Still Looking for That Magic Highway

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re thinking about the reinvention of cars. At his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent has written a two-part piece about how best to enable innovation in car design. His starting point is a review in The American Prospect of a new book called Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, which takes a gung-ho approach to futuristic, nimble, hyperconnected vehicles that will essentially drive themselves. It’s a dream that goes back generations, and it’s still quite robust.

In his first post on the topic, Avent framed the problem this way:

Every weekday, tens of millions of Americans get into vehicles that are
full of passenger space which won’t be used, with engines capable of
horsepower and speeds that won’t be attained, holding fuel tanks that
could power the car for distances that won’t be traveled. The result of
all this over-engineering is that cars cost way more than a vehicle for
daily commuting need cost, and they consume way more energy than a
vehicle for daily commuting need consume. This all adds up to a
remarkable waste of resources, even before you begin talking about
things like congestion. Why are we stuck in this wasteful equilibrium?

Avent goes on to suggest that because there is no road space in which to use radically redesigned cars, innovation is stifled. He writes that one solution would be to create "open roads" — city streets where more experimental vehicles could be used, allowing entrepreneurial manufacturers to try out more efficient, lightweight and intelligent designs without having to meet the current requirements for roadworthiness. He also argues that waiting for a top-down reconfiguration of streets and highways to accommodate the hypothetically smarter cars of the future is not a workable option.

In his second post, Avent addresses commenters who take issue with his premise:

What you want to do is create a space where firms can experiment
with new designs and compete for customers. That’s hard to do, when the
rules of the road have been determined and institutionally reinforced
over the course of a century. But I think it needs to be done. The
reason we’re all stuck with the car is that there’s no road space
available in which alternatives can operate and potentially thrive.
Apple can’t sell millions of little iCars, because there’s no place for
buyers to use them. They’d have to sell plain old cars, which is an old
and tired business, gradual shift in propulsion notwithstanding. Create
space for innovative new designs, and you’ll get innovative new designs.

The question is, of course, where is that space going to come from? It seems unlikely that drivers of conventional vehicles will give it up easily. Taking a lane, or a sidewalk, from bikes or pedestrians seems a lot more probable politically. That was what the folks at GM suggested doing with the PUMA, their most recent prototype for a reconsidered "personal mobility device." (One of the authors of "Reinventing the Automobile," Christopher Borroni-Bird, is also not-so-coincidentally one of the GM execs behind the PUMA.)

And the scenario of lots of little experimental cars zooming around at speeds of 30 miles an hour or so in an urban or suburban environment is rather terrifying, even if they’re all quite beautifully designed. Because while the dream of removing the human element from the piloting of a car remains, the attainment of that dream seems still very far away. Drivers are drivers. Drivers are human. And far too many are like the ones Sustainable Savannah discusses in a post today — people who say things like this:

"People can do what they want while they drive. The state
representatives cannot stop anyone from reading and responding to text
messages. It is neither their phone nor their car, so they should back
off."

That’s an attitude that technology is never going to solve — unless humans are entirely removed from the driving equation.

We’re interested in hearing what you have to say about this question, and about Avent’s thoughts on the subject. Let us know in the comments.

  • MU

    I’m sure it’s more subtle than this. But his basic argument seems to be that the main problem is that cars are too simple, too big, and have too many safety features. No companies would be willing to really innovate on car design unless we either set aside parts of existing roads for them to experiment on or build an entirely separate set of roads.

    His general argument is that companies won’t “innovate” when there is restrictions on them. However, the opposite if often true. Innovation comes from finding new ways to solve difficult problems. It is the restrictions themselves (regulatory/costs/laws of nature) that drive the innovation. Look at the history of any heavily regulated industry (like cars). Every time new regulations are proposed, they scream that there is no way for them to design a product that will pass the test and that people will want to buy. And yet, every time, they do and the resulting products are superior due to their innovations.

    On a more practical note…really? Build more roads so companies can experiment with new cars designs? Really? We can’t afford to maintain the roads we have or provide decent public transport in most american cities. So yeah, let’s build an entire new road system so GM can come up with a car with marginally better gas mileage, that’ll solve the problem…

    He has apoint, if you create a whole new set of transportation capacity without “onerous” safety regulations, companies will “innovate” to find stuff to sell there.

  • patrick

    I disagree that there’s not innovation within the automotive field. There’s actually a huge amount of choice. In traditional cars there are tiny Smart cars to monster Hummers. There’s motorcycles and scooters. I don’t see much room for any significant improvements. I think the basic premise that the innovation needs to come in private vehicles is flawed. The innovation can come in looking outside the restrictions of the private auto. Things like car share, bike share, new modes of public transit, and innovation in the existing modes of public transit is where we should really be thinking.

  • I haven’t follow your link or watched the video. But I’m quite familar with the subject. Whatever the name is, PRT, robot driven car, or I’d just call it Car 2.0, will be so revolutionally. People will look back to this day and shock by how dangerous transportation was. Human are horrible drivers (myself included). The are overly competitive, easily distracted, have poor senses and make bad judgements. They can’t even follow simple rules like driving within speed limit and stop at red light.

    Car 2.0, when it finally realized, will provide people will efficient transportation, efficient use of resources and greatly improve safety. It will be like riding taxi. It will spare you from performing repetitive task like finding route and steering a vehicle. You will be free to do reading, texting or napping and then arrive in your destination in a predictable time.

    Car 2.0 is not here yet. But if wasn’t a total sci-fi either. Technology in software and robotics progressing steadily. And here in San Francisco Bay Area, people dream audaciously.

  • Peter Smith

    The shift from devices which make city living hazardous and less pleasant (cars) is generally proceeding in the right direction. Electrification is a bit boring. People jumping onto bikes is generally an excellent solution — the more road space is opened up to bike traffic, the less people drive.

    The whole notion of ‘competition’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ is boring, too. I’m not interested in privatizing any more public space.

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