Public transit is smart
Cars are a dumb. Make them twice as smart and they’re still dumber than a bus or a train.
What cars are good for is personal gratification. They can get you from Point-A to Point-B quickly, but when everyone starts doing this the inefficiencies pile up. You get traffic, parking issues and the whole system slows down for everyone. They are a fundamentally selfish form of transport.
For a mathematical sense of this, cars can carry maybe 2,000 people per hour, per lane.
Public transit, which has been around since the 1800s, is still a smart solution to moving lots of people around. Trains and buses carry a lot of people, efficiently. What they are bad it, however, is personal gratification. They don’t get you exactly where you want to go, but they get everyone closer, with much less traffic. They are a fundamentally social form of transport.
A regular bus can move about 10,000 people per hour and rail can move more than 50,000.
It’s basically a scaling problem. More cars make traffic worse. More public transit makes it better. Public transit just scales better.
Again, to compare, a car is carrying 2,000 people. A metro can carry 50,000. Let’s say you double the efficiency of the car. It’s still 10x worse than a metro. It’s still worse than a crazy technology called the ‘bus’.
Self-driving cars may also create more traffic, as more selfish people extend their commutes. Let’s say that self-driving cars improve speed and comfort enough that people have more tolerance for travel. You may still be in the car for an hour, but you can be on your laptop or sleeping or masturbating or whatever.
Suddenly urban sprawl will explode, as this great piece by 99MPH illustrates. Self-indulgent VCs will commute in from the Napa Valley to San Francisco, ‘working’ in the car, while working people in the city have to deal with more traffic than before.
Self-driving cars are a manifestation of this century’s relentless focus on convenience for rich people rather than actual benefits for everyone.
Self-driving cars do not solve the problem of traffic, or getting people around efficiently. They do solve the personal gratification problem. You don’t have to sit next to people (ew) and you can get exactly what you want (without walking). I would venture, however, that these are stupid, selfish problems.
Self-driving cars solve a very narrow problem — they make cars more efficient. The problem is that cars are not very efficient in the first place. It’s just a multiplication problem. You’re multiplying 2,000 x 2. It’s still lower than 50,000. I’ve said this before, but if you remember nothing else I hope you remember this simple math.
This is not saying that self-driving doesn’t have applications. It’s probably good for trucking (moving stuff along freeways), it may be good for last mile transport, etc. But it is not the solution for what most people consider to be the real problems in transport — efficiently getting where they want to go, less traffic, more walkable cities.
For that it is much smarter to divide one human driver across a thousand passengers than to automate that driver across a thousand cars. And we already have the technology for that. It’s called a bus driver.