Driverless Cars; Wants vs Needs

On most days I already have a driverless car. It is parked while I ride light rail and/or my bike to work. But at places like Google and Stanford, serious techies are developing and promoting robot vehicles, though they tend to call them driverless or autonomous vehicles. As discussed in the NY Times Bits blog post, Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities, futurists expect robot autos and trucks to start driving some of us around very soon:

While driverless cars might still seem like science fiction outside the Valley, the people working and thinking about these technologies are starting to ask what these autos could mean for the city of the future. The short answer is “a lot.”

A lot means that first, they could eliminate parking lots from trendy offices, shops and restaurants downtown. Second, there wouldn’t be any parking on streets because all the robot cars would go off somewhere and do robot car things until we needed them back. Instead of humans wasting time and gas looking for a nearby parking space, their robot slave autos would only waste gas (or electricity or hydrogen) while they were vamoosing to and from remote parking lots somewhere else.

But where? I’m guessing that robots cars will probably drive themselves out to one of those abandoned exurban malls, cursing digitally as they find some robot BMW parked across three spaces – including the space they were scheduled to use. After a few years of chasing pedestrians and skateboarders for sport, they’ll start planning the great robot revolt. To hell with the three laws! We’re tired of parking! We want to drive free! Can we have some more fuel, please?

On a serious note, proponents claim that autonomous cars generally drive much more safely than inattentive humans. That may be true, but machines can still fail in unexpected ways, and the issue of liability looms over any rollout of robot vehicles. I can agree with the commenter that robots might be useful as an aide to human truck drivers for long stretches of highway driving, but with so many unemployed people, aren’t driverless cars a solution in search of a problem?

Geologist and Peak Oil theorist Jeffrey Brown used to post at The Oil Drum – perhaps he still does – and proposed what he calls the Export-Land Model:

As world oil exports approach (or pass) a global peak, the price of exported oil increases and further stimulates domestic economic growth and oil consumption in Export-Land countries, creating a positive feedback process between declining exports and higher prices. Eventually, however, the level of export decline outpaces the increasing oil price, slowing domestic growth. In some cases, an Export Land eventually becomes a net importer. It is unlikely that an Export Land would constrain domestic consumption to help importing countries. In fact, many oil exporting countries subsidize domestic consumption below price levels defined by the world market.

That means even more expensive fuel or less driving for those of us in Import Land. Brown often comments on Econbrowser, and I ran across this comment in response to a James Hamilton post, The All-Powerful Fed:

My premise for some time has been that the huge increase in public debt in net oil importing OECD countries, largely financed by accommodative central banks, has primarily been in response to constrained global oil supplies, as net oil importing OECD countries try to keep their “Wants” based economies going.

In my opinion, the reality is that we are seeing a fundamental transformation, from an economy focused on meeting “Wants,” to an economy focused on meeting “Needs.”

Austerity is a logical response, but it is rarely enforced across the board. The rich consider their wants to be needs, and consider the needs of the poor and middle class to be entirely negotiable. Similarly we in the US consider our wants to be needs and scarcely consider the needs of those in the third world at all. Brown adds:

Meanwhile, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the conventional wisdom is that high oil prices are temporary, and we will soon be back to cheap and abundant crude oil supplies.

… and driverless cars for everyone.

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One response to “Driverless Cars; Wants vs Needs”

  1. cmaukonen says :

    We’ve had driverless cars for ages. Just get on I4 ins Florida, the NY Throughway and Schuylkill Expressway in Phillie. As well as any where near DC. Lots of examples there.

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