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The Wheel, The Cart, The Carriage, The Car, The Driverless Automobile

“In America today, there are more cars than drivers. Yet our investment in these vehicles has yielded dubious returns. Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people have died in traffic accidents in the United States, and more than eighty million have been injured; pedestrian fatalities have risen in the past few years. The road has emerged as the setting for our most violent illustrations of systemic racism, combustion engines have helped create a climate crisis, and the quest for oil has led our soldiers into war. Every technology has costs, but lately, we’ve had reason to question even cars’ putative benefits. Free men and women on the open road have turned out to be such disastrous drivers that carmakers are developing computers to replace them. When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? Is it possible that a hundred years from now, the age of gassing up and driving will be seen as just a cul-de-sac in transportation history, a trip we never should have taken?”

—Nathan Heller, The New Yorker Magazine

The New Yorker Magazine is a literary publication read predominantly by intellectuals. Recently, the iconic magazine has been publishing several excellent pieces on the unfolding evolution of the automobile industry. Their most recent article called “Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?” is a must-read. The piece is a fascinating look at the challenging past, present, and future of the automobile. You can read The New Yorker article by clicking here or you can listen to it on audio via the New Yorker website. The nucleus of the story is based on the recent book by Dan Albert called “Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless,”

Heller questions the sustainability of the current automobile way of life as we know it. He proposes that the roads of the future will look very different than today. Self-driving cars are poised to take over the market. He contends that the original sin of the automobile was the commercial pressure of personal ownership of cars. It turns out that the concept of car sharing is over 100 years old. Heller notes that the average car spends most of its time parked. The shared car of the future could be a leap in utilization and could pick up the kids, go get groceries and be a shared resource that is a profit center. Autonomous cars, congestion pricing, and more integration with urban transport will be a solution for the future. The coming age of robot vehicles is upon us—get ready.

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3 Responses to The Wheel, The Cart, The Carriage, The Car, The Driverless Automobile

  1. Gerry Van Zandt August 8, 2019 at 9:26 am #

    I read the article in the New Yorker, and I can confirm that the author is indeed completely detached from reality. Not to mention, his historical perspective is completely skewed.

    These types of articles from arrogant faux-intellectuals are, at best, cheap entertainment to read. However, they are too pie-in-the-sky to actually be of use or influence in an actual debate.

  2. Bob Kahrl August 7, 2019 at 10:13 pm #

    No, I am not going to accept your invitation to read the article in the New Yorker, as much as I enjoy some of the articles in that magazine. The squib that you provided from the article shows a writer completely disconnected with reality. For example, the sentence beginning “The road has emerged . . . ” contains three clauses, each of which is a huge distortion of reality. To assert that the automobile contributes to racism is not credible, except perhaps on the campus of Columbia U. Only a person living in the New York City area could come up with the idea that the entire last century of automobile ownership and use was a “wrong turn” or a “trip that we never should have taken.” It’s easy to think up junk journalism like this in the only city in America that has a complete subway system enabling a car-free way of life. In the rest of the United States, the automobile has caused such tremendous economic and social advancement that it would be unthinkable not to have had them. this writer knows nothing about life or society in “flyover country” — everything between Newark, New Jersey and San Francisco. Before the automobile, most people born in America had never been outside the county of their birth. The freedom to go places to work, to buy, to sell, to see others and exchange ideas, to travel to school, this all became possible with cars. Even the Amish people, who try to live without cars, have become completely dependent on cars to take them to construction sites and other places of work daily.
    Another fabrication of the author is the argument that autonomous vehicles are being created because human drivers are so terrible. Although human drivers may be terrible, that is not the reason that robot cars are being built. They are being built because hard-headed businessmen think that people will buy them to make their lives more pleasurable, especially on long boring interstate highways and daily rush-hour oommutes.
    I wish this writer had tried to get a job in the 20th Century outside of New York City without owning a car! Then he wouldn’t be so smug about suggesting that car buying was a terrible investment.
    Then there is the further utopian suggestion that shared cars, rather than ownership, is the way of the future. First, it goes against human nature. At my country club, the club storage area has fivel hundred golf bags, each worth several thousand dollars, and each of these is used, on average, four hours per week. What a waste! If everybody shared bags of clubs, then the Club could operate with 50 golf bags rather than 500, and each bag could be used 40 hours per week. But it’s never going to happen, because of human nature.
    Then there is the complete impracticality of the writer’s assertion that we are going to have shared vehicles from a common source. Again, this is so New-York-centric, completely ignoring the way that the rest of us live. In order for this utopian plan to replace private ownership, every town, even every little village, in the United States would have to contain a plethora of robot cars completely charged up and waiting for a call. There have to be many cars available in each location, and multiple sizes of cars (unless a universal seven-passenger van is adopted). It will not do to have just enough cars to meet average demand periods, because in high-use times of day, people would have to wait in queues, and that would completely destroy the concept, because it would be so much worse than private ownership. It is simply naïve to think that people in small towns or on farms would be willing to wait an hour for a vehicle to arrive from the nearest city.
    Shared rides means that some big corporation is going to have to buy and pay for millions of robot cars, which will remain idle most of the day and night, just so that people can have convenient service during morning and evening rush hours. So the purported efficiency of shared rides pretty much disappears.
    Finally I must add parenthetically that if this country were really serious about reducing traffic accidents, we wouldn’t be passing legislation approving recreational use of marijuana. This is going to create a whole new category of vehicle deaths. Bu then I suppose that autonomous cars are necessary sos that we can all be toked all the time and still get where we are going. To me that is the main advantage of robot cars. But we already have the Old-World equivalent of shared rides — taxicabs.

  3. Doug Schellinger August 5, 2019 at 12:06 am #

    The reality of shared vehicles will be that the very people promoting them now will not be willing to ride in “someone else’s”. The truth is that we like the freedom that our own vehicle provides. We like that it is taken care of and parked, ready for whenever we need it. Most of all, we enjoy driving.