Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.

Wow.

Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

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