There’s a horribly simplistic article over on Slate about what autonomous cars might mean for your morning commute. The author calls it “back of the envelope”, but what he really means is ‘through his hat’. His thesis is that (a) autonomous cars are coming, (b) comm-linked autonomous cars can do cool things like safely drive faster than normal cars, up to 120mph (c) many people commute over an hour or more one way, THEREFORE (d) we’ll be able to live 120 miles away from work and still make the commute, which will move urban sprawl into the next state.
There’s not enough pixels on this page to list all the unrealities here, all the major changes in laws and infrastructure and logic that would have to occur in order for this to happen. Things like, there can’t be any old time hand-cars on the road to get in your way. Or, to make these times you have to live close enough to a freeway exit to be kept awake by the trucks downshifting to get off, and your work will have to be equally close to the freeway (that, or the downtown speed limits will have to be raised to 60mph from 25). And so forth.
Myself, I think there will be major impacts of auto-cars, but I think it will go in the other direction. It won’t matter where you live, because you’ll be at work the instant you buckle up. If the car can link to other cars, it can link to the Internet, and if you can link to the Internet, you can work anywhere.
So, you get in the car and clock in at 8AM. The morning rush hour of hand-cars is already past, because those poor slobs had to be into the office by now. An hour or two later your car deposits you at your office and you seamlessly resume work, with no more interruption than a 9 or 10AM coffee break requires. Around three or four in the afternoon (an hour or so before the hand-car rush hour) you get back in the car, and continue to work until you arrive home, at five or six.
One set of predictions I’ve seen says that with auto-cars, few people will own one any more. They’ll call for one when they need it. Or maybe they can carpool. So, add some soundproof dividers, and have an on-call auto-car carry three or four people from the same neighborhood to the same district of the city. Maybe the commute is a little longer, because of the pickups and drop offs, but it’s not like that would interfere with work.
I’d like to say that turning all the lanes of the freeway into HOV-4 would cut down on the number of cars on the road, but I keep thinking of my DC days, when every increase in capacity was gobbled up by increased traffic before it was completed. Of course, we don’t have to restrict ourselves to auto-cars, what about auto-vans?
There’s some optimum seating capacity for a given density of suburban homes and urban businesses. For DC it would be easy — 90% would be within ten blocks of the Washington Monument, so the bigger the bus, the better. For LA, it might be harder, and we’d have smaller cars running around from Huntington Beach to Rancho Cucamonga.
Of course, if the robots take all our jobs, then we won’t have to worry about the commute.