Robot Cars

While I remain first and foremost a fan of New Urbanism and public transit systems like trains and trolley buses, there may just be a place for Robot Cars in our climate change, peak oil, city design and general sustainability crisis. Think of the Robot Car as a public security blanket: a backup system for when public transit just does not meet your needs. Robot cars are a key stepping stone between where we are now, with almost every family addicted to car travel and forced to own their own car, and a city that ends up having less cars, even if it is not car-less. I think a city that is Low-Car instead of No-Car will be far more marketable to the suburbanised public.

Robot Cars are almost here

Car Advice says:
Technology will replace drivers – sooner than you think. The rise of the robot car is inevitable. It’ll happen because most people who buy cars really don’t enjoy driving; they’d rather be doing something else. Technology will facilitate it. In the foreseeable future, driving will lose its appeal and gradually do the dinosaur bit the way vinyl records did a few decades ago. Cars will still be with us; driving will be obsolete. Despite the nostalgia wrapped around driving, which you and I probably share, this trend towards driverlessness is a done deal – it’s as certain as iPods having killed CDs.

This piece then presents the Google car that has already done 220 thousand km’s, the BMW X5 that can SMS emergency services and take over and park your car if you have a heart attack, and suggests that on those rare occasions you have forgotten to get your wife her anniversary present you’ll just duck into the shop to buy the flowers and have the car go round and round the block doing laps until you’re done! Now right there Car Advice touches on a concept that blows apart driving as we know it today, but I’m not sure they caught the significance?

The end of parking

If Robot Cars are good enough to circulate in a holding pattern until you are ready for them then other far grander options open up! For instance, do Robot Cars mean the end of drivers ever parking the car? Think about it for a moment. You are going out to a dinner — possibly followed by a movie. How much extra stress does parking add to your evening? You have to find the right car park not too far from your restaurant, allow extra time for the walk, and remember where in that vast ugly concrete car-park you actually parked your car! And what if it is raining?

Robot Cars liberate us from all of that. Every building will have an attractive dropping off point. You will never see the car-park again. Instead of an evening that begins and ends in an ugly car-park, you are dropped directly outside the theater or restaurant or museum or cinemas, every time.

Now you can enjoy your dinner and then take a meandering walk with your friends. Interested in those shops around the corner? Enjoy your stroll — the car can catch up with you later. You suddenly all decide you want to see a movie? You grab the smart phone and call your car. It’s there in minutes.

Which car park did it come from? You don’t even care! It would have used whichever parking bays you are authorized to charge at under your cars agreed charging plan. (Whether that is supplied by local government or corporate plans is not my concern right now). Instead of trying to remember where you parked, and staggering all the way back there, and then wondering if you are even sober enough to drive,  you get out your smart phone and buzz the car. You chat with your friends a little, and suddenly the car is there, ready to drive you home — especially if you have had too much to drink!

The end of parking towers

Car parks are so tall because they have to make us adults comfortable as we walk from the car to the lift. But as most electric cars are only half our height, and as Robot Cars will park themselves, car parks can be about half the height. In other words, future underground car parks will fit far more cars into less space. (Service men can scoot around on low bikes if checking for problems).

Pathway to electric cars

There is a relationship between Robot Cars and electric cars. While you have been enjoying your evening in town, the Robot Car has found the best car-park somewhere obscure and out of the way, and has plugged itself in and charged the last few hours. It is full of juice, and ready to drive you home.

Say goodbye to refueling, hello to new fuel types

Say goodbye to refueling. As Templetons says:

You don’t even need your own garage for your own robocar. When it drops you at home, if you’re not renting it out as a robotaxi, it can just find somewhere unobtrusive to sit, ready to roll out of the way if needed, but still available within a minute or two of your request.

Robocars could also refuel and recharge on their own. This turns out to be a remarkable enabler, because refueling stations need no longer be all that numerous or conveniently located. This enables new fuel types to be tried out in the market very quickly.

Robot cars could mean the end of street parking around our cramped cities. Councils or the corporate sector could provide enormous car-park and EV charging stations out of the way, underground. Our streets could be used for driving and walking and cycling instead of parking.

At home your car could park in your garage and charge overnight. Or, if you are in a New Urbanist ecocity place with limited parking, off it drives into the night to find the local car-park and charging station.

Time spent in the car, instead of wasted

I’ll quote straight from Templetons:

As indicated, Americans drive some 2.4 trillion miles each year and spend at least 50 billion hours doing it. (This latter number is my own very rough estimate.) A robocar may eventually approach a level of mobile comfort similar to a train, with a nice seat, a wide desk, internet, a computer/TV and phone. This turns those hours into more productive, comfortable hours. At the national average salary of $37,000 per year (SSA) for a 2000-hour work year, I rate this time as worth roughly one trillion dollars per year.

Going further — is it even your car?

If there are no other personal belongings in the car, and you get dropped off somewhere, does it even have to be your car that picks you up? What I am suggesting is that once robot cars hit the streets every car could become a taxi. Unless you actually need to own a vehicle for business reasons, such as tradespeople and emergency services, then our very relationship with cars and car ownership could change.

For instance, do I really want to buy a new car at $30 000 just to sit in a car park and depreciate 22 hours a day? That’s what the average car does 91% of the time. It sits there. That is an enormous investment in energy and materials and money locked up in a machine that just sits around most of the time.

What if instead of buying cars we rented them on a per-km basis? What if robot technology replaces the human labour of taxi-drivers, dropping the price of renting a cab? I can see a future where car plans are purchased with compatible smart-phones and you pay a cheap per km rate. Then when you are done, the car goes out to service other customers.

New Urbanism?

Some peak oilers want New Urbanism to arrive as an inevitable result of having no other choice once the cheap oil is used up. However, the arrival of Gen4 nuclear power with electric cars will make that an unlikely dream. Instead I propose that we keep discussing the many benefits of car-free localities.

The Village Town movement seeks to ban cars from inside a walled village of 500 people, simply because of the greater public good! Village Towns offer safety, health, community, cultural, environmental and artistic advantages to the community. They are worth building, with or without an energy crisis. It’s an interesting website and the video section has some classic talks. I recommend it! They plan car free Villages of 500 people, and 20 Villages makes a town. Think of suburbia being turned upside down. Instead of the street being for cars, the street is for people. The village lives around the main promenade where friends walk and talk and children play and old people sit and enjoy the sunshine with company. The only vehicles are quiet electric delivery vehicles bringing the groceries and other supplies up the main street.

Robot Cars can take over outside the Village, and run errands between each Village and the Town, and even between Towns!

Indeed, fast-rail will probably be the main means of traveling between major cities. One would zoom between Sydney and Melbourne, get off the other end, and hail a Robot Car.

So while we build out our New Urban ecocities over the next few decades, and indeed come up with a variety of car-free living areas, I see no reason why Robot Cars cannot also become a part of the picture, providing cheap transport outside and around  those eco-city zones. A well designed car-free New Urban village of some sort should be our first priority for so many reasons, and will radically reduce the need for as many cars.

But Robot Cars could be a way we share our otherwise lazy and underutilized cars that sit in our driveways 22 hours a day. Robot Cars and New Urbanism are not necessarily in conflict.

Indeed, Templeton makes many other claims about the transport innovation, lives saved and the economic benefits of Robot Cars. One thing is for sure. Robot Cars could definitely enable Electric cars, and this could become a pathway to a whole new world off fossil fuels.

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