Self-driving—or autonomous—cars have usually been greeted with suspicion at best, but the fact that Google is currently road-testing their driverless car since 2012 with an essentially perfect safety record has many people starting to think that this science fiction dream might become a reality sooner rather than later.
To borrow a turn of phrase from Jim Kunstler, this is an enormous misallocation of resources. I would welcome the increased safety from car terrorism, but this will only make a minimal impact on the car-centred design of far too many cities, particularly in North America. Suburban sprawl—to now properly use Kunstler’s aforementioned phrase—is the the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known.1
Driverless cars do have some things going for them. It’s easy to imagine a near-future in which car ownership is no longer required, where some amalgam of Uber and a car co-op lets you quickly call a driverless car to take you from point A to point B. A post-car ownership world sounds lovely and improves on the one we have, but it does nothing to address the disaster of building a city on a scale that requires individual automobiles to merely go about the business of daily life. And it does nothing to address the inherent unsustainability of this way of arranging our cities.
A real challenge would be marshal enough political will to demand that we stop building suburbs, today. Outlaw them. Draft plans to retrofit existing suburbs with increased density and mass transit. Maybe even use some of this driverless tech to power public transit instead. Swapping out who drives (and maybe owns) the cars that make up our suburban nation may fulfill some sci-fi dreams, but it doesn’t mean a damn.
- And to heap insult upon injury, what we’ve built isn’t worth giving a single fuck about. ↩