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Self-Driving Cars Are Cool, but They're Not for Everyone

And neither is mass transit

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"I expect human driving to become illegal in the next 25–35 years in developed countries," insisted Rice University's Moshe Vardi in the course of plugging self-driving cars during a 2016 Reddit question-and-answer session. Tesla CEO Elon Musk sounded a similar note at a 2015 developers' conference, saying, "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine." It's an interesting perspective from a man who runs a company that manufactures such devices.

Once upon a time, mass transit was the technocrat's preferred method for prying people out of their wasteful, dangerous cars. If only we could subsidize the right combination of buses, trolleys, jitneys, light rail, monorail, and bullet trains—the thinking went—all our problems would be solved. To save the planet, "public transportation should be favored over private automobiles, and the cars heavily taxed," wrote Hugh McDonald of New York City College of Technology in a 2014 book on environmental philosophy. That view is shared by a number of other scholars and policy makers who hope to eliminate traffic deaths, largely by getting rid of cars.

But now there's a new kid on the block: self-driving cars. The trouble is that neither of these approaches takes into account the reality that almost 20 percent of the population of the United States live in the low-population rural areas that make up the majority of the country's land mass, and they're not about to trade in the F-150 for a newfangled robot chariot.

Against my advice, a friend of mine once insisted on relying on GPS navigation to get to my old house in rural Arizona. Once we managed to locate him, we started his visit by digging his car out of the sand in which he'd mired himself. He had gone down an unmaintained road that didn't actually lead to my address, no matter how enthusiastically the robotic navigator claimed otherwise.

For reasons that are clear if you live in the boonies, self-driving cars look a little limited in their near-term potential. They don't seem especially well-suited to paved but poorly mapped byways, let alone delivering passengers down miles of dirt lanes to hunting camps or trailheads. Many of those routes require a fairly responsive hand on the wheel to deal with unexpected washouts, deep ruts, and uncooperative quadrupeds. I'm also not sure how much fun off-roading would be with a robot calling the shots.

Public transportation has its own challenges in much of the non-urban world. Around me, one bus service connects some local workers with their tourist-industry jobs in Sedona. Another circulates through the town's business areas, and seems to do a heavy trade in getting hobos back and forth between the public library and wherever they're sleeping.

Neither will take you to Target, which is 50 miles away. Or to Costco. Or to most residential areas, which are understandably spread out in this sparsely settled piece of the world. You're not riding the bus to dinner and a movie, either, since it shuts down after work hours.

So you can imagine that enthusiasts for public transit and/or a self-driving future are a little thin on the ground around here. The dispersed and sometimes uncharted nature of rural travel makes the former difficult—and while plenty of people view automated cars with gee-whiz interest, the odds are just a bit too high that on the way home from buying one, it'll take a nonexistent turn and dump the new owners into a ditch. They'll ultimately be excavated by future archeologists and displayed as "well-preserved examples of early adopters."

To address these problems, McDonald wants to "encourage settlement in cities," which he says "have much more to offer in the way of museums, performing arts, varied cuisines, and other amenities." It seems we'll get to ride the trolley and be civilized. No thanks.

Some oracles of the coming transportation revolution are less presumptuous. "Low population densities and long median travel distances mean ridesharing and carsharing are unlikely to ever take hold as they have in urban areas," concedes research manager Derek Pankratz of Deloitte, the mega-consulting firm. As a result, "personal vehicle ownership (and lower asset utilization) are likely to persist," and "human-controlled operation is likely to be essential" for the foreseeable future for people outside big cities.

Well, yes. Technology is cool, but nothing is one-size-fits-all. No matter what might (or might not) work in New York and Washington, D.C., people living, working, and playing in rural areas will continue to need human-controlled, personally owned vehicles for a long time to come.