Forget Flying Cars; The Future Is Golf Carts

“Whoa there speed demon… where’s the server outage?”

Welp, it finally happened.

Those free-wheelin’ rebels known as Google’s autonomous cars were pulled over by the fuzz for doing a blistering 24mph in a 35mph zone. And yet, no ticket. What sort of greasy-palmed backdoor deal is this?! Does Google own the police now too? How did they get away with it, you clamor?

The answer isn’t as controversial as you’d think: the Google Koala car is actually a very fancy golf cart, according to California’s Neighborhood Electric Vehicle regulations under which such vehicles are registered. Specifically, the vehicles may operate on 35mph roads, but they may not surpass 25mph speeds if they are to maintain their classification. Annoying? Certainly. Illegal? No.

For those who don’t live in California or a gated retirement community, here’s a more familiar style of NEV you might find leisurely cruising down the boulevard:

Now, this is an important juncture in developing your perspective on autonomous cars. After all, the above isn’t actually a car, right? Are we really just over-hyping a technology that has no practical application beyond scooting your drunk buddies around Disney World? Is the self-driving car merely an academic exercise until they can reliably barrel down our freeways at 100mph during a snowstorm?

If that’s your perspective, I’d like to offer a different take: the fastest path to the future is in slower vehicles. Grab your golf clubs.

The Stigma Of Speed

Two times a day, for two hundred days a year, you do the same damn thing in your car: you commute between your home and your job. If there’s any part of your life that’s worth speeding up, it’s this.

So then, here’s a question for you: what’s the average speed of your commute? I asked twenty-five people to answer this with an educated guess, no calculators allowed. Take a moment to wager an estimate yourself, and then take a gander at the responses:

“Actual” speeds were calculated by measuring the distance between home and work addresses, divided by self-reported commute times (I trusted the self-reporting of this figure since one has to know when to leave their home in order to get to work at a certain time.)

Twenty-five answers, and every single person overestimated. Most respondents thought their average speed was at least 50% faster than actual, with some people going as far as imagining their speed to be twice as fast as it really is, despite knowing both the variables required to get the right answer.

Why is this?

It’s the allure of speed. Most of these respondents gauged the average by using their highway speed (or, their fastest and longest route leg) as the benchmark. But speed is distance over time, so with a clear head, you’d imagine anyone would know that sitting at a single traffic light for 60 seconds obliterates most of your little highway manuevers and leadfoot tendencies. In the equation for speed, time is the villain.

We should be able to figure this out in our heads, and we fail to do so because we don’t envision driving logically. We toss all our time-sucking driving moments into a box we mentally label “WAITING TO GO FAST”… because we’re not thinking straight. We’re high on the drug that is the gas pedal. We are in command of a tool that is capable of making us the fastest and most powerful animals on the planet with little more than a tap of the foot. It’s an addiction, make no mistake — and traffic is just withdrawal.

The slowest twelve commuters on this chart would get to their destination faster in a vehicle pegged at 20mph with no stops or delays. But, from the looks of the responses, all but one of them would think they were moving too slow.

The Fastest Cars Are The Ones That Keep Moving

Average speed tells the real story of our road-going transportation inefficiencies. The daily commutes, the trips we take around town, the final legs of shipping and delivery routes… all of it will be revolutionized by moving in a more efficient pattern, rather than a faster one. Fast can come later. For now, the way to Point B is overrun with weeds in the shape of stoplights, left-hand turns, parking hunters, indecisive drivers, and hundreds of other factors keeping us in the slow lane.

William Beaty penned an excellent piece on how we all suffer in traffic due to our selfish and short-sighted driving tactics. Above is a typical merge scenario at a construction zone. Much like the traffic phenomenon of “blocking the box” which I discussed in a previous post, what you’re smelling here is the pungent irony of people failing to get where they’re going by fighting with each other to move as far ahead as they possibly can.

In this second figure, we have the same group of cars behaving unselfishly and offering large merging gaps in front of them, which results in a faster merge, which results in happy trails for everyone pictured. It truly is amazing to realize how primitive the human brain is — that we see twenty feet of open road in front of us and think, “shit, I’ve gotta move there asap because that’s as close as I can get to the front.”

There is no fucking front. There is no fucking race.

We are molecules in a system, and everything we’re doing is disrupting that system, slowing it down, creating waste. Autonomous cars win because they’re not selfish — because they work towards the greater goal. The fact that some of these vehicles might be designed to max out at speeds well below your conventional car is of virtually no importance — they’re designed to work as a group to get you there faster. Don’t worry about what the speedo says.

Fantastic Things Happen When You Slow Down

The moment we handed the first two-ton high-speed vehicle over to a human being, the sheer volume and complexity of safety and support infrastructure required began to crystallize.

30,000+ Americans died last year in car accidents — a tragedy that is difficult to peg to a quantifiable cost, but has been estimated between $300B and $900B, including everything from medical costs to infrastructure damage to loss of earning potential. Nearly all of those deaths — and a very large portion of that cost — occurred at speeds over 25mph.

Over time (because these accidents have been occurring at a predictable rate for the past century), higher speeds have drastically increased the amount of resources required to engineer vehicles and infrastructure, all for the sake of trying to achieve what we could have easily done by not creating such speed discrepancies in the first place. Slower speeds, fewer deaths, lower costs. Just ask the Swedes, who pioneered the Vision Zero traffic concept and boast one of the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world.

And whatever became of those Swedes who clearly gave up on the “joy of driving” for the sake of slow, sterile, safety? Well, it turns out they still seem to find the time.

Britain’s traffic fatality rate is just as low, thanks to similar measures they’ve taken in developing their roads and traffic flow. Geez, what’s with all this wussy nannying in Europe? I mean, talk about a place that is blatantly out of touch with car culture and spirited driving.

I think these guys are from Australia or some other place that actually appreciates cars. Definitely not England.

That’s all the irony I can muster in one post.

The point is, we as a people cling to the notion that the bullshit driving we spend 90% of our time in cars doing is somehow intertwined with the rare Sunday drive on an open road in a drop-top sports car. But really, they’re two very different beasts, and defending the former in the name of protecting the latter is going to put you on the wrong side of pretty much everything everyone cares about in life.

Don’t be that guy. Embrace the golf cart.

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