A few weeks ago, Elon Musk announced Phase II of his master plan to create a fleet of self-driving cars that will earn you money by driving around and operating similar to an Uber during times your car normally is parked in the driveway or at the office. Sounds good, right? Your car can make you money and maybe even pay for itself! Meanwhile, less people need to have cars because you could simply have your neighbor's car drop off your kid at school or drive you to work. Fewer total cars, more electric cars, less greenhouse gas emissions. Win-win-win.
A recent Vox article following the master plan claims that "the way we use cars now is dumb." (Yes, that's a direct quote.) The author uses two statistics about privately owned cars to support his argument:
1) they’re parked about 95 percent of the time, and
2) more than 70 percent of commutes in most U.S. cities are in single-occupancy vehicles.
While these figures may seem alarming, take a second to reflect on how you use your car (if you have one.) You drive to school or to work in the morning—or to school for drop-off and then to work—and, in the afternoon, you commute home. Sometimes you run an errand or take a road trip, but your daily commute accounts for most of your total mileage.
So, let’s take a closer look at commuting. What does your daily commute look like?
You’re stuck in traffic! The road is full of cars—more cars than it can accommodate. Forget this statistic that cars are parked 95 percent of the time; the problem is that everyone uses their car around the same time. Letting your car have a second, third, or fourth family doesn't actually deal with the root of the issue.
Even if a car weren't parked 95 percent of the time, who would ride in it during these "off-hours"? Certainly, some people drive during off-hours, but, compared with the number of commuters, they are few and far between. Moreover, if a car is self-driving itself around, commuting from pick-up to pick-up while you're at work, wouldn't that make more traffic during off-hours? There would be more traffic all the time... which the empty cars would get stuck in, as well.
So on to statistic number two, wouldn't it be great if we ride shared during rush hour? 70 percent of commutes are in single-occupancy vehicles—one lone rider per car. Ride sharing should solve the problem of rush hour traffic.
But, here's the thing: we simply don't ride share. We could drive a neighbor to work or a neighbor's kid to school today. But, we just don't. Even when it's greatly advantageous to ride share, we sit in traffic alone; meanwhile, a rogue ride sharer zips by in the HOV lane once every few minutes.
If we choose not to ride share, if we all commute at the same time, will a self-driving car that multiple users can share while its owner is already safely at the office solve any of our problems?
Our problem might actually be that we're bad sharers.
Bad sharers who like to all be in the same place, at the same time, not sharing.
It's true that some things are easier to share than others—I'm much more likely to lend someone my Netflix password than the keys to my parents' car. So, what's difference between movie sharing and car sharing?
When I watch a movie on Netflix, I watch the same movie anyone else watches. When I drive a car, I don't drive the same car everyone else drives.
Cars are seemly inextricably tied to our sense of class in America. Why buy a Lexus instead of a Honda? If your goal is to simply commute, both cars can do this. Yet, we get more utility out of a Lexus because part of what we purchase with an extra 20K is status. Not all commutes are equal.
There's also tranquility in isolation. Ever taken a 30-minute Uber ride and the driver is blaring salsa music? And you wanted to listen to your audiobook! Your kids argue daily over which Disney album to queue next on the 10-minute ride to school. Maybe you work in an open floorplan office, and you just want some peace and quiet on your ride home. We've habitualized the reward of the peaceful, isolated commute. You can play Hamilton on loop and sing all the cast parts. You can turn off the road for coffee at the drop of a hat. You can pick up your dry cleaning and then get gas—or vice versa! The choices are endless! After a long day, finally you are in control.
So, what if we zapped that? What would be the difference between hopping in an off-duty car with some strangers (somewhat similar to UberPool or LyftLine today) and hopping on the subway? During rush hour, the subway's faster anyhow. What if we are missing the point entirely, and the thing we need to get more cars off the road is what we've needed all along: a farther-reaching, more reliable network of public transportation.
The sharing economy is popular and intrinsic to snake people, much more so than to any other generation—this is a familiar headline. But when we talk about the sharing economy, we often overlook two key points:
1) there is a limit to how much we want to share, and
2) there are limits to whom we want to share with.
Maybe by the time Elon Musk is plotting Phase III of his master plan, we'll have learned to share. Maybe we'll have done away with income inequality and adopted a universal basic income. I, for one, am not holding my breath. I don't want to buy a car with a second life; I want more public transportation, reliable public transportation, and fast public transportation. But with the L train tunnel shutting down in 2019, I guess I shouldn't hold my breath for that, either.
Ignoring the issues of our public transportation infrastructure in favor of self-driving cars risks not investing in the public good and turning a chronic public need into someone else's personal fortune.