Thursday, July 23, 2015

Saving Money, Losing Freedom & Fun

The writing is on the wall… or at least the road. Crowded cities and congested highways, insufficient and damaged infrastructure built for a different era and often worn into oblivion, are sooner or later going to force governments to take the joy and freedom of driving away from most if not all of us. We may be able to pick our destination, which will instantly become a government record that can be produced as “evidence” later, but it will be a computer array that will make and implement the choices of how to get there. Our Congress – still struggling over a much-needed transportation infrastructure bill – has no appetite for the trillions of dollars it would take to upgrade, repair and expand our roads to placate existing driver desires.
Local governments struggle with the volume of potholes and bridge failures within their line of sight. Governments are getting very personal in their push against consumer freedom and their cars… and it goes way beyond state and federal emissions and mileage requirements. It’s just too many people in too many cars doing what they want.
One size fits all is the growing mantra. For example, New York City has just mandated that all new replacement cabs for the next decade will be one of a few variations of the Nissan NV200, a boxy vehicle designed specifically for and at the request of the City. The Checker cab of old is long gone, and the Crown Victoria that dominates today will fade from history. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! And once again, there is a little change about to occur, in New York City, that augurs badly for the long-term prospect of people driving their own cars.
Earlier this spring, New York “Mayor de Blasio signed a contract with Google to start bringing Google’s patented driverless cars into the New York Taxi fleet. The mayor’s office said that there would be 5,000 driverless cabs on New York City streets by 2016. The driverless vehicle, which first came onto our radar in 2010, has already been legalized for street-use in the state of Nevada and was recently ‘driven’ by a blind man through a Taco bell drive-thru. The driverless taxi cabs will be customized to meet the needs of busy New Yorkers, and each vehicle will come equipped with ATMs, food vending machines, and ‘better entertainment options’ according to the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission.”, April 1st.
Wow, so much fun! No more lingering cigarette smell left over from a driver waiting for fares… but who’s going to chastise the passenger who lights up (a disemboweled voice, an ejection seat?). Yet you won’t be struggling with a driver who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t really know the city. Will the fare be cheaper because the labor cost dropped like a stone? “No,” you gasp?! Ah, labor cost! Yeah… jobs… yeah… Think of all those drivers who will be laid off or who will never be hired. Our quest to create and hold jobs bucket seems to have sprung another leak. It seems that GPS-guided, environment-sensing, self-driving cars are about to become a part of daily American life.
Google has been experimenting with driverless cars for quite a few years now. They have lots statistics, lots of interesting facts, all published and open to inspection. Clearly a fault-directed legal tort system is going to change, and the insurance company metrics – upon which car insurance rates are based – will also reflect an altered risk profile. A study based these Google numbers suggests that consumers might save an average of $1,000 a year as a result of self-driving cars.
“[The] Ferenstein Wire asked the actuaries at insurance startup Metromile to take evidence from Google’s detailed accident report and construct their own pricing model for self-driving cars… Metromile recently partnered with Uber to provide its drivers a special insurance deal. Since Uber is on record for wanting to replace its fleet with self-driving cars, Metromile will likely be among the first companies that must come up with pricing models at scale.
“The insurance model is based on a 20-year-old single female in the San Francisco Bay Area, driving 12,000 miles/year. Most of the cost savings from self-driving cars come from the near elimination of accidental collisions (a 90% reduction).
“So, why do we still need insurance if so few cars get into accidents?... The model estimates that some cars may be vandalized or broken into, which makes up much of the yearly insurance cost for autonomous vehicles. In the future, self-driving cars could just park themselves in a secure garage at night rather than waiting around while their owner sleeps or goes grocery shopping — making the price even cheaper.”, July 18th.
As we gravitate toward these automated vehicles, overall commuting and driving patterns will be efficiently controlled by a central computer system (welcome malignant hackers or malevolent terrorists or enemies wanting to freeze America in her tracks!), which in theory should eliminate gridlock (is there a model for Congress?) and traffic jams… reducing accidents that cause these as well. Will people even own cars anymore?
In time, futurists predict, the entire design of cities themselves will also change. Take this view for example: “A fascinating new simulation finds that self-driving cars will terraform [change their topography and shape] cities: 90% of cars will be eliminated, acres of land will open up, and commute times will drop 10%. A team of transportation scientists at the Organization for Cooperation and Development took data on actual trips in Lisbon, Portugal and looked at how a fleet of self-driving, shared ‘taxibots’ would change city landscape [PDF and see the above simulation graphic].
“These ‘taxibots,’ the researchers imagine, are a marriage of mass carpooling and UPS delivery intelligence: they constantly roam throughout cities and match carpool routes with mathematical elegance. Ultimately, they estimate, 9 out of 10 cars would be completely unnecessary  as would public transit.
“‘Nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 10% of the cars. TaxiBots combined with high-capacity public transport could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city,’ the paper concludes.” The Ferenstein Wire, April 24th. To us, it seems that this massive alteration in some cities and some countries is just a fact of life that future generations will have to deal with. It may be a while for the most rural areas in the most underdeveloped countries in the world, but the creeping change is happening here… now and in the near future, so we need to be prepared to share the road with these self-driving vehicles… until they envelop us as well.
I’m Peter Dekom, and how do you think masses of self-driving cars will change how you live and move?

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