On Driverless Cars And Joni Mitchell
July 9, 2013

On Driverless Cars And Joni Mitchell

People from the Valley (and to a lesser extent, New York) like to talk about disruption. They kind of get off on it, getting their jollies on seeing norms and standards upended by some idea some kid had that may or may not be better for us in the long run.

Yet while this world is most often bandied about when talking about wearable computing or some new app, there is one new emerging technology that will be absolutely disruptive in every sense of the word. That is, if it ever arrives.

This weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Nick Bilton discussing a future where driverless cars are prevalent.

You’ve heard about driverless cars before: Google, the company that makes search engines, mobile operating systems and kills off everyone’s favorite RSS reader (in an attempt to become more focused on what they’re good at) are creating a driverless car. They have been for some time, and other car companies (whose job it is to actually build these things) are starting to get in on the action as well.

In Bilton’s piece, he seems to suggest that these cars will move everyone closer together, will make us pull up roots from those outlying suburbs hours away from the city square and move into downtown proper.

There’s a lot of good to believe in this assumption. As pointed out in his piece, one of the worst things for our sanity and the environment alike is parking. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, (a statistic Bilton points out in his piece) some 30 percent of all driving in city districts is dedicated to looking for a damned parking spot. (Expletive mine.)

Bilton goes even further, quoting a statistic from Harvard University that claims one-third of all land in America’s cities are dedicated to parking lots. Looking at only these two stats, America is in trouble: We have all the parking in the world, but can’t find a spot to save our lives.

Bilton suggests that a driverless car society would be one where a driver could pull up in front of, say, a bank on the square, exit the car, and have the vehicle automatically find a spot amongst a lot of other self-piloted vehicles. He goes even further with a farcical suggestion, if ever I’ve heard one:

“Or maybe (the car) is picked up by a robotic minder and carted off with other vehicles, like a row of shopping carts.”

That’s all well and good, Bilton, but I just can’t buy it.

A society filled with driverless cars doesn’t necessarily mean fewer cars; it just means we won’t have to pay attention while we’re in them. We sit down, grab a cup of coffee, read the morning news, what have you.

(A side note: If history has taught us anything, the porn industry is already looking for a way for people to watch porn while their cars deliver them from one place to another. Just think on that one for a second.)

No, though driverless cars may be able to cooperate and find parking spots and even park more closely to one another than we can today, there’s still an issue of space. Packing cars more closely together will save on space, but not that much.

We could, theoretically, begin parking cars on rooftops. Maybe we could even use those robotic machines Bilton was talking about to store our automobiles high above our heads.

Ah, but there’s one other issue here — even those machines will take up room. And if they’re lifting heavy automobiles, they’ll need a wide footprint.

Bilton’s piece seems focused on the premise that if we stop driving our own cars, we can get rid of parking lots as well.

I consider myself an environmental person. I have, on more than one occasion, gotten riled up after hearing Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” on the radio.

Yet I also feel as if I understand humanity fairly well, and I more closely agree with Tim Worstall’s opinion in Forbes.

If we’re given the option to have our cars “hand” deliver us to work every day, buddy we’ll take it AND we’ll move as far away as we can from one another. That means more urban sprawl, more people buying cars and more parking lots.

Driverless cars do not mean fewer parking spots just as much as major companies “going green” doesn’t mean our energy crisis is saved. People will do whatever they want, and they want to spend less money and have the land and the house they can afford. It’s nice to assume that being given the option for humanity to make the right decision will encourage us to do so, but that has never, never ever, never ever ever been proven in history.

Is this an issue about human morality? Probably on some level, but this is simply the way the “discussion” on “disruption” always goes. In the beginning people (like those Google researchers, I’m sure) discuss how great this technology would be for the world. Once this new technology arrives in the hands of the general public, however, they find a way to use it to serve their own needs.

Tim Berners-Lee (or Vint Cerf…or Bob Khan, depending on who you ask) gave us the Internet and we used it for porn.

The unidentifiable “they” paved paradise and put up a parking lot because they could make money doing it. It’s the way of the world. If given the option, we’ll find a way to move farther away from one another in larger houses in new parts of the country. Suburbs offer cheap land, cheap land on which people can afford (or not afford) the house of their dreams. The American dream, though it may not be the best for us as a society, is still alive and real. Driverless cars, should they ever become routine, will further contribute to this dream.

The future may very well be paved with good intentions, but we know how that goes.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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