Note — Nov 01, 2020

The Self-Driving Car Is a Red Herring

Seen in → No.148

Source → nautil.us/issue/92/frontiers/the-self_driving-ca...

Consider this one the 🤔 piece of the issue. Included in part because it’s by Dr. Anthony Townsend, who’s work I respect. I don’t tend to agree with the final vision he details (sSmall AVs replacing bikes and walking, nice to think of flexible density but where do people actually go when flexibly moving away? Imagining we’ll be anywhere near as well organized, etc.). But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and there are definitely some important parts in there like self-driving cars not being the right format for the technology (instead, much smaller and numerous, usually not carrying humans), the immense challenges of maintaining post-pandemic and climate-collapse-affected cities, the inequality of who can move away, how permanent, temporary, or flexible those moves are, how to recover and adapt to these changes in density, etc.

A thought I had while reading was a parallel between electric bikes and small autonomous vehicles. Electric bikes end up not being tools for laziness (same trips, no effort) as some thought but rather often as extenders of range (same effort, longer trips). As Townsend argues, perhaps micro-AVs have a similar result, extending the range of services and easy transport to lower density neighbourhoods further out than currently.

How well we put these machines to use to ferry goods and people around in clever new ways, and tend to dull, dirty, and dangerous work of municipal upkeep, will mean the difference between keeping our cities humming along or abandoning them altogether. […]

Flexible density must be designed comprehensively into cities over the years and decades to come. We’ll need buildings that are better suited to adapt when demands for space, security, energy, and ventilation change suddenly. Infrastructure must be pliable enough to extend to dispersed locations on short notice. And a wide array of essential services must be able to find and deliver to constituents and customers wherever they may be. […]

Neighborhoods are bigger than ever, as rovers open up a range some five times what people can reach on foot. Snobs call it “microsprawl,” but the people who live there don’t seem to mind the abundance of affordable housing and open space that was always out of their reach in the old subway-centered districts.