Following WWII, the ‘American Dream’ was a suburban home with a white picket fence and two cars in the driveway: one for a man’s commute to the city, and another for a woman’s trips to the grocery store, school, and baseball field. Americans began equating prosperity with owning an automobile, and public transportation became seen as a relic of the recent industrialization. America’s infatuation with personal motor vehicles over the last century has irrevocably damaged the United States by wasting time, money, and resources on an inefficient status symbol. Cities such as St. Louis and Detroit, built on the foundation of the auto industry, were irreparably weakened by an urban exodus (to achieve the ‘Dream’ in suburbia, away from black populations) that left a tax base unable to support the remaining poor, and created defacto segregation. The glimpses seen of innovations from tech companies like Google and Tesla are giving us the ability to be idealists in how this ‘American Nightmare’ will end without exiting the constrains of reality.
Transportation is a hugely important aspect of human life, and the way we do it has massive implications. 28% of greenhouse gas emissions originate from transportation, and motor vehicle accidents kill 32,000 people a year. The advent of autonomous safety capabilities and growing demand for electric vehicles will eventually make an impact on those statistics, but the core issues that personal vehicles carry remain. Whether from hydroelectric or oil, an incredible energy demand comes from each individual riding alone in a 4,000 lb box among thousands of others on a similar route for 50 minutes each day. Despite how insanely unsustainable that is, 75.7% of commutes are solo, and this practice is quickly spreading to the developing world. The unquenchable congestion caused by this eats 38 hours of our lives each year, with new lanes only attracting more cars. Each car spends 90% of the time parked, serving the sole purpose of occupying valuable space. Public transportation solves all of these issues, and taxi apps like Uber at least manage to solve the downtime issue.
Lawmakers are resistant to put moral judgement in the hands of a computer
This summer, Tesla Model S owners everywhere will be freed from highway driving via an over the air software update. The primary reason for the initial restriction on street usage is not technology, but rather the idea of putting life or death moral judgement in the hands of a computer. There’s no clear decision to make in an unavoidable collision between either a child and the vehicle, determined from sensory data and analysis to result in no injuries for the passengers but death for the child, or a head on collision swerving into the other lane resulting in serious injuries or death for all passengers involved. A human in this situation can be blamed for the results for their moral judgement, while a computer cannot. In autonomous accidents, the driver and owner of the vehicle is still considered at fault for not taking over. Self driving cars will no doubt result in fewer deaths, but the nature of more complicated insurance coverage and criminal trials, and regulation in general will hold them back. For this reason, Tesla owners will be expected to maintain the same level of awareness as any other driver.
Youth Car Ownership Has Fallen 30% in 4 Years
Young car ownership is down. While the parents of millennials grew up with cars as the ultimate possession short a house thanks to the freedom they provided, the internet and messaging has put the world in our pockets. Car ownership among 18-34 year olds (a critically important category considered “the demo” in media) fell nearly 30% from 2007 to 2011, and only about half of teens today get a license before turning 18. White flight isn’t over – in 2014 more 25-29 year olds moved from cities to suburbs than vice versa, but it is slowing down. In the mid-1990s, the ratio was 2:1 compared to today’s 5:4.
The most economically and environmentally efficient form of transportation could potentially be autonomous, computer calculated and dispatched, app-based carpools. The number of seats for optimal efficiency could be precisely calculated, solving traffic, parking, and all the associated perils of the automobile. Most importantly, a public automated vehicle system could seamlessly integrate with existing mass transit to provide the “last mile” that no bus system will ever be able to offer. Common suburban commutes and downtown areas could have a car at each end of a light rail line. Currently, just 4% of commuters are willing to ride with random chance sitting next to them on public transit. An enclosed, smaller vehicle with strangers and no authority figure may be even harder to sell to all but earliest of tech adopters. American culture strongly pushes “fear thy neighbor”, and unfortunately there’s sometimes a valid reason to. With the introduction of a two passenger, steering-wheel-less electric car, Google seems to have accepted transportation privacy for the foreseeable future.
Recently, Leap Transit began offering a $6 private and premium bus service in San Fransisco. The service is overtly targeted to the wealthy and young tech workers of the Bay Area. They’ve received the same criticisms that the tech giants’ own shuttle services get. San Fransisco Board of Supervisors member John Solvos claims, “You’re creating a two-tiered transportation system in San Francisco.” Just like Google and Facebook shuttles, many argue Leap uses public infrastructure to solely benefit and segregate a wealthier class to a private service, thereby decreasing the usage momentum publicly owned services have gained with young upper middle class workers.
These issues and upcoming technologies aren’t the sign of an anarcho-capitalist world that Ayn Rand followers might have you believe. With the need for a very large fleet and the issue of parking that goes with it, entry into the marketplace will be expensive, and result in similar “crony capitalist” deals between municipalities and fleet owners to the ones with Internet Service Providers, bicycle sharing services, and Car2Go. These issues will likely prevent commoditization and competition of services. There’s zero doubt computer dispatched, smartly routed autonomous carpooling will be a superior method of mass transit to current bus routes, but the prospect of this coming from the private sector is likely to devastate public transit usage among those in the middle class that would be deemed most profitable to cater to, hurting the ability for low-income people to access the transportation they need. Helsinki, Finland is stopping the privatization of transit services with a plan to offer this idealistic “mobility on demand” app within a decade. Well done public systems will always beat the private sector for one simple reason: the lack of a profit motive. This enables cheaper, more accessible services that can make moral decisions. Corporation’s don’t see a benefit in allowing homeless folks to get around by subsidizing their fares, and without public transit, this could be a major issue.
Transportation is going to be vastly different in 30 years. Yet, in many ways it won’t. Cars last longer now than ever, and many Americans will let go of their vehicles surrounding their cold, dead arms, along with the rest of their corpse. Cars are not economically logical, but owners find emotional attachment with their vehicles. Seattle’s long term transit plans will bring the growing city up to the world standard of current day Vancouver, but construction won’t finish until 2031. Public transit in the US isn’t known for quick action or innovation. There are 4 million US jobs in transportation at stake, many of which are unionized, unlike the far fewer positions at Google that could potentially replace them. Transportation is the most universally apparent and consumer facing industry that will soon be automated, changing everyone’s lives. It’s only going to become a more relevant issue for the foreseeable future.