Stuck With Cars

As Dave Roberts says in the Prospect piece linked in the post below, cars are incredibly over-engineered given their typical use. 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?

Let me quote two other bits from Dave’s review:

USVs will be equipped with an array of sensors and controllers that enable them to maintain steady distances from other cars, avoid crashes, and even pilot themselves. (Yes, pilot themselves. The authors drop this notion into the mix rather casually, but it’s the first real signal that things are going to get Jetsons–style crazy here.) Far more than any advanced engine or materials ever could, this situational awareness will allow the vehicles to be smaller, lighter, less armored, and more energy efficient. At least initially, they’ll need to travel in dedicated lanes so as not to wind up smeared on the bumpers of SUVs

If it all sounds somewhat utopian, the authors of Reinventing the Automobile rush to assure you that the technologies required either exist or are foreseeable in the near future. What’s more difficult to envision, however, are the necessary social and institutional transitions. So much of the new infrastructure the authors envision is interdependent. Which comes first, electric cars or electric-car charging stations? Getting them as a package deal would require a kind of big thinking and spending for which Americans evince little appetite these days. There’s a chapter at the end of the book about implementing the vision, but it contains little of the detail and precision of the preceding technology chapters.

Perhaps some day in the not-too–distant future, those of us who grew up using muscle power and small mirrors to pilot quasi-military vehicles around treacherous, loud, smelly urban highways will be shouting at the kids to get off our lawns with their damn iCars. After they help us program this infernal new-fangled power meter, that is.

But it’s tough to see how to get there from here. Just as human idiosyncrasy and willfulness have stymied traffic engineers for years, so too may they prove difficult obstacles for the engineers of a sustainable future.

Emphasis mine. The technology to do remarkable things with personal transportation is all there. Why haven’t Apple or Honda come to market with a sleek, beautiful, perfectly engineered piece of equipment that would transform transportation the way the iPod and iPhone have transformed personal electronics?

Dave offers one reason: the infrastructure is not in place. But I think the real problem isn’t where you plug these things in but where you use them. And it’s not really a matter of safety, as Dave hints in the first paragraph above, but of regulation. Products intended to power people along roads must satisfy a host of federal, state, and local regulations pertaining to safety, operational capabilities, and so on. With any new product, there would be immediate questions about what sort of licensing requirements would be necessary: who can use it, do they need a special certification, will insurance cover this operation, and so on. Basically, use of the roads by powered vehicles is a highly specified realm; only certain kinds of vehicles can legally do it, meeting certain design requirements, operated by people with certain certifications.

All of these rules have been put in place for good reasons, but they’re deadly to innovation. There is simply no place on the road for broad experimentation and competition between innovative designs. Because of this, it’s far from clear that any new vehicle technology could have the potential financial upside of an iPhone, and so many potential innovators stay away. Getting a product street legal could take years of grinding and expensive legislative and legal work, and it wouldn’t do consumers much good if the process had to be repeated by subsequent market entrants, since it’s competition that will produce the desired improvements in personal transportation.

We have therefore put ourselves in a situation where big changes in personal transportation must be top-down affairs. Someone must sweep in with a product fully-formed, not too different from what’s come before, and prepared to get the necessary government support. This will make the transition less likely to happen, more expensive, and certain to produce crummier products than should be the case. The reason we’re not getting the transportation innovation we deserve isn’t that we need plugs to be there first, it’s that there’s no place for firms to compete to produce the next wildly profitable blockbuster transportation technology.

The solution to this problem is to create such a space. Dave proposes that lanes be set aside for special vehicles for safety reasons. The problem with set aside lanes is that if they must be designated now to generate innovation, but now there are few products available to use them, and so they’d sit largely empty while drivers in the other lanes fumed. In other words, such lanes wouldn’t be possible until a top-down solution came along.

One alternative would be to create special lanes for buses and bikes that could also be open to special technologies. Dedicated bus and bike lanes are a good idea in their own right. Creating such lanes and then opening them to personal transportation technologies meeting basic requirements could have the desired effect.

Still better would be to experiment with “open roads”. Specifically, cities could begin opening city streets (perhaps those with speed limits under 35 mph) to non-car powered vehicles meeting certain basic requirements (minimal product safety testing would be necessary, for instance, so that your neighbor couldn’t just put a go-kart engine on his bathtub and take it to work). Open Roads would be met with significant resistance. It would be dangerous, for one thing, just as biking on roads is dangerous. But the goal would be to generate a safer fleet of vehicles. When there are few cyclists on a road, cycling is relatively dangerous, and so the temptation is to order cyclists off the road. But if you allow cyclists to stay on the road, then more may opt to cycle, and as more people cycle, roads become safer. Something similar should happen with personal vehicles; one just has to resist the temptation to strangle the possibility in its crib with onerous safety requirements.

I think it’s very problematic that we now see innovation in personal transportation as something that has to be done in a great leap, with coordinated changes in institutions and infrastructure. That’s an incredibly daunting task. It would be cheaper, more efficient, and more effective to simply clear the way for incremental improvements and experimentation. Making that happen should be the focus.

