HWR, Sept. 20: will self-driving cars be the coolest thing ever or just a scary reading chair?

Dept. of Reaction: Lots of good comments on our Facebook page from riders on Metro’s service to the Rams squashing of the Seahawks on Sunday. Here’s our Source post on the 21K fans that Metro took to the game — about 26 percent of the fans, a very high number. By comparison, New Jersey Transit took about 28,000 fans to the Super Bowl in the Meadowlands three years ago — and NJ Transit is a big, big transit provider.

Things to read whilst transiting: an entertaining profile of Patagonia founder and legendary climber Yvon Chouinard. The company is based in Ventura and is doing well, but Chouinard has less than optimistic views about which way the world environment is going.

Baseball: If I was a Dodger fan, I’d be rooting for them to not only win the NL West but knock the Giants out of the wildcard this week. Last night was a good start in that direction. Going to the game? Try the Dodger Stadium Express.

Art of Transit: 


Citrus Avenue extension finally open to Gold Line’s APU/Citrus Station (SGV Tribune)

Google Maps needs an updated image! But you get the gist of it: Citrus Ave is the fastest way to get to the Gold Line station from the college campuses.

Google Maps needs an updated image! But you get the gist of it: Citrus Ave is the fastest way to get to the Gold Line station from the college campuses.

The developer Rosedale Land Partners finally opened the quarter-mile road on Monday, meaning Citrus College and Azusa Pacific University students can now walk directly to the station instead of taking a circuitous shuttle (which will now end as it’s no longer needed). It’s also easier for motorists to reach the parking garage at the station, which until now has only been accessible by driving through the Rosedale development.

Infrastructure Evangelist (People Who Move People) 

Phil greeting passengers at the Monrovia Gold Line station in March. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

Phil greeting passengers at the Monrovia Gold Line station in March. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

Some excerpts:

When we sit down at the conference table, I ask what drew him to Los Angeles. “The potential to impact the lives of county residents is greater here than anyplace else in the country,” he says, reminding me of its 10.1 million residents. “I couldn’t pass that up.” He has high expectations for LA Metro. Currently, between 7 and 10 percent of the population uses transit to get around. “I want to see that go to 25,” says Phil. “It’s not gonna be overnight, but I think we’ll get there.”

I confess to Phil that when I told people I was writing a story about public transit in Los Angeles, several didn’t even know it existed. The only LA narrative they knew was of traffic and smog. Phil smiles knowingly. “There was a long time that folks out here didn’t even know there was a subway,” he says. “This is car country.” He thinks it’s a story common across the American West. “These Western cities are struggling with their public transit identity,” he says. “In the cowboy movies, everybody rode up with their own horse, strapped it to the pole, and went inside. It was one horse, one person. Hardly anybody rode the stagecoach.” He says the people in Southern California have a vastly different opinion on transit from those in the Northeast. “But it’s changing, and it’s exciting to watch that change.”

There’s one element, however, that he warns me I can’t neglect to mention in a discussion on building infrastructure. “The thing that worries me when I’m talking about these big plans is a qualified workforce,” he says. “The people side of this is equally important.”

Read the entire piece. There’s more on Phil growing up on the South Side of Chicago, what he learned in the military and how he plans to show the agency and the region that building a modern transportation network is an attainable goal.

Self-driving cars gain a powerful ally: the government (NYT)

The Obama Administration issued guidelines about technical issues they want carmakers to address. This is getting a lot of media play despite the fact these are only guidelines, not yet rules. The media is playing this as the feds betting big on self-driving cars, but that has been apparent for some time.

But let’s take a look at the quote that is getting a lot of attention :

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”

Illustration by Harry Campbell from the New Yorker.

Illustration by Harry Campbell from the New Yorker.

Time? The bet here is that self-driving cars will be able to drive closer together and eliminate a lot of the human driver behaviors that cause delays. Of course, we don’t know yet if human driving will be outlawed or if every car owner will be able to afford a self-driving car. So it’s probably too early to know if self-driving cars will make your trip quicker, although perhaps you’ll be able to read while the car drives. Plus, self-driving cars will likely drive cautiously and adhere to the law. Meaning your self-driving car probably won’t be blowing through yellow lights, executing California rolls through stop signs, breaking the speed limit, etc.

Money? This is a reference to self-driving cars more efficiently using gasoline and, thus, lowering emissions — which carry their own set of costs. In terms of personal savings, it seems likely to me that cars with self-driving technology will be significantly more expensive than existing cars. Will people be willing to pay for it? Sure. It’s like telephones. I can buy a cheap phone that plugs into my wall at home for less than $20. I can also buy a $700 smartypants phone with a ton of other functions that is extremely small and portable. My point: tech almost aways comes with a price, at least initially. In terms of emissions, there’s probably more to be gained by making cars much more fuel efficient or changing the fleet to electric vehicles powered by renewables.

Safety? This to me is the big advantage of self-driving cars. Humans do not have a great track record when it comes to driving (almost 40K deaths last year not to mention many more terrible injuries). And self-driving may be a boon for seniors who already cars but are no longer comfortable driving them.

What’s considered drunk driving in a self-driving car? Does a sober human still need to be behind the wheel? And how much safer will things really be if humans are still allowed to drive? And do you trust the carmakers to not put this technology until it’s proven to really work? Do you trust VW, for example? And what about the questions of ethics raised in the above video? And what kind of safety gains can we make right here, right now simply by better enforcing traffic laws and cracking down on distracted driving?

I think self-driving cars are going to happen, although I think it’s going to take longer than many would have you believe. But let’s not assume these things are a panacea for all things traffic or will fix all that’s wrong with cars. They won’t be.


3 replies

  1. Regarding NJ Transit at last year’s Super Bowl in the Meadowlands, people were stranded for hours as they waited to be taken back into Manhattan. With his abandonment of the much-needed Hudson River tunnel, his refusal to raise the gas tax, his plundering of the Port Authority’s treasury for political favoritism and (need I mention it?) Bridge-gate, I commend him for excellence in anti-transit skullduggery.

  2. I once inquired about rail training programs at local trade colleges and never heard back. LATTC would seem to the ideal location to have such a program. I would be interested in learning about career opportunities in in rail maintenance.

  3. Even with a self-driving car, you’ve still got a fairly sizable powertrain hauling around a fairly heavy hunk of tin, just to carry (at most) four or five people around. Doesn’t sound very efficient, does it?