The historian and author Peter Norton is famous for the book Fighting Traffic, a tome in which he explains the reasons why, since 1920, one was formed holy alliance between the automotive, oil and rubber industries, as well as construction, to transform cities to fit private vehicles. Norton’s contention is that, especially in the United States, metropolises have become chaotically passable only by cars, with parking lots, carriageways, buildings and shopping centers that have adapted to the system.
Now Norton has written another book, titled Self-Honor: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving. In this case we talk about the autonomous driving, the ultimate goal of car manufacturers after years of domination over cities. Technology, the author of the book intends, will arrive and leave everyone breathless: but to make it work, as the executives of the companies studying the system say, an infrastructural revolution will be needed. Will it again be the case of a renewed alliance between building developers, car manufacturers and, this time, energy giants?
Bloomberg interviewed Norton about it. Here are some of the most interesting passages, valuable insights. “I keep seeing autonomous vehicle promoters show a perfect future. I wrote this book because I feel like we have a chance this time not to fall in love with marketing and to avoid falling into a deep hole. After all, every new extraordinary innovation allows the world of engines to regain trust and credibility. Whether it’s radar, ICs, or machine learning, these are breathtaking technologies. They have a dazzling effect and popular skepticism fades. But with autonomous vehicles it won’t work. And despite this, companies will create problems because they will still pursue the goal. If a surgeon performs invasive surgery and it doesn’t work, it will do a lot of damage to your body, without healing you. […] Companies like to claim that autonomous vehicles are working right now. The reason everything goes well is that they are tested in specific places. Population density is too low, every residential street is too wide, non-residential streets are all multi-lane arteries with turning lanes, and each destination is surrounded by a large parking lot. If this is what needs to be created to make autonomous vehicles work, it is a Pyrrhic victory. It’s not worth it“.
In this sense Norton grasps an interesting point also for Europe: it is the cities that have to change to keep the cars (think of the difficulties of revolutionizing with autonomous driving places whose conformation is medieval or geographically complex) or perhaps it would be better to adapt at the best compromise to make cities liveable? The writer then continues: “Companies studying self-driving vehicles don’t really care about cities. They are trying to move forward in a highly competitive environment, and this is what they think about. We must be careful with the strategies of these companies, because they are determined to transform “mobility” into a business model that works above all for them. They are talking about a future of Mobility as a Service, where an autonomous vehicle could pick you up anywhere and anytime. And of course those vehicles will wear out and need to be replaced. […] Cigarettes provide a historical lesson. When the Surgeon General’s report came out in 1964, the discussion that the tobacco companies wanted to have was: “How do we make cigarettes safe?” Very wrong. The real problem was: “How can we get rid of cigarettes?”. We are now in the exact same situation with cars. The real question is, “How can we free ourselves from car addiction?” This does not mean getting rid of them completely. It means finding a system whereby you can go to work without necessarily having to rely on cars“.
Peter Norton is an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia.