Column: In L.A.’s future, you may not need a car, insurance or a parking space

Dante Ayala, 22, rides a skateboard to his job as a waiter in Beverly Hills. He said he’s all in on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s vision of an L.A. future with driverless electric cars.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

You look out your window and there’s a vegetable garden where your driveway used to be.

You pay no auto insurance bills because you haven’t got a car, but you can travel anywhere, anytime.

All you do is tap an app and an electric, driverless vehicle pulls up and carts you away to the grocery store, to the beach, or to the bus or train stop. Instead of pounding the wheel and cursing traffic, you read a book, get a jump on work or take a nap, and the air is cleaner than it’s been in decades.


Unfortunately, we do not live in that city.

But could we, one day?

Sure, it’s a stretch. But if you squint hard enough while reading the sustainability plan L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti released Monday, you can see the outlines — way off in the distance — of a new reality. It’s an L.A. in which we drive less, most of the vehicles — including buses and trains — are electric or use zero-emission fuel, new buildings are more energy-efficient, and we live in an international hub of innovation and green jobs.

These are not new ideas, nor easily achievable objectives, and I would not bet a bruised banana that we’ll see significant traffic relief in my lifetime. Also, the cost of this moonshot includes some personal sacrifice — congestion pricing, for instance, to drive into downtown or on the Westside. And we can only hope today’s ride-share drivers and cabbies can find work after they are made obsolete.

But when it comes to the nightmares of traffic, unhealthy air, climate change and weather extremes tied to carbon emissions, only morons — among them, the people who run the nation — would stay the current course.

No city has a greater incentive to lead the way than the car culture capital.

“I moved here after being at Cornell University for 10 years precisely to … create a new center of sustainability solutions,” said USC’s Antonio Bento.

He talked about a different kind of gridlock — the one at the federal policy level, saying that “the cost of doing nothing continues to rise in our region,” where extreme heat and deadly wildfires have been more frequent, as has abnormal rainfall.

In Garcetti’s vision there will be electric autonomous ride-sharing vehicles by 2021.

He envisions most people using driverless cars exclusively in 20 or 30 years. There’s a lot of guesswork in that, an expectation that the glitches will be worked out, and an assumption that a car-loving public will be content to give up the keys.

That last part is not an issue for me. Despite being a California native, I am missing the gene that makes any one vehicle seem different from any other, so I could be perfectly happy not owning a car, as long as I could figure out where to put all the useless junk now stored in my trunk.

I asked the mayor if we could talk over his plan in a driverless car, and he’s trying to line something up. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Bento said he’d like to see a Los Angeles where public transit is more widely accessible, and ride-sharing electric vehicles fill the need for the first and last mile of anyone’s journey to and from a transit station. Downtown L.A. wouldn’t need all the parking lots it now has, Bento said, so that land could be put to better use, and driverless vehicles would stage on the outskirts and come get us when we’re ready.

He suggested I also call Beverly HIlls Mayor John Mirisch, who has long advocated for a fleet of autonomous vehicles, including shuttles that would make the city more accessible to seniors who no longer drive.

“It’s not pie in the sky,” said Mirisch, who is hoping to work out a pilot program with a manufacturer of autonomous vehicles.

At its best, Mirisch said, an autonomous fleet would be able to deploy additional vehicles — both large and small — on demand. Given the ability to move more people more places, a good system could have an impact on urban design, and vehicles would be equipped with sensors that would electronically report potholes and other hazards to city service departments.

Climbing aboard a vehicle that has no driver — whether it’s shared, or your own personal set of wheels — might understandably be a little scary for some people. There have been accidents with prototypes, and there’s fear that someone could hack the controls, or that the cars might encounter conditions they couldn’t respond to properly.

But would things really get worse than they already are with humans at the controls? More people are killed by car accidents than by gun violence in the U.S., with about 40,000 deaths a year. And distracted driving accounts for a growing percentage of the carnage. Whatever else you think about driverless cars, they’re not going to be googling to find the nearest Starbucks instead of watching the road.

I wandered around Beverly Hills Tuesday asking people if they’d give driverless cars a try, and the responses were all over the place.

“I have qualms,” said Asher Waxman, a senior citizen who was working the information desk at the Beverly Hills Library.

“I’m not sure,” said Jerry Baruch.

Baruch and his wife, Evelyn, in their 80s, said they might be more willing to give driverless cars a try once they’re a proven commodity. Jerry, who drives now, said he might not be behind the wheel much longer, so a reliable alternative would be welcome.

Eliza, a 23-year-old college student, said there is no way she’s getting into a driverless car. She enjoys driving, she said, and she’s not taking any risks.

Sorry to break the news, but every trip is a risk. I’m on the road a lot in my daily travels, and I see so many distracted, horrible drivers, I’m ready to roll the dice on robots.

Dante Ayala, 22, is with me on that. I spotted him skateboarding along in an apron, necktie flying. He said he was on his way to work as a waiter, and he usually parks several blocks away to avoid meters, then boards it the rest of the way.

I asked what he’d think about the Los Angeles of the future, in which he could get rid of his car, the payment, the insurance, and hit an app on his phone to bring a driverless escort that takes him anywhere he wants to go in an emissions-free vehicle.

He thought about it a moment before saying if it’s a safe way to fly, he’s all in. Or, as he put it:

“That is sick!”


Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez