The driverless wilderness

Last month, I walked up Mount Agamenticus, on the coast of Maine, with my parents. We picked our way up the northwestern side of the hill, with its poor rocky soil and its young forest pushing up from what were only a few decades ago downhill ski trails. At the top, we were joined by hikers who had come up from the other trails, as well as families who had driven up auto road which leads to the top. Agamenticus is not a very wild place, and makes no pretenses to be one, so the road did not seem so unpleasantly intrusive as the one that climbs Mount Washington; in any case, I had been up here years ago, so I knew already knew that the road ran all the way to the top.

Roads like these, prodding into recreational areas that are otherwise accessible only by foot, were among the original demons of the environmental movement, and, as Paul Sutter has convincingly shown, the modern concept of “wilderness” was defined, above all, by the quality of roadlessness. Yet there was something friendly about the road that ran up Agamenticus, and in the pleasant riot of people which it brought up eager for a glance out to the Atlantic in one direction, the White Mountains in the other. Better to drive up here than to drive to a strip mall.

But it also occurred to me that, if we do see driverless cars in the next half century, they might well make a difference in places like this long before they start roaming the streets of the nation’s great cities. Engineers have a long way to go before they figure out how to make a self-navigating car which can respond quickly and safely to the endless confusion and chanciness of urban streets. Driving back and forth from the base of Mount Agamenticus to its summit, however, is a much easier proposition. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could split the difference between the roadlessness and carlessness by making roads such as these into a kind of restricted outdoor elevator? Provide for the people who want to get outdoors but cannot or will not go for a hike by letting them park at the base of the mountain, and then shuttle passengers up and down by a robotic car which does its patient duty all day and night without the expense of a driver.

Many protected areas already follow a variant of this model by using piloted shuttle buses to provide tourists vehicular access without relying on their own cars (for example, Zion National Park, or my favorite, Plitvička Jezera in Croatia). The disadvantage of this is that the price of a driver limits the number of shuttles which can be put into constant rotation, so they may run infrequently—something which an impatient driver used to the instant gratification of his or her own car might find frustrating. A driverless shuttle would eliminate the cost of a driver, and it’s possible that such a system, if supplied with enough vehicles, might operate on an on-demand basis rather than following a fixed schedule, making it into something approaching a true personal rapid transit system. Again, the relevant metaphor is to an elevator: we already take it as normal routine to park our cars at the base of a skyscraper and then ride in a kind of “driverless car” up and down vertically to our destination. Why not do the same thing horizontally at our recreational areas?

Many of our parks are already stuffed to the choking point with cars, a predictable conclusion to the praiseworthy goal of making access to these special places as widely available to the largest possible set of citizens. Yosemite, for instance, already has to run a traffic advisory service. The promise of a fast, convenient, and regular driverless shuttle system—a technology that is cheaper by orders of magnitude than a light rail or monorail system—could offer a way out of the dilemma between access and preservation which has plagued park planners for more than a century.

It seems likely that the fixed and predictable nature of roads in tightly-controlled park areas such as these will make them much better candidates for the early adoption of automated cars than on hazardous, chaotic open roads. (In fact, I would be surprised if the technology for running driverless cars in such conditions is not already well within our grasp.) Much of the breathless hype around driverless cars imagines them totally reshaping the infrastructure of our cities—something which, though perhaps ultimately inevitable, is unlikely to happen in our lifetime. It may in fact be the very opposite kinds of landscapes—the kinds of places where roads and cars are traditionally least welcome—that see the influence of driverless technology in the immediate decades to come.