Tech Can’t Fix the Problem of Cars

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

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.

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 center of America’s 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. Dr. 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. Dr. 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 Dr. Norton said he doubted that driverless cars would either. “The whole boondoggle depends on us agreeing that high tech is better tech. That just doesn’t stand up,” he said.

This is not only Dr. 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 underway in Glasgow. And taking error-prone drivers out of the equation could make our roads much safer. But making better cars isn’t a cure-all.

Popularizing 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 more energy efficient and safer cars. But Dr. 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 Dr. 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, gobbles up public space and government dollars, and is environmentally unsustainable. It took decades to build the United States around the car. It was a choice — at times a contested one — and we could now opt for a different path.

Dr. Norton asked us to imagine what would happen if a fraction of the bonkers dollars being spent to develop driverless cars were 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 Dr. 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.

For more reading: Bloomberg CityLab had an interesting interview with Dr. Norton. Fast Company this week also published an excerpt from his book, titled “Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving.”)

  • Facebook plans to ditch its records of our faces: My colleagues Kash Hill and Ryan Mac report that Facebook is shutting down its 10-year-old system to identify people from images of their faces. It shouldn’t be surprising — but it is — that Facebook is evaluating the drawbacks of facial recognition technology and (for now) has decided that the benefits weren’t worth the risks to our privacy.

  • Zillow made many oopsies: My colleagues and I couldn’t stop talking about this yesterday. Zillow, best known for showing people estimates of home values, has also been buying homes itself and flipping them for a profit. But Zillow’s computer systems drastically overestimated the value of houses it bought, and the company lost money on each sale, on average. Zillow said Tuesday that it would shut down its home-flipping business.

  • Witches need online payments, too: A writer was rejected by the digital payments provider Stripe when she tried to sell tarot reading services online. Her essay in Wired explores the influence that payments companies including Stripe, Square and PayPal have in what products and services can exist online, and which cannot. (A subscription may be required.)

Animals love democracy, probably. Here, a dog seems to be enthusiastic about voting. And a candidate for mayor in New York tried to take one of his cats (hi, Gizmo!) to his polling site. (He was denied entry.)

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