BEN WEAR: CAN AUSTIN BE DRIVER­LESS CAR CAP­I­TAL?

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Ben Wear

Al­low me to dance along that fine line be­tween skep­ti­cism and cyn­i­cism.

The Austin City Coun­cil last week passed a res­o­lu­tion that — af­ter an ex­haust­ing 22 “where­ases” about our fair city, au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles and elec­tric cars — es­sen­tially or­dered the city staff to think hard about the sub­ject, write a plan and then hire some­one to think full-time about au­to­mated and elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

Coun­cil Mem­ber Ann Kitchen, at a news con­fer­ence held Thurs­day in the wake of the res­o­lu­tion be­com­ing city pol­icy, said the six-page doc­u­ment asked for the an­swer to “one of his­tory’s big­gest what­ifs.” That be­ing, she went on to say, what if we went from a cul­ture of in­di­vid­ual car own­er­ship to one of trans­porta­tion more or less ex­clu­sively be­ing a prod­uct we buy from others? Driver­less, elec­tric trans­porta­tion.

That is most def­i­nitely a huge what-if. I’m un­fa­mil­iar with the recorded his­tory of what-ifs, how­ever, so I’ll re­serve judg­ment on its stand­ing.

Mayor Steve Adler was next up, telling us that Austin had al­ready be­come the “Kitty Hawk” of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles in Au­gust 2015 when a Google car took the first spin ever in real traf­fic with­out a driver be­hind the wheel. Austin, he said, “should be to au­to­mated ve­hi­cles what Detroit was to the last cen­tury of au­tomak­ers.”

Later, I pon­dered that Kitty Hawk de­scrip­tor. Orville and Wilbur Wright made those first suc­cess­ful flights in De­cem­ber 1903 over a de­serted beach, a con­trolled set­ting more akin to

Google and its Cal­i­for­nia test track runs. The Austin maiden trip, I sup­pose, would be com­pa­ra­ble to that point a bit later when the Wrights or their com­peti­tors first flew a rick­ety craft over some­one’s rooftop. At that point it went from sci­ence to se­ri­ous.

I asked the coun­cil mem­bers about the Detroit com­par­i­son. Are

they en­vi­sion­ing Austin as a man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles? Well, no, not nec­es­sar­ily,

they said. But Austin could be a place where the soft­ware and per­haps com­po­nent parts are pro­duced for auto plants al­ready on

the ground in San An­to­nio and Dal­las. Speak­ing of what-ifs.

But if all this brow-fur­row­ing pro­duces noth­ing more in the short run

than, as the res­o­lu­tion dubs it, a “chief of­fi­cer of EV/AV trans­porta­tion ser­vices,” that wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be the worst

thing.

I re­mem­ber when I first got here in the mid1990s that Austin had cre­ated a “bi­cy­cle co­or­di­na­tor” po­si­tion. There might even have been a pedes­trian co­or­di­na­tor as well, or per­haps one per­son took on both roles. Any­way, D Js Sammy Allred and Bob Cole on KVET ra­dio, in par­tic­u­lar, had a lot of fun with what they re­garded as an odi­ous waste of tax­payer money.

But look around two decades later, and Austin has a lot more side­walks,

bike lanes and off-street trails. Rea­son­able peo­ple can dif­fer on the pol­icy mer­its of that. But what is un­de­ni­able is that the city, hav­ing some­one to fo­cus on get­ting that done, got much done. Of course, it was done with city money on city

con­trolled right of way. In con­trast, what­ever hap­pens with au­ton­o­mous and elec­tric ve­hi­cles, and their com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion into driver­less taxi ser­vices, will have to come mostly from the pri­vate sec­tor. But gov­ern­ment at least can nudge that devel­op­ment along and per­haps steer it in var­i­ous ways. And Austin’s hope is to guide that ser­vice, and that mar­ket, Austin’s way. And, while they’re at it, turn city-owned Austin En­ergy into the more or less the ex­clu­sive provider of trans­porta­tion fuel in a large swath of Cen­tral Texas. The res­o­lu­tion notes that “lead­ing cities and na­tions” have adopted goals of hav­ing noth­ing but elec­tric-pow­ered ve­hi­cles by 2030. It goes on to note, deco­rously, that “a high de­gree of elec­tri­fi­ca­tion will have sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on fis­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties for Austin En­ergy.”

Chew on that one for a sec­ond. Es­pe­cially if you own a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of ExxonMo­bil shares. We’re talk­ing 13 years from now. Ka-ching.

Any­way, per­haps the greater ques­tion is cul­tural, which both the res­o­lu­tion and the elected of­fi­cials ad­dressed to some de­gree. The not-so-dis­tant fu­ture they’re en­vi­sion

ing would be one in which not only is the car the one do­ing the driv­ing rather than a hu­man, but the hu­man do­ing the own­ing of the car isn’t you. And

a time in which trans­porta­tion, which will al­ways carry a sig­nif­i­cant cost, is bought in small chunks rather than be­ing put on re­tainer.

Peo­ple, in other words, would buy miles rather than Maz­das. And that

raises all sorts of ques­tions, and fears, about

cost and loss of in­di­vid­ual con­trol.

I just got back from a short trip to the Los An­ge­les area, specif­i­cally the large poly­gon be­tween Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port, Santa Mon­ica, Burbank and down­town Los An­ge­les. The visit was sort of a scout­ing trip for my daugh­ter as she pre­pares to grad­u­ate from col­lege, and the five days were packed with ap­point­ments in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

We rented a car rather than what would have been the ru­inously ex­pen-

sive op­tion in this case of ride-hail­ing, given the dis­tances and traf­fic con­ges­tion. It cost me less than $40 a day.

Sure, in this po­ten­tial fu­ture that Austin lead

ers are en­vi­sion­ing, I sup­pose a per­son could rent a driver­less car on a per­day ba­sis rather on a per­trip ba­sis. And that might work when you’re on a va­ca­tion or busi­ness trip. But what about full-time res­i­dents? How many trips to and from school, to and from work, to soc­cer prac­tice, to the gro­cery store or to wher­ever would it take be­fore the cost is way be­yond what it takes to own a car now? I’ve seen es­ti­mates that

the av­er­age cost of own­ing a car, tak­ing into ac­count pay­ments, re­pairs, gas and in­sur­ance, can eas­ily ex­ceed $8,500 a year. But that’s just $23 a day, or

about three short trips in a ride-hail­ing ve­hi­cle.

So ei­ther th­ese ro­bot rent-a-cars are go­ing to have to be much cheaper (and they could be, some­what, given the lack of a driver, al­though the added cost of equip­ping cars with that whiz-bang tech­nol­ogy should work against that), or peo­ple are go­ing to have to travel many fewer miles. That

per­son liv­ing in Kyle or Round Rock bet­ter find a job, ed­u­ca­tion and recre­ation close to home. Or just shrink their lives in

other ways. As I said, cul­ture change.

Any­one who has been around for a de­cent amount of time, or read his­tory, knows bet­ter than to write off any sort of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, or the ca­pac­ity of peo­ple to adopt and adapt. So what Kitchen and Adler were talk­ing about last

week could very well hap­pen, and hap­pen sooner

than seems pos­si­ble at this point. So, tak­ing a good look at it, and hir­ing some­one to fo­cus on it, might not be wacky. It could be wise.

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