I spent this past weekend volunteering at the Humanity+ “Transhumanism Meets Design” conference at Parsons. It was… weird, but definitely provided a 6-course meal for thought. And after my recent post (here) about Solar-Roads, I already had transportation on my mind, and so was quite interested when one of the speakers explained how we are rapidly approaching a dilemma of near-permanent gridlock as more and more people around the globe have the desire, and means, to buy a car. Already places like China have traffic jams which last weeks (here). I won’t get into all the gory details (such as pollution), but the short of it is that we’re heading toward a major problem.
Of course, transhumanist answers can range from super-fast exo-skeletons to genetically engineering cheetah legs onto humans to finally getting those rocket-packs we’ve been dreaming of. But till we work out the kinks in those designs, I see a much simpler solution. It has two main ingredients: Collaborative Consumption + Self-Driving Cars.
Collaborative consumption is, in short, sharing. It takes many forms. Ebay and Couch-surfing are both good examples, as they allow people to share goods (e.g. a couch) when one is needed (and reciprocity and a certain morality is somewhat expected and built into the system) or to use goods merely as long as they’re necessary and then move it to the next person (as Ebay enables). For an excellent TED talk about it, see here.
Self-Driving cars are pretty much as they sound: Cars that can drive themselves. And they exist. Imagine being able to have your breakfast or take a nap during that daily commute? - Besides, it’s estimated that once these are on the roads, average commute times will decrease (as well as the number of accidents plummeting). Again, a great, short TED talk about it here. (And google is already working on legalizing them - here.)
You may already see where I’m going with this, but let me spell it out. Take a company like ZipCar which is a great example of collaborative consumption. It allows subscribers to basically pick up any ZipCar that’s around town, use it, and drop it off just about anywhere - until the next person happens to use it. It’s a brilliant idea - especially considering the cost of cars and the fact that most people only use their cars a few hours a week! - and explains why ZipCar is doing so well. Now, having a self-driving ZipCar wouldn’t just reduce the amount of accidents and make the calculations of this peculiar type of car rental a bit less strained, it also opens up entirely and qualitatively new possibilities.
For instance, many people (like myself), don’t live close enough to a ZipCar to make it useful. If I have to commute 20 minutes to get the car, I might as well just commute for the additional 20 minutes. But imagine being able to simply summon the car, so that it picks you up, takes you where you want to go - perhaps performs some other tasks while you’re busy working, shopping, or whatever - and is there, ready, to drive you home. Not bad. That already would make it a much bigger hit. But it can still go farther.
Self-driving cars can be “smart-cars”. No, I don’t mean anything like AI (“I’m sorry Dave, but I must drive you to work!”), just “smart” as in the “smart-phone” sense. Imagine a group of people finally reaching their train stop after a hard day of work. People could reserve the smart-car for the 5 minute ride home from their phones so that it’s ready and waiting; alternatively, we could even program the car system to estimate how many cars will be necessary and simply have them arrive on their own, saving time and making it more accessible.
But even more than that. (This next part, btw, I find very exciting but also less certain.) The cars could encourage car-pooling. I regularly see a horde of cars migrating from the train-station to the very same street a few minutes away. Now, with smart-cars in place, there’d be much less reason not to share. And it would be easy, perhaps easier than going alone. Just reserve a car for a particular destination and the system could offer: Car-Pool or Reserve alone? Car-pooling could be optimized by sending people with similar destinations to the same car. And, naturally, reserving a car for one’s self would cost more. (How much? I leave that to the number-crunching folk.) And honestly, for much - if not most - of our day-to-day car uses, why not share? It could be cheaper and perhaps faster, assuming we still use HOV lanes. Do I really need a car for myself to pick up groceries or catch a train? And would it really be so bad to have a few minutes to meet a stranger - or even my neighbor!? (Personally, I like the idea of society becoming a bit less isolationist.)
I’ll also add that this could provide an excellent opportunity to greatly improve the ratio of “green cars” to conventional cars, because while green cars are improving and prices dropping, it’s still a significant initial investment. For a company or the city, however, it would be quite easy to make that initial investment - and make it back - especially since the price of an “electric mile” is quickly becoming cheaper than that of a “gas mile”. If smart-cars are also green-cars, it’ll allow more people to use green-technology and not feel the unfortunate necessity to buy a gas-guzzler.
In short, we have - now, already - the technology and business models necessary to greatly reduce the amount of cars on the road. This would lead to tremendous gains in driving safety, costs (for everyone, btw, a true win-win), commute times, commute quality, environmental safety, and more.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this idea - and I hope people will!