Post-script: This may all seem odd coming from a dedicated supporter of public transit. I don’t think it is. The process of innovation in personal transportation will ultimately shift personal vehicles from transit competitors to transit complements, in my view. But I’ll get into that some other time.


  1. hnc says:

    Europe seems quite a bit more advanced than the US when it comes to this issue. I’ve generally thought this is due to the characteristics of European cities and better long-distance transit options. I’d be curious to see if European regulations are somehow more amenable to innovation in this direction as well. Anyone have any data on this?

  2. Mixner says:

    The fact remains, Americans prefer cars, private vehicle passenger miles dwarf those on public transportation. Europeans prefer cars slightly less, despite higher fuel prices, lower incomes and fewer minorities.

  3. Jim says:

    I find these wide-eyed paens to future forms of personal transportation a bit frustrating, given that we already have a remarkably efficient, zero-carbon form of personal transport that nearly anyone can use with a minimum of training. It’s called the bicycle, and the main reason people don’t use it more is because we have let motor vehicles of all kinds dominate our streets. Even replacing every gas-powered vehicle with an electric vehicle won’t do enough to get us out of that ‘wasteful equilibrium’.

  4. Doug says:

    You seem to be suggesting the motorcycle. Someone should invent one.

  5. BeyondDC says:

    Check out They make Smart Cars look wasteful.

  6. BeyondDC says:

    >The fact remains, Americans prefer cars, private vehicle passenger miles dwarf those on public transportation.

    Let’s not pretend this is about the market. We’ve spent the better part of a century writing laws and investing in infrastructure that make it really easy to drive and really hard (and often practically illegal) to do anything else.

  7. MNPundit says:

    The problem with bikes is that it’s hard to haul stuff, and it takes forever to get anywhere useful in a lot of American cities west of the Mississippi and east of the rockies.

  8. Chet says:

    This really is a stupid post. Cell phones aren’t any less regulated than cars, surely (just look at the FCC information on your average cell phone box) and unlike in the cell phone market Honda doesn’t have to promise that a new Civic model can only be driven on (for instance) Nebraska’s roads for a year. The “highly competitive” graphics card market consists of all of two manufacturers – Nvidia and ATI – and there’s basically three major cell phone handset makers, plus Apple. Compare that with the literally dozens of US automaker brands.

    Buying a car from Ford doesn’t mean signing a contract to only ever buy Ford-branded gasoline (at premium prices or pay a $300 “early termination fee), but ask anyone who owns an iPhone in a low-reception area how “competitive” the marketplace is. Imagine if, after buying a Chevrolet, you could only drive it in Canada by making a very technical and illegal mechanical change under the hood. That’s the situation owners of the iPhone find themselves in, if they decide they don’t like AT&T’s service or business practices.

    Cars get slightly better gas mileage every year, get slightly better in terms of safety, come with slightly better amenities (voice-activated mp3-playing CD-decks are becoming standard in Fords), and in the past ten years we’ve seen dramatic innovation in powertrains as full-electric and electric-gas hybrid cars, trucks, and SUV’s have taken to the road. Indeed the SUV itself was an innovation that occurred in my lifetime but is now one of the most popular form-factors of automobile in the US.

    The case that it’s cars, and not cell phones, that suffer from a lack of innovation strikes me as topsy-turvy. Everyone knows that it’s the Prius that is the iPhone of cars. On the other hand, the iPhone has never done anything that a dozen smartphones hadn’t done before, and it’s hardly changed anything at all about how people use their cell phones. All it changed was how people used their Palm Pilots (that is, not at all.)

  9. Tom Wilkinson at GM says:

    Most of the complexity of modern cars is driven by two demands from consumers and regulators — improved safety and reduced emissions. The progress here has been astounding — just smog check or crash test a 40 year old vehicle to see how far we have come.

    As several posters have noted, there are “alternatives” out there already — motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and even shank’s mare for those who live close to where they shop and work. Cars, too, will continue to evolve, becoming even safer and cleaner. Will they get simpler? Probably not.

  10. iLarynx says:

    Innovation is only one part of the innovation equation. Another, critical part for innovation to flourish is a consumer populace willing to risk its money to experiment with a new product. Without regulation, the consumer will be much more risk-adverse with his hard-earned cash.

    Take an example of a more frequent consumer purchase: a restaurant meal. For any restaurant to operate in this country, it has to be licensed by the government. The government regulates this industry by setting minimum standards such as the maximum temperature at which meats may be refrigerated, the minimum temperature and time for dishes to be washed, etc., in addition to the number of fire extinguishers and exits required for the building and so on. While no system is fool-proof, this regulation allows the consumer to shop with a high degree of confidence that his meal won’t make him sick, or even kill him. To the free market Randians, this kind of activity is framed as government intrusion into the marketplace. Are we to take government regulation out of the picture and let the market decide? When I take my family out to dinner and the meal makes the whole family sick and kills one of my children, am I just to take note to not to patronize that eating establishment again in the future? The populace as a whole would be much more risk-adverse if this were the way restaurants were (un)regulated. (This seems to be the view of the author on bicycles on the highways: once people get tired of repairing their fenders and bumpers from hitting cyclists, the “roads become safer.”)

