Tag: randal o’toole

Driverless Cars: You Heard It Here First

Lawrence D. Burns asks, in the Wall Street Journal and in his new book Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car, why the major automobile companies ignored the technology that could create self-driving cars and are now playing catchup to Google:

Early in 2011, two top engineers for Google traveled together to Detroit on what amounted to a diplomatic mission. They had just spent 18 months on a top-secret project called Chauffeur: the development of a car that could drive itself over 10 different 100-mile routes on public roads. Now they were looking for a partner to carry the project forward. “The idea was, if you’re going to make self-driving cars, you have to work with a car company,” recalls Chris Urmson, who made the trip with fellow engineer Anthony Levandowski. “Maybe they’ll sell us cars to build a fleet. Maybe we’re going to be retrofitting our stuff onto their cars to sell.”

But they couldn’t find any takers.

They might have been better prepared if they had read Cato analyst Randal O’Toole’s early warning, also in the Wall Street Journal but in early 2010:

Consumers today can buy cars that steer themselves; accelerate and brake to maintain a safe driving distance from cars ahead; and detect and avoid collisions with other cars on all sides. Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.

O’Toole’s article was based on his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About ItReading his manuscript was the first time I’d heard about the possibility of self-driving cars. You’d think Detroit would have been ahead of me, but maybe not so much.

Free Parking and the Geography of Cities

Unlike Randal O’Toole, I was delighted by Tyler Cowen’s New York Times article on the high cost of free parking. And indeed, if I’m reading O’Toole’s post right, it sounds like Cowen and O’Toole don’t actually disagree on the policy issue: both agree that business owners should be free to decide how much parking to supply.

The debate so far has focused on whether parking mandates push the price of parking below the market rate. But I think the more important effect is on the geography of cities. Parking mandates (and other regulations) preclude developers from catering to people who want to live in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Parking mandates necessarily mean that every large building is surrounded by a large parking lot. And for someone who doesn’t own a car, a parking lot is just a nuisance: a big, empty space he must walk across to get anywhere. Regulations that effectively require a parking lot around every store and restaurant almost guarantees that walking to them won’t be practical.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out, pedestrian traffic is highly sensitive to density. Even a modest reduction in the density of a neighborhood can have a big effect on pedestrian traffic. And as the number of pedestrians falls, so too will the number of businesses that cater to pedestrians. So it’s probably true, as O’Toole says, that charging for parking spaces wouldn’t dramatically reduce the amount of driving people do. But this is partly because the proliferation of parking lots has made walking impractical. Fewer free parking spaces wouldn’t just raise the price of car ownership; it would make car non-ownership more pleasant and convenient.

Government regulations often have subtle unintended consequences. Parking regulations have been on the books so long that the results have come to seem perfectly natural to us. But free markets are unpredictable. If developers had the freedom to decide how much parking to supply, the results might surprise us.