Poor Man's Teleporter

One of the things that’s harder to predict about robocars is what they will mean for how cities are designed and how they evolve. We’re notoriously bad at predicting such things, but it is still tempting.

A world of robocars offers the potential for something I am dubbing the “poor man’s teleporter.” That’s a fleet of comfortable robotaxis that are, while you are in them, a fully functional working or relaxing environment. Such robotaxis would have a desk and large screen and very high speed wireless net connection. They have a comfy reclining chair (or bed) and anything else you need from the office environment. (Keyboards and mice are problematic, as I have discussed elsewhere, but there may be ways to solve that.)

The robotaxi will deliberately pick the most comfortable route for a trip, with few turns, few stops and gentle acceleration. It will gimbal in corners and have an active suspension system eliminating bumps. The moment you enter it, your desktop could appear on the screen, copied from the desk you left (thanks to communication with one of your wearable devices, probably.) You can do high quality videoconferencing, work on the net, or just watch a video or read a book — the enclosed book reader could be set to the page you were last reading elsewhere. If you work in a building with a lobby, the electric robotaxi could enter the lobby and meet you right at the elevator. It might even go vertical and ride up the elevator to get you during less busy times. (For some real science fiction, the robotaxis in Minority Report somehow climbed the buildings and parked in people’s homes.)

For many it would be as though they had not left their desks. Almost all the trip will be productive time. As such, while people won’t want to spend forever in the car, many might find distance and trip time to not be particularly important, at least not for trips around town during the workday. While everybody wants to get home to family sooner, even commute times could become productive times with employers who let the employee treat the travel time as work time. Work would begin the moment you stepped into the car in the morning.

We’ve seen a taste of this in Silicon Valley, as several companies like Google and Yahoo run a series of commute vans for their employees. These vans have nice chairs, spaces for laptops and wireless connectivity into the corporate network. Many people take advantage of these vans and live in places like San Francisco, which may be an hour-long trip to the office. The companies pay for the van because the employees start the workday when they get on it.

This concept will continue to expand, and I predict it will expand into robocars. The question is, what does it mean to how we live if we eliminate the time-cost of distance from many trips? What if we started viewing our robotaxis as almost like a teleporter, something that takes almost no time to get us where we want to go? It’s not really no-time, of course, and if you have to make a meeting you still have to leave in time to get there. It might be easier for some to view typical 15 minute trips around a tight urban area as no-time while viewing 30-60 minute trips as productive but “different time.”

Will this make us want to sprawl even more, with distance not being important? Or will we want to live closer, so that the trips are more akin to teleportation by being productive, short and highly predictable in duration? It seems likely that if we somehow had a real Star-Trek style transporter, we might all live in country homes and transport on demand to where the action is. That’s not coming, but the no-lost-time ride is. We might not be able to afford a house on the nice-walkable-shops-and-restaurants street, but we might live 2 miles from it and always be able to get to it, with no parking hassle, in 4 minutes of productive time.

What will the concept of a downtown mean in such a world? “Destination” retailers and services, like a movie house, might decide they have no real reason to be in a downtown when everybody is coming by robotaxi. Specialty providers will also see no need to pay a premium to be in a downtown. Right now they don’t get walk-by traffic, but they do like to be convenient to the customers who seek them out. Stores that do depend on walk-by traffic (notably cafes and many restaurants) will want to be in places of concentration and walking.

But what about big corporate offices that occupy the towers of our cities? They go there for prestige, and sometimes to make it easy to have meetings with other downtown companies. They like having lots of services for their employees and for the business. They like being near transit hubs to bring in those employees who like transit. What happens when many of these needs go away?

For many people, the choice of where to live is overwhelmingly dominated by their children — getting them nice, safe neighbourhoods to play in, and getting them to the most desired schools. If children can go to schools anywhere in a robocar, how does that alter the equation? Will people all want bigger yards in which to cacoon their children, relying on the robocar to take the children to play-dates and supervised parks? Might they create a world where the child goes into the garage, gets in the robocar and tells it to go to Billy’s house, and it deposits the child in that garage, never having been outside — again like a teleporter to the parents? Could this mean a more serious divorce between community and geography?

While all this is going on, we’re also going to see big strides in videoconferencing and virtual reality, both for adults, and as play-spaces for adults and children. In many cases people will be interacting through a different sort of poor man’s teleporter, this one taking zero time but not offering physical contact.

Clearly, not all of these changes match our values today. But what steps that make sense could we actually take to promote our values? It doesn’t seem possible to ban the behaviours discussed above, or even to bend them much. What do you think the brave new city will look like?

More notes:

It is often said that cars caused the suburbanization of cities. However, people didn’t decide they wanted a car lifestyle and thus move where they could drive more. They sought bigger lots and yards, and larger detached houses. They sought quieter streets. While it’s not inherent to suburbs, they also sought better schools for kids and safer neighbourhoods. They gave up having nearby shops and restaurants and people to get those things, and accepted the (fairly high) cost of the car as part of the price. Most often for the kids. Childless and young people like urban life; the flight to the suburbs was led by the parents.

This doesn’t mean they stopped liking the aspects of the “livable city.” Having stuff close to you. Having your friends close to you. Having pleasant and lively spaces to wander, and in which you regularly see your friends and meet other people. Walking areas with interesting shops and restaurants and escape from the hassles of parking and traffic. They just liked the other aspects of sprawl more.

They tried to duplicate these livable areas with shopping malls. But these are too sterile and corporate — but they are also climate controlled and safer and caused the downfall of many downtowns. Then big box stores, more accessible from the burbs, kept at that tack.

The robotaxi will allow people to get more of what they sought from the “livable city” while still in sprawl. It will also let them get more of what they sought from the suburbs, in terms of safety and options for their children. They may still build pleasant pedestrian malls in which one can walk and wander among interesting things, but people who live 5 miles away will be able to get to them in under 10 minutes. They will be delivered right into the pedestrian zone, not to a sprawling parking lot. They won’t have to worry about parking, and what they buy could be sent to their home by delivery robot — no need to even carry it while walking among shops. They will seek to enjoy the livable space from 5 miles away the same way that people today who live 4 blocks away enjoy those spaces.

But there’s also no question that there will continue to be private malls trying to meet this need. Indeed the private malls will probably offer free or validated robotaxi service to the mall, along with delivery, if robotaxi service is as cheap as I predict it can be. Will the public spaces, with their greater variety and character be able to compete? They will also have weather and homeless people and other aspects of street life that private malls try to push away.

The arrival of the robocar baby-sitter, which I plan to write about more, will also change urban family life. Stick the kid in the taxi and send him to the other parent, or a paid sitter service, all while some adult watches on the video and redirects the vehicle to one of a network of trusted adults if some contingency arises. Talk about sending a kid to a time-out!