    Take regulation out of the picture for automobiles and you get a similar picture. You may come up with the most innovative car in the world, but if the consumer has been conditioned to be so risk-adverse that he won’t gamble his money on your new product, you’re screwed.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Mechanized Death before, but I have, and I have no interest in going back to the “good ol’ days” of unregulated 50’s vehicles with their steel dash-boards, untempered glass windshields, single piece “battering ram” steering columns, lack of headrests, lack of seat belts, etc.

    The consumer is at no risk of their iPhone killing them through poor design that results in the crushing their chest when they bump into someone, flipping them on their head due to a poorly designed rear iSuspension, or bursting into flames when someone bumps into them from behind.

    A better question for the author might be, “if the car companies are so burdened with regulation, why haven’t they entered the consumer electronics market?”

    I don’t know how much the author knows about the auto or electronics industries (my career is in the latter), but they both have government regulations with which to contend when designing and manufacturing their products. The iPhone does have to pass safety tests to reduce the risk of injury to the consumer, as well as other regulations to limit interference with other electronic devices (which again, if said regulations were removed and the consumer had to gamble that his new iPhone might cause his DVR to malfunction, the consumer would be less prone to purchase new electronics in general, thus stifling innovation overall).

    To be sure, inappropriate or over-regulation can also stifle innovation. But to make the broad statement that essentially says a reduction in regulation will result in a corresponding increase in innovation is overly simplistic and false. There is more likely a complicated mix of regulation and a level of risk the average consumer is willing to take with a new product, that affects innovation.

    Mr. Avent faithfully parrot’s the Randian view that regulation stifles innovation, but reality is a bit more complicated than that.

  11. Jim@3 says what we’re really looking for is the bicycle, and we’ve already got that.

    Though I’m an avid cyclist, I’ll confess that the idea of pedaling up the hill from the grocery store while pulling a full load of groceries (where do they go? in my saddlebags? won’t fit! in a wheeled trailer? more weight, and creates stability problems!) doesn’t appeal to me in the least, even if the problems involved in safely and conveniently hooking them up to my bicycle were solved.

    Doug@4 says someone should invent the motorcycle. But most of us would also like to be protected from the elements while driving to work or the supermarket.

    But if those one-person cars that BeyondDC@5 links to were actually available at a reasonable price, I’d buy one. If regulation is what’s keeping them off the American roads, then I’d agree that something needs to be done about the regulation.

  12. You’ll find some of the answers to your questions — such as paths for how we get there — in my collection of robocar essays at

    The changes will be dramatic — 10 times more efficient vehicles (no need to import oil), millions of lives, trillions of dollars and the redesign of cities. If we can get there.

  13. MU says:

    I know it’s not this simple, but I take exception to one of your basic points…that regulation stifles innovation. Often the exact opposite is true. It is the restrictions on a certain type of technology (regulatory, cost, laws of nature) themselves that drive innovation. Are you really arguing that cars would be so much better if they weren’t burdened with all those “onerous” safety regulations?

    If you want to really drive innovation in transportation, INCREASE the restrictions, up the costs, demand “impossible” levels of improvement. Companies will scream that it is impossible, and then proceed to break through with new designs, just like they always do.

  14. Mixner says:

    I did not write comment #2. Someone is stealing my name.

  15. Sebastian says:

    In your grand thinking about the future of transportation, don’t forget the following truths:

    1) People will buy homes, investment properties and other dwellings that will require them to haul large objects from Home Depot.

    2) People will continue to have children, who will want to participate in activities requiring them to haul things around; whether they be equipment or other children.

    3) People will own businesses that require them to haul large things on trailers or other towed objects. They will also need vehicles that offer room to be rolling workplaces and storage areas.

    4) People love boats and RV’s. Call it crazy, but you’re you seem young and aren’t there yet. They will need vehicles that can haul the family, luggage as well.

    5) People love to drive fast,and drive good looking vehicles Perhaps you don’t, but don’t project that on the rest of us.

    Personally, I think it’s a miracle that we’re seeing the clean diesels and other green cars that are on the market now. We can now get more MPG’s while still being able to do what we have to do on a daily basis.

    I think the fear of “sweeping changes” in transportation technology is that we’ll get little cans, while fairly good looking, have very little utility for our (not your) everyday lives.

  16. tyree says:

    Chet said, “Cars get slightly better gas mileage every year…”

    Not so. My 1965 Chevy Malibu got 22 mpg city driving when I bought it used in 1976. I have know idea what mileage it got when the engine didn’t have 70,000 miles of wear on it. My brand new HHR gets identical mileage in the city but has much less interior room, although it is a more useful arrangement. There is no comparison in the quality of the vehicles, but a significant reason why my new vehicle doesn’t get 30 mpg city is weight added for safety features that are required in part by regulation.