It starts with a nudge

Two superficially bicycle-related stories show us the past and the future of driving.

On the East Coast, a town plans to post a speed limit on a bicycle path because doing something ineffective is better than doing nothing. On the West Coast, motorized scooters are controlled from City Hall.

Doing something ineffective in response to a death is government as usual. In Lexington, Massachusetts a fatal bicycle crash on a paved trail led committees to recommend a 15 mph speed limit. Why 15? Because that’s a common speed limit on paved trails. But why 15 and not 10 or 20? Because 15 is a common speed limit. It feels good. Makes us part of the pack. Nobody ever got fired for posting 15.

The limits aren’t intended to be enforced. The people who form bicycle advisory committees don’t want tickets going to a morally superior mode of transport. But they conditioned themselves to calling for car speed limits so long they can’t imagine any other way. So the screw of discourteous riders meets the hammer of speed limits.

Speed limit signs will go up for amusement purposes only, to reassure people who demand that others be regulated, and there they will sit. Until…

In Southern California we see what comes next. Governments forced companies that rent electric bicycles and scooters to install GPS-equipped computers. In one city your bike is electronically limited to 15 mph. In another, 5 mph. Or is only allowed to drive through without stopping. Or it turns off at the city line because they aren’t legal here.

Every aspirational rule that proponents agree it would be cruel to enforce is a land mine waiting for the next regulator to enforce with an army of robocops.

We’ve seen this creeping up on cars for a while.

In the 1970s the Massachusetts legislature considered making it illegal to sell a car that could exceed 55 mph. That didn’t happen. We got electronic speed limiters, first very fast to appease tort lawyers but then merely fast for public relations or in response to government pressure. No much effect on the average driver. Until the more advanced cars started to nag you if they thought you were speeding. It started with a nudge…

For almost as long police have asked for a remote kill switch. They didn’t get a universal off switch as such. But car makers built in a system that works almost as well. If you have an electronic concierge you can call up and unlock your doors. Or the police can call up and shut off your car and lock you inside. It was a high end feature, like AC or a decent sound system in the 1970s, but it’s moving down market.

Residents often complain about outsiders driving on their roads. It starts with a nudge. In recent years your navigation system has started lying about how to get there from here. Cities can ask that some roads be taken off the map. Want to go across town? Here, your computer says, take this 3 mile detour instead of a one mile trip. If you know a better way you’ll have to guide yourself. As reliance on automation increases it’s more and more effective.

And then the nudge becomes a whip. One day your car will drop dead at the city line because it’s the 30th day you entered the city within 12 months and you didn’t pay the commuter sticker fee. Your car will refuse to enter the wealthy enclave because it’s before 9 AM. You hit the gas ahead of the runaway truck and your car remains steady at 40 because it rained a few hours ago and the Turnpike Authority turned down the speed limit just in case.

As Rush foretold during the oil crisis and emissions regulations and malaise of the 1970s, there’s some value in hanging on to an old car.

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One Response to “It starts with a nudge”

  1. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    I have said that self-driving cars will last right up until the morning that several thousand of the same model suddenly turn left in rush-hour traffic, for no good reason. By the same token, these ‘smart’ overrides will work, right up ’til’ the moment you described as ” You hit the gas ahead of the runaway truck and your car remains steady at 40 because it rained a few hours ago and the Turnpike Authority turned down the speed limit just in case.”. Crash! Bang! Boom! a whole bunch of politicians who hitched their wagons to that Star suddenly see their career termination light blinking, and those systems get turned off pronto.

    Which doesn’t mean I ‘m gonna buy a car with that kind of system any time soon.