Tech Can’t Fix the Problem of Cars


This article is a component of the On Tech publication. Here is a group of past columns.

The promise of electrical and driverless vehicles is that autos can turn into higher for the planet and safer for us. Those are worthy targets, though there are important limitations to getting mass numbers of such vehicles on the street.

There’s additionally a threat that devoting our consideration to those technological marvels could give us a move from confronting a deeper query: How can we make our lives much less depending on vehicles?

After many years of placing the car at the middle of America’s transportation plans and coverage, we’re now coping with the downsides, like air air pollution, visitors, street deaths, sprawl and the crowding out of other ways to maneuver folks and merchandise. The answer to issues brought on partly by vehicles could not solely be utilizing completely different sorts of vehicles, but in addition remaking our world to rely on them less.

I’ve been interested by the threat and reward of religion in expertise lately as a result of of a brand new book by Peter Norton, an affiliate professor of historical past at the University of Virginia. Dr. Norton detailed many years of unfulfilled promises by carmakers and tech corporations that some invention was simply round the nook to free us from the worst facets of our automobile dependency.

Radio waves, divided freeway engineering, transistors and technology repurposed from targeted bombs have been all pitched at factors after World War II as methods of delivering an car utopia. Dr. Norton informed me that the applied sciences have been usually half-baked, however that the concept behind them was that “anyone can drive anywhere at any time and park for free and there would be no crashes.”

These applied sciences by no means delivered, and Dr. Norton mentioned he doubted that driverless vehicles would both. “The whole boondoggle depends on us agreeing that high tech is better tech. That just doesn’t stand up,” he mentioned.

This isn’t solely Dr. Norton’s view. Even most driverless-car optimists now say the expertise received’t be able to hit the roads in massive numbers for many more years.

Our well being and that of the planet will significantly improve if we switch to electric cars. They are one focus of the world local weather summit underway in Glasgow. And taking error-prone drivers out of the equation may make our roads a lot safer. But making higher vehicles isn’t a cure-all.

Popularizing electrical autos comes with the threat of entrenching automobile dependency, as my New York Times Opinion colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote. Driverless vehicles could encourage extra miles on the street, which may make traffic and sprawl worse. (Uber and comparable companies as soon as additionally promised that they would scale back congestion and in the reduction of on what number of miles Americans drove. They did the opposite.)

The future of transportation wants to incorporate extra vitality environment friendly and safer vehicles. But Dr. Norton additionally mentioned that it might be helpful to redirect cash and a focus to make strolling, biking and utilizing shared transportation extra reasonably priced and interesting decisions.

What Dr. Norton is speaking about would possibly sound like a fantasy concocted by Greta Thunberg. The automobile is a life-changing comfort, and altering our reliance on will probably be troublesome, expensive and contentious. Why ought to we attempt?

Well, the transportation established order is harmful, gobbles up public area and authorities {dollars}, and is environmentally unsustainable. It took many years to construct the United States round the automobile. It was a selection — at occasions a contested one — and we may now go for a special path.

Dr. Norton requested us to think about what would occur if a fraction of the bonkers {dollars} being spent to develop driverless vehicles have been invested in unflashy merchandise and coverage modifications. He talked about altering zoning codes to allow extra properties to be constructed in the same places as stores, schools and workplaces in order that Americans don’t must drive all over the place. He additionally mentioned that bicycles and electrical railways that don’t require batteries are expertise marvels that do extra good than any driverless-car software program ever may.

Talking to Dr. Norton jogged my memory of the blended blessing of innovation. We know that expertise improves our lives. But we additionally know that perception in the promise of expertise typically turns us away from confronting the root causes of our issues.

For extra studying: Bloomberg CityLab had an interesting interview with Dr. Norton. Fast Company this week additionally revealed an excerpt from his book, titled “Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving.”)


  • Facebook plans to ditch its information of our faces: My colleagues Kash Hill and Ryan Mac report that Facebook is shutting down its 10-year-old system to identify people from images of their faces. It shouldn’t be stunning — but it is — that Facebook is evaluating the drawbacks of facial recognition expertise and (for now) has determined that the advantages weren’t price the dangers to our privateness.

  • Zillow made many oopsies: My colleagues and I couldn’t cease speaking about this yesterday. Zillow, greatest identified for exhibiting folks estimates of residence values, has additionally been shopping for properties itself and flipping them for a revenue. But Zillow’s laptop methods drastically overestimated the value of houses it bought, and the firm misplaced cash on every sale, on common. Zillow mentioned Tuesday that it might shut down its home-flipping business.

  • Witches want on-line funds, too: A author was rejected by the digital funds supplier Stripe when she tried to sell tarot reading services online. Her essay in Wired explores the affect that funds corporations together with Stripe, Square and PayPal have in what services can exist on-line, and which can’t. (A subscription could also be required.)

Animals love democracy, most likely. Here, a dog seems to be enthusiastic about voting. And a candidate for mayor in New York tried to take one of his cats (hello, Gizmo!) to his polling web site. (He was denied entry.)


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