Self Driving Cars and Cities

If there’s one technology everyone thinks will impact cities in the future right now, it’s self driving cars. Now living in the Bay Area, I hear and see constant hype about these things, actually I’ve seen the real things, with Google logos, moving 10 mph by the Mountain View Caltrain station.

So how will they impact cities? Will they repeat the automobile patterns of suburban development?

It doesn’t matter.

Wanna know why?

Well, first, most technologies that really impact cities aren’t foreseen years in advance. Few engineering feats impacted cities in the early 19th century like the Cotton Gin. It allowed New York to surpass Philadelphia before the Erie Canal was built, as Lower Manhattan became the premier port for transferring cotton from Southern plantations to New England mills. Philly couldn’t compete due to the cost of going up and down the Delaware River, not to mention the longer distance to New England mill towns than New York had. The reason those New England towns, like Pawtucket and Fall River, grew was their position on waterfalls, which Philly also enjoyed, yet wasn’t prepared to take advantage of because city leaders didn’t see the impact coming. And neither did anyone else.

The gin increased the country’s cotton output by 100-fold from its invention in 1793 to 1825, and port traffic in New York soared as a result. Cotton accounted for nearly half of New York’s exports prior to the Civil War. There was no Gartner or IDC report predicting hockey stick growth for Mr. Whitney’s machine in the 1790s, but it had a massive impact on American cities.

There’s another reason self-driving cars won’t impact cities as greatly as everyone thinks. People-driving Ubers are already doing it. And like the Cotton Gin, no one saw them coming. In DC, many of the top nightlife spots, like Georgetown, 14th Street, H Street NE, and Adams-Morgan, are not especially close to the Metro. But no problem getting an Uber in these neighborhoods. Much of SoMa in San Francisco is in a similar situation.

The reality is that you are far more likely to sit in the back seat of an Uber between now and 2030 than in the backseat (or passenger seat) of a self-driving car. Why? The replacement cycle for cars is long, and going up, with the average car lasting 12 years now, about 50% higher than 30 years ago. And all those embedded semiconductors that allow a car to drive itself also allow any car to distribute gas precisely through fuel injectors, to avoid drifting into adjacent lines, and to spark the ignition without a distributor. This is why if you own a car built in the last 20 years, you’re wasting money on any sort of “tune up”.

The above is all the result of dramatically declining prices for embedded chips, which in turn have produced self-driving capabilities, and have captured the press’s imagination much more than distributorless ignitions, because they sound a lot more exciting. These cheap chips have also improved the reliability of cars, and extended their lives, making it possible for modern cars to last much longer than their 1970s ancestors which relied on carburetors, hydraulics and mechanical linkages to distribute fuel, spark the engine, and drive the car. So are you going to trade in your reliable, electronically-controlled Lexus ES300 Hybrid, with 30 payments left, to get a more expensive self-driving version?

Self-driving cars are not a surprising development for cities the way the Cotton Gin was, and the underlying technology trends supporting them are already at work in existing cars. On top of that, people-driven Ubers are already providing an efficient way to get around cities that no one saw coming ten years ago, and have provided an alternative to public transport. Just ask anyone who tried to catch a cab in the Mission, Adams-Morgan, Belltown, or the Back Bay ten years ago,

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