Why Stressed Out-of-Control Americans Won't Carpool

Todd Hoff's picture

Gas now looks like it will be expensive until the sun burns dark. SUV and truck sales have flopped while sales of the tiny cars we've always sneered at have pulled a Robert Downey Jr. and have become stars once again. So why don't we American's do the smart and logical thing and carpool? Because we Americans need to feel like we are in control. Without that control we'll stay in our cars all lined up one-by-one in endless traffic jams even if at first it doesn't make rational sense. But this strange affliction does make sense and once we understand why we can design a mass transit system Americans are more likely to embrace, namely: A People Pod Pool of On Demand Self Driving Robotic Cars Automatically Refueled from Cheap Solar.

The question of why don't we carpool was asked by a commenter in FuturePundit article American Car Drivers Cut Back Distance Traveled. When you read how the question is asked you'll wonder why you don't carpool either. Now, what's your answer to this?

In the short run, I'm fascinated by the potential for carpooling. I don't understand why someone would switch jobs or homes in preference to carpooling (unless they wanted to anyway). It's easy, it's fast, it has no capital cost - 9% of Americans already do it. Modern telecom makes it easy to match people up - it used to be based on work site communication, but no more. It could reduce fuel consumption for an individual by 85% (4 people in a Prius), or for the nation by 25% (50% of US fuel consumption is light vehicles, and carpooling can be used for more than commuting) in a period of months, if we got serious. Also, car-sharing (igocars, zipcar) could share scarce PHEV/EV's - the average car is only used 1 hour per day, so 5M PHEV/EV's could be used by 50M people.

My first reaction was well don't I feel like an oily dipstick. It's all so clear. So sensible. So reasonable. Carpooling is the future. Carpooling is smart, responsible, and good. Don't you want to be good?

But I don't want to do it. I don't want to carpool. There, I said it. I don't hate the environment (as evidence of my virtue I both compost and recycle!). And I don't want to see mother nature stripped and turned out into the cold lonely night. But as one of those ugly Americans I feel deep in my plush leather seats and fine German engineering that I would rather starve my characteristically overweight American self into the normal weight range rather than give up and share MY car!

Yes, I am well aware that this is totally irrational and irresponsible. I won't be the first or last time you notice this about me. Could there be some deeper psychological reasoning behind my madness? Let's hope so because a lot of people don't seem to like carpools and they don't like mass transit either. The Metro, a local San Francisco Bay Area weekly, published a wonderful article Fueling the Fire, on how we need to cure our car addiction using the same marginalization techniques used to "stop" smoking.

A telling quote shows how difficult going cold turkey off our cars will be:

Mitch Baer, a public policy and environment graduate student at George Mason University in Virginia, recently surveyed more than 2,000 commuters in the Washington, D.C., area. He found that people who drove to work alone were more emotionally satisfied with their commute than those who rode public transportation or carpooled with others. Even stuck in traffic jams, those commuters said they felt they had more control over their arrival and departure times as well as commuting route, radio stations and air conditioning levels. Commuters said that driving alone was both quicker and more affordable, according to the study. "They will have a tougher time moving people out of their cars," Baer said. "It's easier for most people to drive than take mass transit."

The key phrase for me is: people who drove to work alone were more emotionally satisfied. How can people jostled in the great pinball machine that are our roadways be emotionally satisfied? That's crazy talk. Shouldn't we feel less satisfied?

We Feel Good in Our Cars Because We Are in Control

Solving the mystery of why we feel satisfied while stuck in traffic turns on an important psychological clue: the more we perceive ourselves in control of a situation the less stress we feel. Robert Sapolsky talks about this surprising insight into human nature in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

Notice we simply need more "perceived" control. Take control of a situation in your mind and stress goes down. You don't actually need to be in more control of a situation to feel less stress. If you have diabetes, facing your possibly bleak future can be less stressful if you try to control your blood sugars. If you are a speed demon, buying a radar detector can make you feel more in control and less stressed as you zoom along the seldom empty highways. If you are bullied, figuring out ways to avoid your torturer puts you more in control and therefor less stressed.

Figure out a way to control and an out of control situation and you'll feel happier. That's what I think we are accomplishing by driving alone in cars. In our car we have complete control. Cars are our castles with a 2 inch air moat cushion. Most cars are plusher than any room in your average house. Fine leather, a rad sound system, perfect temperature control, and a nice beverage of choice within easy reaching distance. In our cars we've created a second womb. The result is we feel more control, less stress, and more satisfaction, even when outside, across the moat, a tempestuous sea of stressors await.

Our Mass Transit System Must Supply Perceived Control

Given the warm inner glow we feel from being wrapped in the cold steel of our cars, if you want people to get out of their cars and onto mass transit you must provide the same level of perceived control. None of our mass transit options do that now. Buses are on fixed schedules that don't go where I want to go when I want to go. Neither do trains, BART, or light rail. So the car it is. Unless a system could be devised that provided the benefits of mass transit plus the pleasing characteristics of control our cars give us.

With Recent Technological Advances We Can Create a New Type of Mass Transit System

New technologies are being developed the will allow us to create a mass transit system that matches our psychological and physical needs. Just berating people and telling them they should take mass transit to save the planet won't work. The pain is too near and the benefits are too far for the mental cost-benefit calculation to go the way of mass transit.

The technologies I am talking about are:

  • Inexpensive solar with $1/watt solar panels. Our mass transit must of course be green and cost effective.
  • Breakthrough battery could boost electric cars. Toshiba promises 'energy solution' with nearly full recharge in 5 minutes.
  • Personal transportation pods. A reusable vehicle that can take anyone anywhere they want to go.
  • Self driving vehicles. We are making great strides in creating robot cars that can drive themselves in traffic. Already they drive better than most humans can drive (low bar, I know).
  • Mix these all together and you get a completely different type of mass transit system. A mashup, if you will.

    Create a People Pod Pool of On Demand Autonomous Self Driving Robotic Cars Automatically Refueled from Cheap Solar

    Many company campuses offer a pool of bicycles so workers can ride between buildings and make short trips. Some cities even make bikes available to their citizens. The idea is to do the same for cars, but with a twist or two.

    The cars (people pods) can be stored close to demand points and you can call for one anytime you wish. The cars are self driving. You don't actually drive them and are free to work or play during transit. Different kinds would be available depending on your purpose. Just one person on a shopping trip would receive a different car than a family. The pods would autonomously search out and find energy sources as needed to recharge.There's no reason to assume a centralized charging and storage facility. When repair was needed they could drive themselves to a repair depot or wait for the people pod ambulance service.

    The advantages of such a system are:

  • Perceived control. You have a personal "car" you control the destination for, the interior environment of, and your own actions inside. This gets over the biggest hurdle with current mass transit options.
  • Better regional traffic flow. The autonomous cars could drive cooperatively to smooth out traffic jams. Traffic jams are largely caused by people speeding up and slowing down which causes ripples of slowness up and down the road. And automated system could prevent that.
  • Go where you want to go. It would be used because people can go to exactly where they need to go and be picked up exactly where they need to leave from at exactly the time they wish. None of these are characteristic of current systems.
  • Leverage existing road ways. Creating light rail and trains is expensive and wasteful (except for the high speed point-point variety). They don't extend to where people live and they don't go where people go. So it creates a multi-hop mess out of every trip. We already have an expansive road system that goes where everyone wants to go. Using the road infrastructure more efficiently makes a lot more sense than creating hugely expensive partial solutions. And since these cars would be eco-friendly, most arguments against using cars fall away.
  • Cheaper delivery. One force keeping truly distributed manufacturing and retailing from blossoming is high delivery costs. A $2 item is simply too expensive to buy remotely and ship because shipping costs more than the product. An automated transportation system would make this model more affordable.
  • Live where you want to live. Most mass transit systems are based on trying to socially reengineer our current suburbian and exurbian living pattern into a high density live-work pattern. While this should be an option, most mass transit proposals assume this pattern as a given and can't deal with current realities. For the foreseeable future people will not give up their houses or their lifestyles. The People Pod approach solves the mass transit problem and the "difficulties" of having to change a whole populace to behave in a completely different way for less than compelling reasons.
  • Still can own your own car. This isn't a replacement for the current car culture. It's leveraging the car culture. You can still own and drive your own car. Nobody is trying to steal your car away from you.
  • Cleaner and safer. Mass transit is disliked by many because it is perceived as dirty and unsafe. The pods would be safe and clean.
  • Road safety. Our new robot overloads will make our lives safer. Hopefully, possibly, maybe...
  • It's a Usable Mass Transit System so People Might Just Use It

    After a lot of reading on the topic and a lot of self-examination on why I am such a horrible person that I don't want to carpool or use mass transit, this is the type of system I could really see myself using. It doesn't try to change the world, it uses what we got, and gives people what they want. It just might work.