Car Culture: Drivers need to have hand in future

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Last week I did the Michigan “Double Trip”: One jaunt on I-94 to Chicago and back, and another round-trip up north through the middle of the state. I drove a Chrysler the east-west way and a Honda on the north-south, and made an effort to use cruise control as much as I could. As I suspected, however, both cars’ speed controls were useless features for the whole length and breadth of the state — I couldn’t maintain a steady speed for more than a couple minutes before blocking cars behind me, or being blocked.

This feature failure on the big 300S and the little HR-V was not because traffic was overly dense. But the weaknesses of our transportation system seemed to be more exposed than ever: Drivers have simply given up on participating, which wrecks everyone’s ability to enjoy Chrysler, Honda or any car.

Autonomous cars are predicted to make up the majority of vehicle traffic by 2045, according to an Oct. 29 Bloomberg Business story headlined: “Can Detroit Beat Google to the Self-Driving Car?” I see autonomous cars as permanent roadblocks, huge herds of rolling congestion.

That’s our motoring future: By 2045, as predicted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new 322-page report called “Beyond Traffic: Trends and Choices 2045”, manufacturers will advertise their vehicles’ strong suspensions and entertainment capabilities more than horsepower or handling or any other attribute. Congestion will be so bad and roads so bumpy that we’ll all just want to watch movies as we slowly bounce and judder across destroyed macadam in our cars. As Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, describes the report, it’s a survey intended to start a dialogue among all citizens about how to adapt to road problems.

Foxx explains the dramatic reduction in the quality of our roads today — dropping from eighth to 16th worldwide since the 2008 recession — combines with other factors to increase congestion if the current transportation planning system doesn’t change soon.

Today the average American spends five whole days per year stuck in traffic, says the federal report. It’s worse in Michigan where our asphalt tends to carry monstrously heavy 42-wheel trucks not legal in other states. So we have to spend more time earning money to fix our cars’ worn-out pieces and following slower drone-cars on one-lane Interstate highways because the truck-dominated right lanes are completely worn out.

Not surprisingly, car travel has been dropping since 2006. That’s completely opposite of the booming 1980s and 1990s, when carpooling, public transit and walking all declined while car travel increased.

The Feds say that 30 years from now everyday will be like today’s Thanksgiving day--the worst traffic you can imagine. That congestion is because of an expected population increase of 70 million despite that everyone wants out of cars as much as possible. These dire predictions bake in the data that 10 percent of all workers now spend one workday a week toiling at home. A third of all workers vary their schedules to broaden commute windows. Toll roads are expected to boom, and as they rely on non-government, private industry funding, highways may end as class-based road systems. Cadillac is planning its Super Cruise near-autonomous technology so its drivers don’t have to go through most of the motions of actually driving on a highway.

And that also reveals the ugly social implications. As recently as 2000 there were “only” 31 million Americans in poverty, now there are 45 million, says the DOT report. Transportation costs for this group are about one-third of their incomes; what we used to call “middle-class” workers spend one-fifth of their incomes on cars and transportation. As cities attract more affluent workers who are sick of commuting, poverty is increasing faster in suburbs where there is no public transit. Half of all Americans live in suburbs now. One-third of all commutes start and end in suburbs, says the report. “We may increasingly find ourselves in a world where some cities become the domain of the affluent, while those with less wealth must contend with congestion on metropolitan outskirts.” Forty-five percent of Americans already lack access to public transit. The DOT is suggesting solutions to keep the working class at their jobs: Subsidized car ownership and sharing.

What the huge “Beyond Traffic” report didn’t touch on was driver responsibility. That’s the concept of each one of us being responsible for the system of traffic flow. Cruise control and its future extension into autonomous cars gives all drivers a pass at personal responsibility, of actually having to pay attention to what the rest of the world is doing. The act of not being distracted and consciously keeping up with traffic means keeping a passageway open for any car traveling faster than the herd, and expecting a passage being kept open for you. You can’t do that with cruise control, or Cadillac’s Super Cruise, and nobody in the autonomous car world is talking about it. Road drones cause as much of a block in traffic as do accidents in my judgment. For the record, one-third of all congestion is from collisions, say the Feds.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that one-third of fatal crashes could be prevented by forward collision warning and lane departure warning technology, both functions that replace drivers’ burden of looking out of their windshields. I’m going to make a projection into the future here: Congestion from drivers being non-participants will likely lead to just as many fatal crashes as technology is expected to prevent.

Concludes the “Beyond Traffic” report: “Our transportation system does not have to be a force that exacerbates social divisions and income inequality — it can be connective tissue, that provides opportunities for us all.”

It can only if we create the conditions for drivers to participate, not check out.