Driverless car taking technology in the right direction

By Jim Matthews

What do you call a vehicle that does not require a driver? We used to call it a bus, cab, van, limo, train, etc. Of course, these vehicles require drivers, but everyone else is able to ride.

Now we are looking at driverless cars. Tesla is proud to announce the advent of driverless cars. Other carmakers are pointing with pride at efforts they are making to produce their own versions. In one recent report it appears driverless cars have more than one million miles on the road.

We can all look at the congestion that occurs on State Road 9 and U.S. 40 most days of the week, even on Saturday. While much of that traffic is trucks, a good part of it is automobiles.

I recently spent six days in New York City; more specifically, I was in Manhattan. While there were few private automobiles, there were a large number of taxis and limousines. Buses also clogged the streets. I once spent nearly an hour on a bus on a Sunday morning on a trip an app showed should have taken 17 minutes. I could have traveled the busy sidewalks on my wheelchair in far less time.

I truly believe Manhattan will become unlivable if most vehicular traffic is not removed from its streets. I fear the same thing for downtown Greenfield. And I do recognize the difference in scale.

So what is the appeal of the driverless car? I believe it will free people to attend to other activities while stuck in traffic or flying down a highway: making phone calls, making reports, doing those last-minute personal tasks for getting ready for a meeting or to just start the day. The person in the driver seat can focus on learning a new language or studying for a test. And the person can do this in a private vehicle without the distraction of others talking or moving around.

But is there a cost? I believe there is an unacceptable cost. People who choose driverless cars over other forms of commuting will continue to produce a need for more and larger roadways. We have chewed up large portions of our cities and countryside for roads already.

Despite innovations in electric and natural gas vehicles, we will continue to see pollution from this increase in cars on the roadways. While it will be less than in our present form of automobiles, those electric vehicles will still need to be charged, and this will have an impact on the pollution from power plants.

I believe it will be difficult to get Americans to part with the private automobile. And driverless cars will likely be more efficient than cars driven by the average person. But I have to believe that forms of mass transportation are more efficient still. And it can be made even more efficient by the same kind of innovation that has gone in to the driverless car.

Bottom line: Is the driverless car anything more than a curiosity to those who tout it? Will people be initially enamored with it and then lose interest? Or will it take hold and become another form of transportation?

I sincerely hope not. Anything that adds to the possibility of more cars on the road cannot be good for our country. It cannot be good for our environment. And we need to seek ways to make the other driverless modes of transportation more attractive to all of us.

Jim Matthews is a longtime resident of Greenfield. You may share your comments at jem75@sbcglobal.net.