New Orleans were given a glimpse of the future this past week, or at least one possible version of it. Alas, it appears that the future is a slow-moving red box.
The corporate operator of New Orleans public transit, Transdev, held an event with Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Monday to preview its self-driving vehicle, the EZ10 “Easy Rider” Autonomous Shuttle. The red, box-shaped EZ10, which is capable of holding 12 passengers, plodded along at roughly 8 miles per hour in front of the Morial Convention Center.
The EZ10 formally entered service late last month in Paris, France (incidentally, where Transdev is headquartered) shuttling passengers across the Charles de Gaulle Bridge. Reviews were, shall we say, less than glowing. Wired Magazine quipped that “[w]atching this thing escargot across the bridge, the words ‘meh’ and ‘lame’ (also ‘ennui’) spring to mind before ‘future.’”
And the price? All that excitement is costing Paris $215,000 a pop.
Nevertheless, Landrieu described the demonstration of the dull red box in glowing terms, characterizing it as a part of his efforts to make New Orleans “lead the nation, as opposed to following the nation; to become an ascendant city, rather than a descendant city.”
Autonomous vehicles certainly embody a particular brand of futurism that politicians love. Landrieu isn’t the first mayor in the country to preview autonomous vehicles as a supposed indicator of how their city is on the cutting edge.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I love new technology as much as the next guy, and self-driving vehicles may well be the wave of the future. However, transit in the City of New Orleans is still well behind where it was prior to Hurricane Katrina. Roughly half of bus service has yet to be restored. And let’s face it: transit wasn’t even that great before Katrina.
Moreover, people who rely on transit tend to be blue collar (just like, let’s say, bus drivers). Automation of this sort, regardless of whether it is good in the aggregate, means fewer domestic blue collar jobs. Estimates are that self-driving vehicles could render roughly 5 million American jobs obsolete, good-paying jobs that will not be quickly replaced.
Under these circumstances, holding a press conference to demonstrate an autonomous shuttle adds quite a bit of insult to the ongoing injury experienced by New Orleanians who rely on transit. Your average transit rider is more interested in seeing bus service restored than they are in self-driving shuttles that displace workers and go slower than your average bicycle.
Of course, one could argue that this is a tempest in a teapot because there are no immediate, concrete plans to utilize autonomous shuttles or other self-driving vehicles in New Orleans. Surely there are more imminent outrages to fret over.
However, plans to deploy the EZ10 may not be all that remote. Transdev’s demonstration was held at the Morial Convention Center, whose “Vision Plan” includes a possible “people mover” to be in place before New Orleans’ tricentennial celebration in 2018. Ostensibly, the EZ10 is being considered for precisely that role.
If that is the case, it renders the EZ10 demonstration even more problematic. There’s no need for autonomous shuttles when the Convention Center has already been the near-exclusive beneficiary of the Riverfront Streetcar line. Furthermore, it would be yet another toy for tourists installed in lieu of serving the actual citizens of New Orleans.
Whether we are on the cusp of a groundbreaking new wave of technological automation is not the issue. There are no Luddites here. Rather, the issue is whether that technology is going to be used in such as a way as to benefit ordinary people, or as window dressing for legacy-seeking politicos.
If it’s going to be the latter… Well, let’s just say I’d rather drive myself.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.