While I do not deny the existence of reasonably working prototypes, I do not expect driverless cars to transform the transportation landscape in the way their boosters claim. Indeed, I am a bit surprised that anyone would consider such transformative claims the least bit more plausible than the patently ridiculous claims once made with comparable fanfare on behalf of Segways. It would seem that advertorial hype, the bread and butter of professional futurism as with its cousin PR disciplines, is the one product citizens socialized as consumers and users simply never can get enough of.
The paradox at the heart of most futurological handwaving about the "driverless car as revolution" is that they are simultaneously premised on the recognition that a radical transformation of car culture is demanded by its total failure -- a monument to extravagant waste, catastrophic pollution, maddening congestion, less walkable and hence less livable cities, horrific accidental deaths, unsustainable and anti-social suburban sprawl -- while engaging at once in a refusal to contemplate the one change without which no transformation could be adequate to the demands of this failure, let alone remotely "revolutionary": the actual relinquishment of car culture itself, the relinquishment of the cars.
I do not agree that driverless cars provide better means of satisfying the needs that trains, buses, and taxis do, and so I simply argue for more reliance on trains, buses, and taxis that actually already do provide for them instead. I do not agree that there is anything about driverless cars that facilitates good practices like car sharing, ride sharing, and collective car ownership and so I simply argue for car sharing, ride sharing, collective ownership arrangements on their actual merits instead.
The futurologically-inclined will no doubt see this as "negative" talk and "backward-looking" thinking. After all, why pooh-pooh putting one more option on the menu for a more sustainable future meal? But I do not agree that there is anything "positive" about enabling denial. I do not agree that there is anything "forward-looking" about efforts to solve problems that are less concerned with actually addressing the problems but with ensuring incumbent interests maintain their positions with the least cost. I happen to have noticed that ubiquitous cars are pretty much all we have on the menu already, and hence a "new option" of ubiquitous driverless cars looks to me a lot more like just the old menu peddled as a new menu.
People want to drive cars and own cars because they want a high level of control over the terms of their personal transportation. This fantasy of autonomy is almost entirely a romance without substance inculcated by a relentless torrent of car culture conceits: road movies in which true friendships are forged and rites of passage in which immature individuals are delivered into sovereign adulthood, mythic car chases in which the action hero in his cyborg shell obliterates all obstacles and achieves escape velocity to a wet-dream of freedom, ads in which sleek curvilinear fetal-metalized space capsules whoosh through cyberspatial freeways surrounded by glimmering skyscrapers, dreamy forests, vast desertscapes bereft of insurmountable barriers and usually bereft even of any other cars, ecstasies of agency as a frictionless "traffic" suffusing car culture no less than digital-utopianism as the prevailing figure of the techno-fetishistic post-WW2 American exceptionalist myth.
It is interesting that the driverless car, to the extent that it were actually used as such, would require a relinquishment of the very romance of autonomy and control without which car culture cannot rationalize itself in the first place. Without the romance of the car as a sort of super-hero costume worn by mass consumers in mass societies trying to impersonate rugged individualists there is nothing beyond the inertial tug of elite-incumbent interest to hold us fast to the catastrophe of car culture. It is for this reason that I personally doubt that the "driverless car" is really anything but a slightly souped-up version of already-available thoroughly non-revolutionary cruise control, to be used as such.
The irrational passions that drive car culture will also circumscribe the uses to which this feature will be put. Driverless cars will not be the revolution that transforms the transportation terrain because almost nobody who really wants such a revolution would want a driverless car in the first place, and almost nobody who actually recognizes the need for such a transformation would spend their time cheerleading driverless cars rather than advocating real solutions like more public transportation investment and changed zoning policies to encourage walkable cities.
As a practical matter very few people would actually be inconvenienced in the least by the necessity of making recourse to sensibly funded and maintained public transportation and the occasional taxi. Indeed, millions of Americans, millions here and now, millions who would not seriously contemplate the possibility for a moment would find their lives enriched and not diminished by the relinquishment of their cars (obviously there are exceptions, but the point remains), even with the dire state of our actually-existing public transportation infrastructure. There is every reason to re-shift our budgetary and policy priorities to facilitate mass transit options and make our cities more walkable, bikable, livable, sustainable.
Those who would shake their heads at the naivete of this claim are free to do so. I believe they are wrong, and I am happy to argue with them on the merits, given our shared economic and ecologic problems, and given the centrality of sustainable cities to so many of the solutions to those problems actually within our collective grasp. But I despair of arguments with people who don't believe in the practical possibility of solutions equal to our problems who will not concede the fact of their disbelief, but instead pretend to be collaborators in the work toward solutions the better to promote pseudo-solutions ("geo-engineering" "driverless cars" "online universities") that distract our intelligence and effort away from that work, and even exacerbate the very problems at hand.
Also published at Amor Mundi.
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This is my last posting for the next few days. I will be taking my office apart so that we can move to our new apartment downtown next Tuesday. I will be unplugged and disconnected except by tablet. Expect me to be back in the saddle before the end of next week probably in time to provide you with some more headlines. In the interim these are the stories I share with you this week:
Today, literally thousands of alternative transportation vehicles are coming out of the woodwork and they nearly all have the same problem – no place to drive them. Most are banned from biking and hiking trails, and they are neither licensed, nor licensable, for use on the streets. I’d like to discuss some new possible solutions and why Colorado is poised to take the lead in the alternative transportation marketplace.
In a recent conference promoting not only their latest gizmos but their company's animating vision as well, Google executives declared they were working toward a future in which technology "disappears," "fades into the background," becomes more "intuitive and anticipatory." Commenting on this apparently "bizarre mission for a tech company," Bianca Bosker warns that their genial and enthusiastic promotional language masks Google's aspiration to omnipresence via invisibility, an effort to render us dependent and uncritical of their prevalence through its marketing as easy, intuitive, companionable.
Occasionally during meetings one of my staff – an avid birder – will elbow me and I’ll look up and glimpse a bald eagle. Each time, I am in awe. I live in Washington State, which is home to a plethora of eagles, where pods of Orca ply the waters near the San Juan Islands, and where roads are sometimes blocked by herds of elk.
In this month's Report on Business Magazine, a supplement that comes with The Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers, Stanford University's Mark Jacobson provides a best case scenario
According to The Hollywood Reporter, celebrity tech CEO Peter Thiel is upset that movies like The Matrix and Avatar make technological innovation seem "destructive and dysfunctional."
A team of researchers are asking the public to help them locate and count all the sources of CO2 coming from power plants on the planet.
Initial results from a selective breeding program at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany based in Cambridge in the UK, indicate the successful creation of a new super wheat.