If you want to prove your point as to who needs an autonomous car, you can’t pick a better place than SXSW. No other weekend in Austin has more miserable traffic. I went to check out a new self-driving car downtown, and ended up wishing I was doing anything but driving in the mess that is SXSW on the way home.
SXSW—a giant, ever-growing film, music and technology conference that will one day consume us all with grimy week-old wristbands and bad tweets about no Uber—is a pretty solid place to debut an autonomous car anyway. Austin has plenty of car-cred with a Formula One track in our backyard, and tech startups are increasingly interested in building cars and solving transportation problems.
But it’s genius for another reason that has nothing to do with the high number of insufferable startup bros in town who use words like “brand activation,” “synergy” and “disrupt” unironically: the traffic sucks balls.
Case in point: I went downtown to check out the NIO’s latest autonomous concept car, the Eve. It was an early morning reveal, so the drive in wasn’t bad: ten minutes on surface streets, even with prime-time university traffic between my apartment and where I parked.
When I got there, the NIO folks spoke of a nice future of living rooms on wheels and revealed yet another non-functional prototype proclaiming what they’d like to build soon, as these startups tend to do. It was pretty and cool looking, and inviting and cozy inside.
Self-driving cars won’t solve our terrible traffic problems, but they do present a pleasant stop-gap solution, and a welcome alternative to driving for those who can’t drive themselves. We need a functional mass transit system that more people actually use, and roads with enough capacity to handle the additional volume of cars to actually solve any traffic issues. I’d much rather speed home on a sweet train and then go enjoy my car on good roads than sit inching forward for hours in said car.
But sitting on our woefully full road network in the NIO Eve’s recliner sure looked a lot more pleasant than inching along in my own car. NIO spoke of “giving your time back” on long commutes. I could take a nap on the way home, or even start cranking out the hot takes on transportation issues for Jalopnik.
When I walked back out to my car, I got an unpleasant surprise: all the north-south cross streets around me had been closed. My apartment is north. Waze hadn’t marked the streets as closed yet, so it was useless. The only road I could pull out onto from the lot was a one-way street that went straight into the belly of the SXSW beast, down by the convention center.
This particular part of Austin during SXSW is a hellscape of the most oblivious pedestrians on earth. People believe that the SXSW badge around their neck means they’re at adult summer camp, and that they can walk or stand anywhere without looking, and without repercussions. The other cars on the road aren’t much better, as visitors from out of town tend to drive slow and make abrupt multiple-lane changes while trying to find things, and hired cars and cabs tend to stop in the middle of lanes of traffic for pick-ups and drop-offs. It’s as if all consideration for other people using the road also gets as far away from Austin as possible in mid-March of every year.
I felt trapped in a maze of crawling cars. It was at this point that NIO’s pitch of an autonomous car made sense to me, a regular person who is usually capable of driving herself. That must be why they brought it to SXSW. That’s just downright sneaky. I’m on to you guys. I see what you did.
Instead of fighting sleep and slowly killing my horn fuse one honk at a time, I could have a nice shiny pod-on-wheels that could detect SXSW’s zombie-like crowds on its own, and navigate them competently. I wouldn’t have to worry about missing the rare gap through a busy crosswalk because of a lapse in attention. The car would just go. It even had privacy panels on the side so I could completely block the view of SXSW traffic out, for Pete’s sake.
As I grew more miserable and frustrated at my lack of progress down the road, the whole comfortable-relaxation-dome-as-car thing started to make sense. If our roads continue to suck and no big infrastructure changes happen to fix it, that future can’t come soon enough.
Either that or SXSW needs to move to a bigger space just outside of civilization, and get off my lawn. One of those two.