“Am I the only one who sees GoogleCars as an improved means to an unimproved, even catastrophic end? Ice caps are melting: have a robot car!” So wrote Alex Steffen of Worldchanging on Twitter earlier this week. To reply: Alex, you’re not the only one.
I was at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs the other day to listen to a panel discussion on sustainable societies. It was a thought-provoking conversation with speakers promoting dense urban societies, LEED-certified buildings, and electric-powered, internet-guided personal mobility systems. If you’re reading Next American City, you know why dense urbanism and green architecture are critical to creating sustainable cities of the future — but what role does the car of the future have to play?
Larry Burns, the former head of research and development for GM, spoke about a prototype for the car of the future. It’s a compelling vision — cars will run on electricity, will be hooked into an internet grid that will ensure that the cars don’t crash and don’t even need a driver, the cars will be small enough to hold just one person but can be linked in tandem with other cars (for a traveling family).
Although this sounds very similar to the image of GoogleCars that was discussed in an article in the New York Times this past week, Burns’ project is different — and gets more cred from urbanists for having been created in conjunction with the late Bill Mitchell from MIT. The two wrote a book about this vision called Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century. Here’s how they describe a redesign of the car’s essential DNA:
First, we must transform the DNA of the automobile, basing it on electric-drive and wireless communication rather than on petroleum, the internal combustion engine, and stand-alone operation. This allows vehicles to become lighter, cleaner, and “smart” enough to avoid crashes and traffic jams. Second, automobiles need to be linked by a Mobility Internet that allows them to collect and share data on traffic conditions, intelligently coordinates their movements, and keeps drivers connected to their social networks. Third, automobiles must be recharged through a convenient, cost-effective infrastructure that is integrated with smart electric grids and makes increasing use of renewable energy sources. Finally, dynamically priced markets for electricity, road space, parking space, and shared-use vehicles must be introduced to provide optimum management of urban mobility and energy systems.
I was impressed by the idea — it’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve got. Lighter cars that use fewer resources, don’t crash and take up less of a city’s space. But the more I thought about it, I wondered why we should install a whole new infrastructure (a very complex and expensive infrastructure) for new personal mobility pods? Isn’t there a cheaper, simpler way of dealing with the problems of congestion, resource scarcity and car crashes? Is it possible that the solution to the problem of cars in cities isn’t a technological one?
I am reminded of when the MTA in New York went on strike many years ago. The only cars allowed into central Manhattan during peak times were those cars with four people in them. It was shocking to see how the congestion was eased, how many people biked or walked or work, or just worked from home. Likewise, in London the number of cars has been drastically reduced by congestion charging. In Amsterdam, by making cars the least efficient way of getting around they’re barely ever used. The problem with cars is that we enable them with infrastructure — if we don’t build the infrastructure for the cars, and instead build infrastructure for bikes, pedestrians, even motorcycles, we can make cities much less auto-dependent, and as a result much more sustainable. How much does this cost? Very little, relative to the cost of a new infrastructure for new technology.
Undoubtedly the structure of cars makes no sense — cars are too big, too inefficient — and they deserve a redesign. But policy makers should think twice before thinking that new technology is going to make our cities that much more sustainable. And frankly, the new technology just distracts from the issue at hand — like Steffens says, the ice caps are melting? Why can’t we get our heads around this fact? An article in the New York Times recently reported on the “perks” of buying a new electric Nissan Leaf: $13,000 in credits from the federal and state coffers. How about giving people $13,000 to give up their cars for good? Or charging people $13,000 for owning any kind of car? If we’re serious about sustainable cities, let’s really get serious here. Building a sustainable city will require compromise and a change in behavior. Once we accept that fact, the options of how to reduce carbon emissions multiply.