I'm no fan of cars, as you might have guessed from some of my previous stories. But I do believe that better technology — namely the kind that will prevent humans from driving them — can make cars, and our world, better.
A blind man riding in a Google self-driving car. Image via Google
That's why I generally agree with the "ban cars"-esque argument in this essay by Rebecca Solnit, a writer whom I greatly admire (hey, she wrote an entire book about walking!). She makes a case similar to the one I did a few months ago: Cars are bad for cities and we need to reduce our reliance on the automobile for a whole range of reasons. Yes, and yes.
But then she tries to explain that Silicon Valley, the progenitor of self-driving technology, is the enemy of a better transportation future — and that's where I completely disagree with her.
First there's the conspiracy that Google and Uber are trying to put more cars on the road:
Apple, Tesla, Uber, Google and various auto manufacturers' pursuit of driverless cars is an attempt to preserve and maybe extend private automobile usage. The rise of new ways of hailing taxis and the problematic companies Lyft and Uber has given a younger generation more ways to stay in private one-party-per-vehicle transit and added fleets of new vehicles to already congested cities.
And then that the tech industry is somehow implicit in this plot by sabotaging public transit:
The privatised shuttle buses thundering up and down San Francisco streets (and sometimes getting stuck on the steep ones) have been another sign that big tech takes little interest in enhancing public transit.
These issues regarding transportation inequality concern me as well: I've written about them many times before. But the examples here are strange. Google is not even interested in making cars, Apple hasn't technically done it yet, and if we're going to have any cars on our streets, they should be hyper-efficient, solar-electric Teslas.
In fact, with the exception of Tesla (and Apple, maybe), the goals of all these tech companies are actually to reduce car ownership. They might even already be helping. It's been proven by several studies, for example, that services like Uber and Lyft are being used to get people to and from transit. The argument against the shuttles, well, of course I'd love to see tech companies subsidizing high-speed rail, too — yet how many thousands of cars are not exacerbating the gridlock up and down the 101 Freeway every day thanks to those tech buses?
The real problem with this argument is that Silicon Valley is not the enemy when it comes to improving transportation. Tech companies are largely powering all the technology that is making transit (and walking and biking) better in this country. This includes vehicle to vehicle communication, urban data collection, mapping and route navigation — which are all used to build tools like the real-time arrival apps that Solnit heavily compliments in her piece. But it also includes OUR SMARTPHONES THEMSELVES, which have improved our ability to move around a city without a car by many multitudes, making them arguably the most important transportation tool that citizens of this country currently have at our disposals.
Of course we need better public transit. Of course we need to get more people on bikes and improve our footpaths for walking and reclaim the acres of land we've devoted to parking. No one disagrees with that. But technology companies can and do help us achieve that. And that includes the development of autonomous vehicles.
Solnit's article focuses on the fear-mongering visions of our autonomous future which have been hypothetically presented to us: Driverless cars will get hacked, sabotage other riders, create more sprawl. (They won't create more emissions, however, because all self-driving cars will be electric.) But the safety and societal benefits — which are barely mentioned by Solnit — could be so dramatic that they might radically improve the way many of us live.
At a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hearing on self-driving cars yesterday, many advocates for disabled and elderly Americans spoke about the coming autonomous revolution with excitement. Anthony Stephens, director of advocacy of the American Council of the Blind, made one of the most emotionally stirring pleas when he said self-driving cars were something he only ever thought would be possible in science fiction. Yes, Americans who are blind or deaf or physically unable to drive are certainly well-served by buses and trains, but only in densely populated places where this was already a priority. I dare you to watch the testimony and not be moved by the words of people who are counting the days until they can safely move about their cities by themselves, without any assistance at all. We're getting older as a population; this will be you.
And that's just it. Even I, a person who wants cars to mostly be removed from the planet, will admit that the solution is about having more options to serve many people's needs, not less. That will include public transit, private transit, bike share, pod share, hopefully some kind of actual hoverboard, and many types of self-driving cars. When they're powered by renewable energy, part of a shared network, and not driven by humans, personal vehicles still make a whole lot of sense in this equation. And Google/Tesla/Uber are not the enemy here — they're helping us toward that future.
What people like Solnit need to realise is that it's not an either/or situation. Resisting the technology around driverless cars isn't going to guarantee some instant transit utopia — but more importantly, the rise of driverless cars doesn't mean we have to give up our dreams of better public transportation. We deserve both. And thanks to the technology companies who agree with us, we will have both.