Google Car Candidates

What’s cooler than artificial-intelligence-powered cars? A change in Austin politics that can reap their benefits.

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“I can drive myself around Austin. But I can’t register to vote.”

Austin is getting a couple of Google Cars and everyone’s excited about it. In part, it’s the geek version of an A-list celebrity moving into your neighborhood.  It’s also about something more practical: hope that Austin’s expensive and psychologically-distressing car-ownership-focused mobility model will change soon.  Like everyone else, I’m excited for the technology in the long-term and the Cars’ contribution to local folklore in the short-term.

That said, Austin is not actually positioning itself to leverage the positive contributions from artificial intelligence-driven vehicles.

Austin and Central Texas are presently trapped by a set of policies and institutions determined to facilitate single passenger car commutes through road expansion, housing sprawl, and (most relevant to AI cars) abundant cheap parking.   The bodies quietly minding this cage – CAMPO and CTRMA – are designed to ensure smaller communities and external stakeholders dilute Austin’s ability to set policy for itself. But even at the Austin City Council-level, our policymakers are weary of taking even basic steps (e.g. lowering parking requirements) to break the existing failed transportation and development policy.  Our governing bodies are baking fiscal, mobility, and land use path-dependencies that assume zero AI car transportation mode share.

Technology can help change our local mobility model, but it’s unlikely to be enough without an immediate change in the policy direction the current pseudo-consensus is paving for the region’s future.

Presently, even elected officials that want to embrace the possibility of AI-powered cars, such as County Commissioner Brigid Shea, inevitably seem to end up supporting or acquiescing to status quo-extending plans such as CAMPO 2040.  For our current failed policies to change, the underlying political fog that allows them to endure has to evaporate. Practically, that means new Austin voices dissatisfied with the status quo must run for office and make the case for policies that are driven by our most-likely future reality, not nostalgia.

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