Today’s cars have their problems, but technology will make them better

Our political opponents seem determined to end or at least seriously diminish the use of the automobile.  

The Greens constantly complain about investments in new roads. 

In Auckland, the left wing Mayor is trying to compress future development into walking distance from his train stations.

On the other hand New Zealanders continue to register around 140,000 new cars every year, and no matter how much petrol prices go up, people keep driving.  

Teenagers are generally more excited about getting their drivers licence than a bus ticket.  Kiwis love their cars, but perhaps the public transport crowd have a point?

Cars are noisy, they’re dangerous, they emit fumes, they take up so much space that our cities seem to be built for cars first and people second, and they are not much fun to sit in on a jammed Auckland motorway. 

The price of petrol seems to go higher and higher, and it is true that some of the roads being built which seem like a great idea (e.g. the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway extension) don’t actually pass muster with some cost-benefit analyses.

On the other hand there are real, right-now technological advances that are about to make cars better than ever.  Electric cars, driverless cars, mobile phone ride ordering and road pricing will solve many of our opponents’ objections and allow people to keep enjoying their freedom and mobility.

Fantasy?  All of these technologies are real, but the exciting bit is imagining them coming together.

The state of California has just changed its laws to allow driverless vehicles on its roads.  This is significant because driverless cars are already a practical reality, and auto industry chiefs have said that the real barriers are now legal rather than technological.   Driverless cars mean commute time can become reading time, safety improves, and more cars can use the same road space because computers are generally better at driving than humans.

In Washington, D.C. there is a major fight going down between the taxi industry and would be taxi drivers.  The reason is that people are using their smart phones to order rides, which is breaking up the old taxi monopolies.  Smart phone ordering means that you need only touch one button, and the driver finds you using GPS.  Better still, you can see how far away the taxi is, so no more waiting anxiously for a ride.  The reason it’s created such a fight is that now anybody with a smart phone can be a taxi for order.

Finally, in several places around the world, but most notably Stockholm, Sweden, cities are using variable pricing for road use.  The beauty of it is that it forces people to avoid busy times (which are more expensive) and this has significantly reduced congestion.

Imagine now putting these technologies together.  Cars will become quieter and more efficient because they will use electricity for most of their travel.  They drive themselves, and you can use your phone to call them to pick you up, or go away and find a park somewhere else.  Meanwhile travel is regulated by price which dramatically reduces congestion.  All of this is either in use, on the market, or well developed technology already.

The private car can become much, much more efficient.  We should expect to keep driving, and keep enjoying the lifestyle it brings. 

Therefore there is every reason to keep investing in roads.