This was all obvious, and much discussed, when cars first appeared on the scene. So the prospect of making the car the dominant tool of urban transportation — as opposed to, say, something you might rent to make a trip into the countryside — should have been easy to recognize as a scam.
Historian Peter Norton’s first book, Fighting Traffic, chronicles how this scam took over the United States to create the way of life that most Americans now see as normal. Exploiting understandable frustrations with the for-profit transit of the time, the nascent car and petroleum industries “partnered” with government to build a sense of inevitability around car-based travel. This campaign had all of the disastrous results that were in fact predicted at the time — road carnage, pollution, and congestion.
Why did people fall for it? In part, because “innovation” was going to fix those problems soon, leading us to a new utopia where we could take our cars wherever we wanted, safely, cleanly, and without delay. Norton’s new book, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, fills in more detail on this critical element of the scam, and shows how it operates in the driverless car narratives of today.
Obviously, actual technological improvements to make driving safer are to be welcomed. The danger lies in the impossible visions of the congestion-free autonomous-car-dependent city, which is then cited as a reason not to invest in proven methods of urban transportation, such as public transit. The claim that autonomous driving can fix congestion is no longer as loudly proclaimed as it was a few years ago, but it’s still out there. The only basis of this claim is that because a computer’s reaction time is faster than a human’s, autonomous cars could drive closer together at high speed, taking less space. This, of course, is a minor improvement compared to the countervailing force of induced demand: Eliminating the hassle of driving will cause a lot more driving. We have seen this before.
In the century-long history of high-tech car boosterism, Norton detects cycles of peak hype roughly 25-30 years long, peaking in the 1930s, 1960s, 1990s, and now. At the peak of each cycle, a burst of technical innovation, fused with intense funding and public relations efforts, seems to bring the dazzling future almost within reach. When the vision fails to deliver, there’s an inevitable pause of 20 years or so. Memories fade, and perhaps more important, a generation reaches their 20s who don’t remember the last cycle, and whose sincerity and energy give the effort new life.
Norton calls the newest of these cycles Autonorama (a portmanteau of Futurama and autonomous), but his description of it captures what all four cycles have had in common:
Autonorama is the place where old-fashioned car-dependency is lent new credibility through the application of a fresh gloss of high-tech novelty, where simple possibilities are neglected not because of their inferiority but because of their simplicity, and where implausible promises of perfection divert attention from practical possibilities of actual improvement. In Autonorama transportation research looks like public relations (and vice versa), theoretically possible performance is equated with actual performance, and technology is less a human means to human-chosen ends than a mysteriously willful entity that inevitably delivers ever-better solutions …
None of this is a secret, really. If you read business journalism you can find corporate gurus explaining their methods with pride:
In 1929 [Charles] Kettering distilled his advice into an article, written for Nation’s Business, called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” “If everywhere were satisfied,” he explained, “no one would buy the new thing.” To Kettering, transport sufficiency was a threat to motordom’s future. He advocated perpetual insufficiency, propelled by an ever-receding promise of future perfection.
In the book’s first four chapters, Norton explores the four cycles that we’ve been through so far, ending with the current moment of autonomous-car boosterism. But the most powerful chapter is the fifth, “Data Don’t Drive,” which will train you to recoil when you hear the term data-driven. Norton explores how invocations of data as the ultimate authority invite us to surrender to interests and goals that may not be ours.
Part of the problem is that data is a valuable commodity. “Data is the new oil,” as they say. Norton even turns up a McKinsey report arguing that the real importance of driverless cars is that it will allow us to spend more time interacting with screens, generating data about ourselves that can be used to target and manipulate us.
But the real issue is that data is a tool, not a goal, and only humans can specify the goal. As Norton puts it, “data can tell people which efforts are serving their goals and which are not, but the goals must be chosen first, and by people.” In my own career, I’ve seen countless studies that sought to overwhelm the reader with data and analysis, not to illuminate the real choices (as our firm‘s work does) but to make them surrender to the goals (sometimes not clearly stated) of the proponents. Traffic engineering is full of this kind of talk (“the data show that we need to widen the road”) and you’ll sometimes hear it in transit planning too.
I heartily recommend this book. It will remind you, once again, of why historians are as urgently needed as scientists in our brave new technological future.