys and so on. Instead of people buying one car that had to be designed generally for all purposes, they could order a vehicle that was specifically designed for the purpose of their trip. This improved the quality of the transport service provided and enhanced efficiency. For example, the single-person car (suitable for 70% of journeys taken) was much smaller, more manoeuvrable, efficient and inexpensive than the four-person vehicles that used to be used for this purpose.
I have already mentioned the fundamental environmental impact of this change: fewer cars, emptier streets. Of course this flowed on to other wonderful effects: with less street space devoted to cars, more could be given to pedestrians and bicycles, to housing and to parks. Cities became much prettier.
What a marvellous scenario. What’s wrong with it? We need an engineer to tell us how I have got it wrong in the details, but that is not the objection that counts. Engineers will agree in general terms with the technical feasibility of this plan, and can probably imagine a dozen ways in which it could be even better.
The problem with this scenario is that, wonderful as it is, it will never happen — not because it is impossible but because the political realities are stacked so heavily against it. Chances are good that while you were reading this flight of fancy you were already thinking that it would never happen. Here are a few reasons why:
- Some people just love their cars. They love the smell of petrol; they have bought into the idea that a car is a pleasure and an extension of themselves; they believe that they are liberated and empowered by the car they own. For a sizeable part of the population, no argument or evidence, would ever persuade them that a networked robocar could replace the car they drive themselves. They are not interested in how the transport system works for everyone; of paramount importance to them is their personal experience. The argument that their personal experience would be better in the new networked model will not convince. This is a killer problem, because the one thing the car network won’t cope with particularly well is lots of unnetworked vehicles moving uncooperatively with the system.
- Cars, roads, and fuel are big business. Although it would be wonderful for the economy as a whole to spend less on these things, there is a very big vested interest in continuing the way we are. It would be the easiest thing in the world to run a scare campaign that spending less on cars, roads and fuel would destroy jobs and wealth. That’s false, of course: all the money saved would be spent somewhere else, creating new and different jobs and wealth. But those currently made wealthy by cars, roads and fuel might lose out in the changeover, and they will never go down without a fight. The leaders of these industries will have natural allies in all the workers they employ.
- Some people will be sceptical of the ability of networked robocars to provide the level of service and safety described here. Their fears will be stimulated by the two self-interested groups already listed above, and by media outlets that thrive on negative stories. Worse, their fears will be justified by the behaviour of the next two groups I mention below.
- Government will be incapable of regulating the changeover to this new system. It is too complex, and it must be negotiated against the wishes of some powerful interest groups. The pathway from the current state to the new state is not one that can be negotiated without creating both winners and losers, but modern democracies are rarely capable of pushing through reforms of that kind. An array of special interests will overwrite the potential picture of general advancement with a tangle of compromises, offsets, half-measures, compensatory schemes, absurd red tape and unsustainable bureaucracy.
- The corporations capable of building the new system will not be doing so for the public good but because they can make a profit from it, and in their effort to maximise the profit, they will bugger the public good. Instead of the economic benefit flowing to the public, it will be captured by a narrow corporate sector. While it is not a requirement of the networked robocar system that everything be run by a monopoly, that will be the tendency, and the prices paid by consumers will tend to rise above the price they should be paying. The Internet is a public asset that belongs to everyone, but the consumer reality is soul-selling Facebook served up to us on overpriced smartphones owned by Apple and Google. If and when we do get robocars, we won’t get the paradise I imagined above. We will get overpriced and undermaintained vehicles plastered with irritating advertising, and we will know that all the private details of our travel have been on-sold to other corporate vampires who will use it to invade our space and mess with our heads. Couldn’t the government save us from that fate? Yes, but no: see the preceding dot point.
- Last, but not least, there will be real fears that the networked robocar system will include dangerous threats to our individual privacy and our public security. What will happen if malign agents hack into the network? If the system crashes, how do we recover? How do we ensure that the transportation data are safe? What if the government uses the information about our movements to spy on us? These are technical problems with technical solutions, but there will be plenty of people to play up these fears and to highlight the uncertainties surrounding these issues. Faced with uncertainties, there is a strong human tendency to bear the ills we have rather than risk flying to others that we know not of. The benefits of change will be discounted; the risks overestimated. The public will shiver and say no.
This little piece is about cars, but it could have been about any number of things. It could have been about the organisation of waste collection, the health system, school education, university research funding, or the eradication of poverty.
Visionary pictures of how things could be better are not hard. You might say the devil is in the detail, but the details are technical, and they have technical answers that can be found. The devil is in the political process and the competition of sectional interests.
We live in a world that is full of wealth, technical capability, and scientific knowledge. Paradise on earth is technically possible and tantalisingly close. So is disaster, conflict and ruin. Do we have it in us to debate with goodwill and find the optimistic consensus required to build a better future?