Don't believe the hype about autonomous vehicles. They won't be a substitute for a balanced system that includes rail transit and passenger rail.

Share story

Almost every day I encounter a breathless story about the revolution to come from self-driving cars. Far fewer deaths from automobile collisions! No traffic jams! No  distracted driving! In other words, here is The Answer to myriad problems created by an auto-centric culture.

Beneath it is a veiled excuse to continue sprawl and car-dependency, as well as ammunition for critics of transit investments, especially rail transit and intercity passenger trains. Suburban building moguls, gobsmacked by the back-to-the-city movement, love this argument. So do anti-transit ideologues. After decades of highly subsidized sprawl, we can have more — thanks to self-driving cars.

Here’s why I’m skeptical:

• As long as cars of any type are based on an internal-combustion engine, they will be prime culprits in the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. More aggressive sprawl, destroying precious farmland and wilderness, would further degrade the environment and hurt food security. Electric cars for most are a pipe dream and would still have to be charged from some source — in most places those charging stations would depend on power from generating stations run by fossil fuels.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

• Also, how long would it take for the majority of modestly paid Americans to afford a self-driving car, along with all the necessary maintenance to keep it safe? Decades at best. Never, more likely. The self-driving panacea doesn’t deliver if it represents merely a majority of well-off early adopters in the massive traffic jams that are our reality. Meanwhile, abandoning investments in transit risks widening inequality, as happened in many U.S. cities in the 1960s and 1970s.

• A new study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan casts doubt on whether self-driving vehicles would increase productivity of occupants. Most respondents to a survey said they would either prefer to be in control of the vehicle or would watch the road. Motion sickness and protection of occupants are other problems.

• Then there’s the powerful magnet of custom. Sure, the country is changing (for example, more people are choosing to live in transit-rich cities without the burden of car ownership). But most red-blooded Americans love to drive. This is something that makes the automobile synonymous with independence and freedom. This substantial number of drivers doesn’t have any interest in being stuck powerless inside a pod-on-wheels directed by algorithms. Plus, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, even less privacy.

Self-driving cars aren’t The Answer. But they may be one answer. With the U.S. population at almost 325 million — double where it stood in the mid-1950s,  and increasingly concentrated in large metropolitan areas — we’re going to need all sorts of intelligent responses. An overarching one, both for mobility and to head off the worst of climate change, is to recover a balanced transportation system.

Before freeways and interstates gutted so many American cities, the country had such a system: private automobiles, buses, rail transit, airlines and intercity passenger rail. Enormous subsidies and avoidance of costing externalities favored cars (and planes) until we almost lost rail. Now Los Angeles, for example, is essentially rebuilding the fabled Pacific Electric train system it ripped out in the 1940s and 1950s. Seattle is behind, especially because of its foolish rejection of a subway (mostly paid for by the feds) in 1970, but is beginning to make some progress with long-overdue light-rail.

In so many cases, we can’t widen our way out of traffic jams — much less make a dent in global warming. We need to regain that balance, including for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The self-driving vehicle disruption might not be pretty, either. Although it will be at least a few years before autonomous vehicles take humans out of long-distance trucking, they will throw potentially millions of short-haul and other commercial drivers out of work sooner. And they won’t have the wages to buy a self-driving car.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Work hard, pay taxes

Seattle City Council

Holds you in contempt