Between expensive parking, wide sidewalks and a relatively progressive array of bike lanes and paths, it’s never been more attractive to be a carless student in Madison. Plus, Google’s incorporation of the Madison Metro bus schedules into its Maps feature has made it even easier to make use of our segregated fee-funded, but seemingly free, city bus passes. However, beyond the faux-reality that is college, the rest of the nation is collectively peeing its pants in anticipation of something Wired said this week will “become the norm around the middle of the century”: Google’s self-driving cars.
Redefining what it means to be a “smart car,” these vehicles use a laser range finder that mounts on its roof to create a 3D map of its surroundings. There is also a sensor on each bumper, a camera near the rearview mirror to detect traffic lights and a GPS, according to an online explainer. The sensors can tell when a pedestrian runs out in front, and they know when another car hesitates at an intersection that it’s time to accelerate. They follow traffic laws better than a precocious 16-year-old taking a behind-the-wheel test – supporting predictions that people will not need a drivers’ license by 2040. And they are past the experimental stages: two states are already on deck to make self-driving cars street legal.
Google is eliminating the most major current cause of car accidents: human error. For that, it should be lauded. From a broad standpoint, though, this innovation could be just the step backward in transportation our national infrastructure does not need.
It is unnecessary to point out gas prices are at an all-time high, fossil fuels will one day run out and that companies are using ever-riskier methods to drill for oil as it becomes less plentiful – a recent high-profile example is the Deepwater Horizon spill. Investing more creative energy, time and enormous funds on a finite institution is a waste, and could be better channeled in plenty of other ways.
Although Google’s prototypes are all fuel-efficient Toyota Prius models, Toyota will not have a monopoly on autonomous vehicles when these hit the market. Soon, the manufacturers of Escalades and Range Rovers will have just as much access to the technology. And even the Prius mostly relies on gasoline.
California, the birthplace of Google and home to some of the most car-centric cities in America, has improved leaps and bounds with shifting land-use rules, state funding for affordable public transit lines and Copenhagen-inspired biking advances, a Slate column reported this week. Why lose that momentum with a simultaneous move to, along with Nevada, become one of the first states to dive into more car-based technologies?
The intention here is not to steal Google’s innovative thunder – to absolutely criticize its inventive success would smack of 1800s-era “horseless carriage” naysayers – but shouldn’t one of America’s most groundbreaking of companies use some foresight on where it focuses its billion-dollar talents? Oil-dependent cars will not be around forever, and with so many other viable options like high-speed rail and fuel cell vehicles there is no reason to prolong the demise of this outmoded form of travel.
This point is only strengthened by looking at self-driving cars from a fiscal standpoint. Wealth-centric Forbes Magazine has covered the technology throughout its recent development, and the headline of a Business Insider piece this month blares “Google’s self-driving cars may cost more than a Ferrari.” The BI article goes on to say the sensors alone, which are key in preventing crashes, cost $250,000 or more per vehicle.
While occupants of the Forbes 400 list can perhaps spring for such a luxury, the average reader – businesspeople who dream of one day entering Warren Buffet’s inner circle, as much as People subscribers believe their destiny is to marry True Blood cast members – probably cannot. When the most common argument against high speed rail and other energy-efficient forms of transportation is they are too expensive, or there is no market to justify fronting the money, it seems contradictory people are accepting self-driving cars so seamlessly. After all, they come with a comparatively high up-front cost. And while mass transit systems deplete that cost each year through savings on fuel, self-driving cars will not – unless Google comes up with an electric or otherwise renewable-energy version down the line.
Critics raise concerns related mainly to self-driving cars’ road safety, understandably, yet the idea of introducing a new era of low-efficiency, few-passenger vehicles dependent on fossil-fuels has gone entirely unquestioned in mainstream media.
As college students, we are for the most part forced to be sustainable, live within our means and acquire necessities from within walking and biking distance. Without turning the country’s cities into 30,000 versions of Madison, Google is capable of guiding us in the right direction for everyone to have access to those realities. It would mean devoting its innovative capabilities on public transit and renewable energies, not just a souped-up “I, Robot” Prius. It requires the brightest minds in technology deciding to make non-car transport a priority.
Sarah Witman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.