EVOLUTION: NMA E-Newsletter #402

The automobile has gone from being an eccentric hobby to a necessity of life—to a???? Technological innovations like the internal combustion engine, electric starter, hydraulic brakes, power steering, radial tires, fuel injection, and electronic ignition have transformed the automobile from a quirky, unreliable toy to an appliance-like device accessible and usable by almost all elements of the population. 

So where do we go from here?  

For those who reached adulthood in the 1940’s to the 1970’s cars represented, and largely delivered, freedom of movement and economic mobility. To a lesser extent they exemplified social status, financial success, and to varying degrees an expression of individuality. By the 1980’s this began to change.  Our vehicles were clearly a necessity, at least for most of us, but they started to evolve toward the “appliance” status that largely dominates today. Clearly, there remains a core group of individuals who love and take pride in their cars, trucks and motorcycles, but if you stand back and observe, you will see that these people are primarily remnants of the “Boomer” generation. 

The follow-on to this loss of emotional attachment to our vehicles is a diminished interest in mastering the skills associated with operating these devices. In fact, there is a growing population of young people who have no interest in becoming even rudimentarily adept at operating a motor vehicle.  They seem content to rely on mass transit (preferably subsidized by others) and live in urban environments that support public transport. No longer is getting a driver’s license a universal milestone on the road to adulthood and independence. 

It’s no secret that there is a worldwide trend of populations moving from rural areas to ever-growing urban centers. In theory, this is driven by the economic opportunity that is available only in these cities. Theory and reality do not always cross paths, but this remains the prevalent migration theory.  

As with many expressions of individual interests, the personal automobile does not fit well in mega-urban environments. Traffic congestion, emissions, parking demands, and conflicts with pedestrians and bicyclists make the car a subject of scorn. And, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the eligible voting public lives in urban areas. It could come to pass that the day of driving personal automobiles in a major urban area may become as likely as shooting clay pigeons on the condo patio. 

Those of us who retain an interest in personally owned and operated vehicles are, and will remain, a sizable chunk of the population, although a minority. Our future nemesis, and the gorilla in the garage, will be the mega-million dollar campaign to create, build, and promote the self- driving car (and truck and just about anything else that moves). In itself, the self-operating vehicle is not a bad or evil concept and offers significant opportunities to many people lacking personal mobility options. However, when the inevitable conflicts between those who make, sell, and use these vehicles and those who prefer to operate and control their own vehicles arise, the outcome does not look promising. 

On the robot side we have the auto industry, the insurance industry, the federal and state safety establishment, people who view driving as a chore, and certain technology companies like Apple and Alphabet/Google. On our side, there are millions of people who prefer to have a significant control over how, when, and where they travel.  There are also millions more who take pride in their ability to drive, ride, and otherwise control their sources of transportation. However it must be emphasized that those of us who actually care about this issue, although numbering in the millions, are still a modest fraction of the total population. If we do not join together, organize and aggressively support our interests, we will end up on the losing side of this contest. 

The potential conflicts are numerous. In the event of a multi-vehicle accident, the default guilty party will almost always be the person who was controlling his or her own vehicle, or at least that will be the goal of the auto industry. Self-driven vehicles could control traffic flow, no matter how contradictory to normal traffic flow patterns. Traffic regulations, although often illogical or impractical, will be mindlessly followed, consequently disrupting traffic and irritating other drivers. To encourage the use of self-driving vehicles, they will be given preferential use in areas of congestion, limited parking, or high use corridors. And, there will be the usual onslaught of subsidies, tax breaks, and preferential treatment for buyers and owners of self-driving vehicles. 

It will be argued that these vehicles can be programmed so as not to conflict with other traffic or indirectly control normal traffic patterns. But, can you envision federal or state governments, or the auto industry, agreeing to programming that allows these vehicles to exceed speed limits by 10, 15, or 20 miles per hour, thereby allowing the self driving vehicle to keep up with prevailing traffic? The obvious retort is that this can be corrected by setting rational speed limits, but this hasn’t happened in the past 100 years and it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. 

Self driving vehicles are coming and coming soon. How they are accommodated and coordinated with personally operated vehicles is a clean sheet of paper—right now. This won’t be a frictionless process, and that’s not bad. But if those who like driving take pride in their skill and enjoy the freedom this makes possible do nothing and let industry and government set the agenda and dictate the rules, it’s going to be a very long and frustrating road ahead.

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