Thursday, January 26, 2012

more trains AND fancy cars

Amanda Marcotte was disappointed with Wired's article on robot-driven cars, because trains are apparently the only technology we need.

Owning a self-driving car doesn't mean that it always has to be on autopilot; on those occasions when you're driving through the mountains, car commercial-style, you can turn it off. But most time spent in the car is a drag: going to work, going to store, trying to find a parking space, boring crap like that. I bet a lot of people would love to pass the responsibility on to a robot, so they can then, as Vanderbilt admits, use the time for texting or looking at Facebook on their phones.  
Which brings me to why I was frustrated. These companies are spending a lot of money on researching self-driving cars to address the desire of people to be able to commute without having to drive. But there's already a superior solution to that problem, one that addresses both the desire to not drive and it's better for the environment: public transportation. People don't need self-driving cars! They need better trains and buses, and more accessible trains and buses. Imagine if the resources being devoted to self-driving cars were instead aimed at expanding the public transportation infrastructure and making in more comfortable. For instance, Vanderbilt is right that people's desire to surf the net instead of watch the road could incline them to want to avoid driving to work, if that were an option. Well, why not put high-speed wi-fi internet on all public transportation, and then advertise the shit out of it? Instead of spending money on developing self-driving cars, what about high-speed trains? What about more subway systems? There's a serious "reinventing the wheel" problem here. 
It is certainly worthwhile to point out that some of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles are also the selling points of tried and true train technology. So yes, I second the notion that we should build more rail networks. But opposing autonomous vehicles for this reason strikes me as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. After all, another selling point of robot-driven cars is that humans are dangerous drivers. Robots on the road will in all likelihood save lives. Unless automobiles are going to be outlawed in favor of trains, people will be riding in cars for the foreseeable future. Why not encourage a technology that will make everyone on the roads safer? This either/or mentality also fails to appreciate possible spillover effects of autonomous vehicles. For all we know, this is the stepping stone to the Jetsons-style flying cars we've been promised.

1 comment:

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