Tech can’t fix the problem of cars

The promise of electric and driverless cars is that vehicles can become better for the planet and safer for us. Those are worthy goals, although there are significant barriers to getting mass numbers of such cars on the road.

>> Shira OvideThe New York Times
Published : 8 Nov 2021, 05:43 AM
Updated : 8 Nov 2021, 05:43 AM

There’s also a risk that devoting our attention to these technological marvels may give us a pass from confronting a deeper question: How can we make our lives less dependent on cars?

After decades of putting the automobile at the centre of the United States' transportation plans and policy, we’re now dealing with the downsides, like air pollution, traffic, road deaths, sprawl and the crowding out of alternative ways to move people and products. The solution to problems caused partly by cars may not only be using different kinds of cars but also remaking our world to rely on them less.

I’ve been thinking about the risk and reward of faith in technology recently because of a new book by Peter Norton, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. Norton detailed decades of unfulfilled promises by carmakers and tech companies that some invention was just around the corner to free us from the worst aspects of our car dependency.

Radio waves, divided highway engineering, transistors and technology repurposed from targeted bombs were all pitched at points after World War II as ways of delivering an automobile utopia. Norton told me that the technologies were often half-baked but that the idea behind them was that “anyone can drive anywhere at any time and park for free and there would be no crashes.”

These technologies never delivered, and Norton said he doubted that driverless cars would, either. “The whole boondoggle depends on us agreeing that high tech is better tech,” he said. “That just doesn’t stand up.”

This is not only Norton’s view. Even most driverless-car optimists now say the technology won’t be ready to hit the roads in large numbers for many more years.

Our health and that of the planet will significantly improve if we switch to electric cars. They are one focus of the global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. And taking error-prone drivers out of the equation could make our roads much safer. But making better cars isn’t a cure-all.

Popularising electric vehicles comes with the risk of entrenching car dependency, as my New York Times Opinion colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote. Driverless cars may encourage more miles on the road, which could make traffic and sprawl worse. (Uber and similar services once also promised that they would reduce congestion and cut back on how many miles Americans drove. They did the opposite.)

The future of transportation needs to include safer and more energy-efficient cars. But Norton also said that it would be useful to redirect money and attention to make walking, cycling and using shared transportation more affordable and appealing choices.

What Norton is talking about might sound like a fantasy concocted by Greta Thunberg. The car is a life-changing convenience, and changing our reliance on it will be difficult, costly and contentious. Why should we try?

Well, the transportation status quo is dangerous and environmentally unsustainable, and it gobbles up public space and government dollars. It took decades to build the U.S. around the car. It was a choice — at times a contested one — and we could now opt for a different path.

Norton asked us to imagine what would happen if a fraction of the bonkers dollars being spent to develop driverless cars was invested in unflashy products and policy changes. He mentioned changing zoning codes to permit more homes to be built in the same places as stores, schools and workplaces so that Americans don’t have to drive everywhere. He also said that bicycles and electric railways that don’t require batteries are technology marvels that do more good than any driverless-car software ever could.

Talking to Norton reminded me of the mixed blessing of innovation. We know that technology improves our lives. But we also know that belief in the promise of technology sometimes turns us away from confronting the root causes of our problems.

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Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher