smart train sz2

Transportation is a common theme at Coffee Social. One goal of WORK is to reduce the need for transportation by creating an office in your home town. But as much as we all love Petaluma, we still need to get to other places. Perhaps you have a meeting in Santa Rosa, or you want to spend the weekend in Santa Cruz, or maybe you’re being offered an extremely tempting job in San Francisco. How do you get there?

A few weeks back, we dove into a deep discussion of what the future might hold. The SMART train is coming and that will add an interesting alternative to the freeway. But when train lines first start, they often feel like they go from nowhere to nowhere. It takes time to build up the hubs that make each stop worthwhile. And with the troublesome connection to the Larkspur Ferry, it’s questionable how much this new train will benefit the city commuter. It may take a decade or more for this line to become as functional as BART.

And this is where the conversation got interesting. What do we see as the future of transportation? Hot new technology is being developed in the automotive world. Self-driving cars are no longer a sci-fi dream; they’re coming soon to a dealer near you! Small components are becoming mainstream, like self-braking (the car won’t let you rear-end the person in front of you), lane-change assist (put your blinker on and the car will change lanes when it is safe), and self-parking (sliding you seamlessly into that parallel parking spot).

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Google has made headlines with its fully driverless car (no steering wheel or pedals!) which it is currently road-testing and plans to make publicly available in just five years. I know autonomous vehicles sound freaky and dangerous, but just spend a moment with an open mind, imagining what this new world might look like….

Imagine a world where individual cars zip down the freeway in train-like chains, driving bumper-to-bumper…because they can. The first car cuts through the air, allowing all the cars behind it to benefit from the reduced wind resistance. There are no traffic jams, because everyone is going the same speed. Accidents are practically non-existent, because more than 90% of accidents are caused by human error, a factor that has now been removed. The car you’re traveling in will peel off seamlessly at your designated exit and navigate to your exact destination. No need to find parking; the car just drops you at your door and continues on. If you’re willing not to become attached to one vehicle (an attitude most young people are adopting), then that same car can pick up the next closest person and efficiently whisk them on their way. In this ideal world, there would be no need for huge parking lots blighting the landscape. Those vast swaths of concrete could be transformed into public open spaces and community gardens and infill housings. And what of the young and the old and the inebriated?   Not to fear! They can be safely moved around town, as well, because the “driving” is done for them.

So now let’s circle back to that SMART train. Will it be superseded before it even has a chance to gain traction? A “train” of autonomous automobiles zipping around existing circulation paths crisscrossing the suburban landscape of the North Bay sure sounds awfully appealing. Is this utopian vision unrealistic? Perhaps. But then again, maybe it’s just around the corner….

Published July 21st, 2015

Written and photographed by Natasha Juliana. Edited by Linda Jay. Curious about Coffee Social?  Join us Tuesdays at 10 AM.