745px-Google's_Lexus_RX_450h_Self-Driving_CarI keep seeing and hearing stories about driverless cars but am getting increasingly struck by a visual image that won’t leave me alone.

It’s an image that is making me wonder whether driverless cars are evidence that we have gone collectively insane.

Driverless cars are almost always promoted as being a solution to problems of safety, pollution and traffic jams — here, for example — as well as being touted as a mobility solution for elderly people who can no longer drive on their own. The idea is that cars connected to an overall computer system will be able to coordinate activities much more efficiently, eliminating human error and eliminating collective action problems.

But hang on. We already have a solution to those problems. It’s called public transport.

And here’s where the visual image comes in. Imagine long lines of driverless cars, each with their passengers and their individual engines pumping out emissions, coordinated by expensive new infrastructure (road sensors particularly); and now compare that to a metro train system with many fewer engines carrying many more people on relatively cheap, often-existing infrastructure. Or just an effective bus system. Why would we think that the millions of driverless cars are more efficient than those options? And what about the other costs and benefits in terms of health promotion, more foot-and-pedal-friendly cities, and so on? Why are governments contemplating pouring billions into the development of individual little solutions to a problem that already has an effective, healthy, efficient, collective alternative?

I would very much like to see a full analysis of all this, but I would bet a great deal that policy makers have focused so much on a small set of issues that they’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. They are being solutions driven, individualistic, and modernist to the extent of thinking that ‘shiny thing make it better’, instead of stepping back and thinking, ‘Hang on, wtf are we doing?’

I look forward to evidence which proves me wrong!

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