By Nathan McLeay
Oct 04, 2018

Autonomous and Electric Cars are Not the Future

According to the so-called tech visionaries of Silicon Valley, the future of urban mobility lies with autonomous, electric cars. One day soon, once the tech allows, we’ll no longer have to own or drive personal motor vehicles, fuss about with public transport, or even walk the last kilometre from transit hubs to our final destinations. Instead, we’ll be whisked around in clean and affordable self-driving taxis, free to relax as our digital chauffeurs deliver us to wherever we need to be. 

Technological change certainly has a massive influence on transportation, mobility, and urban form, but distinguishing which changes are likely, imminent, and meaningful from those that present merely a smokescreen of evaporating wishes isn’t easy; especially when there seems to be whole armies of tech boosterists out there dedicated to creating highly seductive distractions from more viable futures. Though widely celebrated, the tech industry’s aspirations for the future of transportation fall squarely into the ‘seductive distraction’ category. Put bluntly, Silicon Valley’s ideas about transportation are fanciful at best; at worst, it’s disruptive to the development and adoption of actually feasible transportation and mobility options.

The best and brightest in tech are apparently not imaginative or daring enough to stray from the well-driven road of auto-centricity. Silicon Valley’s transportation vision does not move beyond the personal motor vehicle; it simply automates and electrifies it. Far from innovation, this represents the continuation of an automobile-centric, individual-oriented mode of thinking about transportation that has been and continues to be hugely destructive to both the natural environment and to human well-being. 

Since the mid-twentieth century, the private car has been the overwhelmingly dominant means of travel in the West. The costs of this auto-centricity are staggering. Productive farmland and natural landscapes are paved over as cities and roads expand to accommodate ever greater numbers of vehicles. An astonishing amount of time better spent doing almost anything else is lost in traffic. In New Zealand, motorists spend some $15 billion each year on acquiring, insuring, fuelling, and repairing cars that are parked, on average, for 96 per cent of their operational lives. With the aim of easing the traffic congestion endemic to our major urban centres, the government devotes most of the roughly $5 billion it spends annually on transportation infrastructure to new roading projects; only for those new roads to fill almost immediately with new cars as drivers take more and more trips to absorb unused road space. 

There is also a litany of negative health outcomes associated with automobile dependence; the most obvious being death or injury resulting from a traffic collision. In making the car necessary to get anywhere, urban sprawl has engineered natural movement out of our lives – fuelling obesity and related health issues. Long commutes have been linked with high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, metabolic risks, exhaustion, stress, and poor sleep. The negative mental health consequences of auto-centricity go even further when our car-focused urbanism spreads people and amenities so far apart as to generate social isolation and loneliness. 

Automating and electrifying the world’s car fleet will not remedy the social, environmental, and health problems associated with auto-centricity and urban sprawl. So long as the personal motor vehicle is preferred over other forms of transit, we will remain locked into our sprawling, congested, expensive, polluting, unhealthy, and alienating cities. 

Most major cities are already drowning in traffic, and claims that driverless cars will reduce congestion—because their ability to communicate with one another will make them more efficient—are patently absurd. More cars cannot be the solution to the problem of too many cars, and it is easy to envisage ways in which self-driving cars could make congestion worse. For instance, average vehicle occupancy in New Zealand now sits at about 1.1 persons per car, but the introduction of driverless tech could see this drop below one, as the streets become clogged with empty cars sent out on errands or to pick us up. Moreover, despite assertions that driverless tech will eliminate human error and reduce traffic collisions, software or hardware malfunction can still be deadly: in March this year, an experimental Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. 

Urban planner Jarrett Walker has recently criticised technologists  for what he terms ‘elite projection’. Elite projection refers to ‘the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole’. Walker considers it ‘perhaps the single most comprehensive barrier to prosperous, just, and liberating cities’. The idea that autonomous electric cars are going to fundamentally transform urban transportation and the shape of our cities is elite projection at its finest. A fleet of driverless, electric vehicles may serve a wealthy few, but it will never be a serious mass transit option for urban dwellers. Perhaps no one figure is more symbolic of the phenomenon of elite projection in transportation than Elon Musk, the much-vaunted chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors. At a Tesla event last year, Musk described public transport as a ‘pain in the ass’, where ‘there’s like [sic] a bunch of random strangers; one of who [sic] might be a serial killer’. Musk promotes individualised transportation as the future because it’s the future he desires. It almost seems like he fears public transit, and on top of this, as the head of a car company, he has an obvious financial interest in protecting automotive dominance.

The fantasies of Musk and his fellow tech magnates must remain just that: fantasies. In reality, all the technologies we need to transform our transportation networks already exist but lack the proper implementation. The far-fetched proposals of tech magnates only act as a distraction from these more workable and beneficial options. 

Cars—driverless, electric, or otherwise—need to be phased out of urban centres, with efficient, low emission mass transit options and safe cycleways introduced as substitutes. At the same time, it is necessary for urban planners to embrace a human scale. As André Gorz has written, the city must be made ‘liveable, and not trafficable’. It must become a place not beholden to the motor car, but shaped first and foremost for ‘all human activities, where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common’.

Self-driving electric cars as they’re promoted by technologists are a fantasy, but investment into public transit infrastructure and effective city planning can deliver their promise of clean, quick, and easy mass movement.

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