“The word itself, automobile… it is a total misnomer, you know, “ said Paolo Soleri. Humans are truly auto-mobile, we can go anywhere, and we can pretty much go there under our own power. But cars can only move around on expensive, specially prepared surfaces – roads – and even then they need a human to drive them, to start and stop them. A believer in truly descriptive language, “Nothing about cars isauto…!” was Soleri’s point.
The road part of that equation still holds true, and of course, we as a species have become really good at making roads for cars, and we continue to make more and more of them. Here in Arizona, we have the sprawl of Phoenix, 60% of which is covered with paved roads; and just recently, at America’s 4th largest city, Houston, a big rainstorm falling on 16,000 lane-miles of impervious pavement laid over swampland has led to disastrous flooding for the third year in a row… an unintended consequence, and a story for another time.
But now: crowding those roads, here come actual auto-mobiles, ready or not. Google’s Waymo is bringing 600 self-driving Chryslers to AZ in the next little while; Tesla, after its big accidents in China and Florida, continues to plow ahead with self-driving cars; Uber self-drivers are moving along in our state, even after a recent accident in Tempe.
And it gets more interesting: Daimler has licensed the first self-driving Freightliner semi-truck in Nevada, and Tesla is currently testing robotic semis in California.Oboy…
None of this is entirely surprising. Senseless, perhaps, to those of us at Arcosanti, working here with ideas of urban containment and complexity; but not really surprising. The Landscape Urbanism pioneer Charles Waldheim, when he was chair of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design just a few years ago, said “If you have a culture that is fundamentally automobile-based, then an urban model that is anti-automobile is counterintuitive at best. There’s a strange precept these days that asserts that people will abandon their cars if we simply build cities that don’t accommodate them.” At Arcosanti we buy into that precept wholeheartedly, but Waldheim may be right. If so, here’s a troubling corollary about driverless cars: we’re likely not going to abandon our cars (or our idea of walkable cities, either) if a few companies simply build cars that drive themselves.
And that’s the interesting situation that we are about to confront in Arizona: not just driverless cars, but roads and streets that are shared by both drivers and robots.
Arthur St. Antoine, an editor at large of AUTOMOBILE, had some worries about this in the magazine’s recent issue. “Self-driving cars? Do we really need them?” was his first worry. There’s no good answer to that, except to say that they are shiny, those in charge seem to have a preference for technology over simplicity, plus we already have roads and driving habits, and a small class of people steering the culture who, separated from the rest of life on earth, could safely get work done on their phones while sitting in traffic.
But while those folks are texting in their robot cars, many of us are still going to be driving our own, and we have different personalities than the robots. For one thing, as drivers, we’re more aggressive than the robots are programmed to be, and that is already making for interesting problems.
For instance, so far in the several accidents involving self-driving cars, the robots themselves have not been found at fault. As St. Antoine points out, self-driving cars are programmed to be polite, to avoid accidents. If one comes up to a 4-way stop intersection, its computer will take note of who was there first, who was second, and so forth. When it is the robot’s turn to proceed, it will do so, unless a driver aggressively pulls out in front. Then the robot will stop to let it pass. Once every aggressive driver starts to do that the driverless car could be sitting for a long time. Or think about driverless cars trying to merge onto bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. With no clear space to drive into, robots will just stay parked on the ramp.
Welcome to the new world, one with warmer temperatures, stronger storms, higher tides, fewer fish, more people, and more cars of all sorts, even auto-mobiles. And more people than ever living in cities, too, a design issue that driverless cars will not solve, and one that we continue to work on here at Arcosanti. For us, a car-less city is counterintuitive only if you are a car company. Come for a visit, join us here on the edge of the beautiful high Sonoran desert, let us show you what we mean.