What is a car?

Brendon Slotterback has posted a great reply to my self-driving car article over at Streets.mn. He questions my use of the world “car”, especially after I note that “the lines between private and public transit will start to blur” with the advent of self-drivers.

A vehicle pulls up to your house to take to you to work – it’s got four seats, one of which you occupy on your trip to work while the others remain empty. Is it a car? Most people would answer “yes, dummy”.

What if that same vehicle arrived, but the other three seats were filled with some neighbors who happened to work near where you worked? They rode with you to your work, some getting dropped off nearby, others remaining in the vehicle after you left for a longer trip. Is that a car? Most people would probably say “yes, dummy, that’s just carpooling”. Others might recognize this as “transit”.

It’s a good point, though I think by the time the self-driving revolution is upon us, it’ll be moot. Excepting old rail fans or gearheads, most people will come to understand self-drivers as an entirely new class of transportation and will make new distinctions between services—shared rides vs. solitary trips, for example. These differences will parallel what we consider “cars” and “transit” today, but I don’t think most people will feel that way because the technology will be so different.

Today, the distinction between cars and transit is based partially on whether a ride is shared, but more importantly on the feeling of independence. With self-drivers, that distinction will blur, too. Solitary passengers won’t be any more in charge of their vehicle than shared riders—the only difference will be whether they have to stop somewhere along the way.

That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. I have a feeling that automation will fundamentally change the way people understand transportation.

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