“All that is left of the original impulse toward autonomy and initiative [of American suburbia] is the driving of the private motor car, but . . . clever engineers already threaten to remove the individual control by a system of automation.” – Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961
Carolina DCRP students, especially those who have taken courses on transportation, have been part of many discussions speculating on what a world dominated by autonomous vehicles (AVs) would look like. I am already tired of these exercises; I could shout all of my dire, probably redundant predictions, but what I’d rather do is point out the conceptual oxymoron of autonomous vehicles. Though I am not a fan of cars in general, AVs are so baffling that they remind me of why we have cars in the first place and of the (few) blessings of driving.
First of all, we drive because it is fun. Transportation is almost a national sport in the United States. Ask almost anyone who drives – we like being in control and experiencing the ultimate technological exercise of freedom, admittedly impossible to attain through mass transit. For some, cars are a hobby, a livelihood, an expression. Cars and the American road trip have provided a kind of adventure previously unimaginable and have even enabled an outdoor culture and ironic love for nature on a scale not typically found in other countries. Cars are responsible for a great deal of the social ills contemporary planners spend their lives fighting, but there is fun and ruggedness in the experience of driving.
Cars are not, however, any embodiment of practicality or justice; they are aristocratic toys that have been thrust into the duty of being the basis of society. They are not cheap or efficient; they are an entire motor, capable of hauling thousands of pounds, for every human soul. They are not safe; they provide the highest chance of tragedy by maximizing the potential for and impact of error. Certainly AVs might mitigate some of these characteristics, but that is not what I am trying to discuss here.
AVs would undo the original purpose of the car. They are an attempt to derive efficiency from the least efficient mode, to make the most dangerous device in the world safe, and to remove the fun of driving from all of this. Maybe these things need to be done given our infrastructural realities, but doesn’t it seem conceptually pointless? Wouldn’t a bus do if you weren’t driving? No, it is not this simple, and yes, the vast majority of car owners own one because they need to. I only want to highlight the absurdity of this point we have gotten to as a country. Should planners really go along and look to an unproven, expensive technology when there are simpler solutions that are, at least in theory, efficient and just?
AVs are a long way off and may never happen. This does indeed make more technical debate about them moot (Lewis Mumford was airing these same concerns almost sixty years ago). But that is just it – AVs are little more than an idea at this point, an idea I would love to destroy if I could.
About the Author: Evan King is a first year masters student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland. Opinions are his own.
Featured Image: A human driver on an adventure. Photo Credit: Getty Images