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.