One of the more bizarre things about last week's debate with Randal O'Toole was his fetish with autonomous vehicles. He brought the concept up over and over again and even cited it as a "black swan" in his closing, proving that he does not understand the concept of a black swan nor our ability to establish -- dare I say: plan -- systems to be antifragile.

Ostensibly, he also does not understand Taleb's take on two old adages relating to growth, evolution and adaptation. It is not: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but: what kills you makes someone else stronger. The other: it's not survival of the fittest but survival of the most adaptable. Natural systems -- be they environmental, economic or social -- rely on feedback. Often brutal feedback. It might be role of O'Toole, and those who would follow him, to simply serve as a warning for others. That's a useful role in society.

Note that there has never been a civilization throughout recorded history to live by the creed of O'Toole. For Strong Towns, we have millennia of examples.

I think autonomous vehicles are interesting, but I'm more and more skeptical that they will ever be viable in urban settings. On the open road: sure. On complex streets where randomness and chaos rule the day -- at least from an algorithm's perspective -- nothing is going to trump a #slowthecars approach for safety.

I wrote the following in January of 2013 in a piece called The Google Car.


It is kind of funny to me but I am frequently asked a variation of the following question, which was posted by one of our dearest friends, Catherine McClintock, on our Facebook site following Monday's post on our alleged housing recovery:

Have you thought about the impact a network of autonomous electric cars might have on the make up of our automobile-centered communities?

My answer is: I don't think as much as some people, but a little. We'll see if a little is dangerous.

This is one of those areas that crosses over in James Kunstler's Too Much Magic fantasy world. As a kindred spirit, I'm impressed by the technology but am skeptical that it is going to be a major force in our world any time soon. I suspect my daughter, who is eight years old today, will have to take a driver's test and learn to drive a car just like I did. I could be wrong -- and likely am -- but I don't see this as being more than a cool gadget for the affluent over the next two decades. It takes a long time to change out the auto fleet.

To me there are two interesting things to ponder with the autonomous electric car, which I'm just going to call the Google car for simplicity's sake. The first goes to my larger, ongoing point about traffic projections. We spent a considerable amount of time here last year discussing the folly of traffic projections. Specifically:

  • The Projections Fallacy (July 23), where I called for abandoning the concept of traffic projections in favor for an approach that is "robust" to modeling error.
  • Why we need projections (August 2), where I explain how the auto-oriented development pattern fails and why we therefore use projections to give us assurances that it won't.
  • A world without projections (October 1), where I explain what a different system -- one that did not require projections -- would look like.

In my Best of Blog post this past December, my preview of the series included this quote:

Lets never forget that the traffic engineering profession is a mere six decades old, barely enough time to accumulate anything resembling historic wisdom, let alone apply it. That this collection of professionals speaks with such confidence and authority about a future they have proven inept at predicting speaks more about us than it does them.

parkiWhen it comes to the Google car, one of the benefits is ostensibly that it will solve congestion. We'll be able to drive cars at speed very close together without all of the pesky randomness of humanity causing problems (randomness that bedevils the clean models engineers love).

In other words, our current roads will handle higher volumes of traffic. Heck, we may not even need shoulders or clear zones anymore, the entire idea of forgiving design being a relic of one of history's barbaric periods.

So if this reality comes to fruition, will we get a rebate from all of the billions wasted by engineers and their projections for more lanes? Of course not. Do our plans for the future account for this possibility? Of course not. We're just making traffic projections based on the best available data, Chuck....it's not like we're predicting the future (says the engineer as they recommend billions in spending based on their prediction of the future).

My second observation is more human (engineers are pseudo-human). Whenever I hear people talking about the Google car, they seem to believe that the world will operate just like it does now only they will have a computer chauffeur so that they can check email and watch sitcoms on the way to work. I think that's a very narrow interpretation.

Why would you let your expensive car sit if it could be used while you're at work to drive other people around and you could track it, monitor it and have it back precisely when you needed it yourself? You might not like that but others would, and they are going to be willing to pay more, which will drive the innovation and the conversion rate. This will change the entire way that cars are financed and marketed.

Which will change how they are used. We won't have much need for parking lots. You'll get dropped off at the door and the car will just cycle around -- maybe park a mile away where there is an open spot on the street -- and then come back and pick you up when you are ready to head out. This will certainly create a premium for good, connected space and further devalue all those big box investments our communities fought for years to attract.

Where I live, a disproportionate number of people own huge trucks, some in compensation for other shortcomings and others for the off chance they need to haul home a couch or a new refrigerator. In a world with the Google car, the SUV would become a thing of the past. You don't need all that wasted room and, when you actually do, you just rent the big truck for the time you need it. It shows up where you want it and when you're done it just leaves.

Why own a car when you can simply order up the exact car that you want and it will just be there?

In fact, cars in this system would be very expensive and so it is likely that few people would actually own them. Why own a car when you can simply order up the exact car that you want and it will just be there? Of course, the downside of this is that you'll pay by the mile and so people who live remote from centers of commerce and civic life will have a much higher cost than those that live closer to the action. I don't think it is a stretch that the tax system would be realigned to tax what is now being calculated by a private entity -- your miles traveled -- without the government needing to know where you went and who you are.

If this all seems great to you and you just can't wait for the Google car, I have one suggestion: go hail a taxi. It is essentially the same thing except you have a real person driving instead of a computer. That we would be giddy with anticipation and prepared to realign our existence with this new technology just demonstrates how techno narcissistic (to borrow a JHK term) we are.

That we grasp how clearly this would realign our living arrangement demonstrates how artificial that arrangement currently is.

Google Car 2025 = Yellow Taxi 1955

Oh, except we can replace some more jobs with machines. All you Boomers -- your great grand kids could have entirely different experience with the song Big Yellow Taxi. I'm not counting on it, though. A country of Strong Towns will be good either way.