Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter D. Norton

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Posted 2023-04-29

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Remember when effortless driving was just around the corner? At the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, General Motors presented a vision of cars zooming along congestion-free motorways in an exhibit called "Futurama," and people loved it!

Don't recall that? Well, in the decades following, this vision evolved. It became a world of electronics and plenty of concrete and jet-age technology that will undoubtedly--very soon--usher in a better world: zooming cars gliding along wide, open highways. Intelligent systems and microprocessors will make our cities smart. We will gain an effortless, vast expanse of smart motorways. Very soon, data-driven, next-generation, disruptive, connected, intelligent technology will certainly--in 20 years or so--create a world in which you can glide around in cars effortlessly, in broad, uncrowded expanses of freeways in cities erased of nearly everything else. The worries about dirty streets crowded with people and vendors and noise, the complicated streets and their oddball inhabitants--all will be forgotten, erased in a utopia of motordom!

You've heard this story before--the rapidly-approaching almost-future that never happens. Norton dismantles this nearly century-long shell game in which automotive and highway technology pledges to, someday soon, create an automotive utopia: a world where no one will be bothered by any of the negatives of automobile driving--the soul-crushing time it steals from living, the destruction of city neighborhoods, the pollution, the accidents and deaths, and the congestion that always seems to come back. In this automotive utopia, the loss of transportation choices doesn't matter: you don't need walking, bicycling, transit, or walkable neighborhoods. Why invest in those when we soon have a fantastic age--just over the horizon--in which effortless motorways usher in a utopia of better living on broader highways?

If you don't recognize the empty promises of worry-free motordom presented in these serial deceptions--get wise to it. Read Peter Norton's book, Autonorama!

Norton outlines this succession of promises in a table on page 17, and this forms the basis for his book's organization:

Technofuturistic VisionEraTransformative Technology
Futurama 1Circa 1940Engineering: highway engineering, steel-reinforced concrete, vacuum tube electronics
Futurama 2Circa 1965Electronics: solid-state, transistorized electronic systems; jet-age and space-age hardware
Futurama 3Circa 1990(Advanced) Technology: "smart" systems, microprocessors, digital computers
Futurama 4 (Autonorama) Circa 2015(Data-driven) Autonomy: "next-generation" technology, "disruptive innovation," sensors, machine learning, wireless network connectivity

Norton's previous book Fighting Traffic (2008) outlined how rhetoric, regulation, and routine firmly set the automobile at the apex of transportation in America. In Autonorama, Norton shows how a succession of technofuturistic visions, spread over 80 years, have served to shore up and maintain this automobile dependency. He characterizes how these technofuturistic visions (pp. 12-13) work:

Norton describes each of the four futurama versions and concludes (p. 197):
"A bucket is a useful tool, but at lunchtime, it's no substitute for a soupspoon. The twentieth-century effort to rebuild cities around automobiles failed because like buckets, cars are useful tools that can't serve all needs well. The pursuit of the drive-everywhere city served no one well--not even drivers. The consequences of the attemp were destructive, expensive, wasteful, inequitable, unhealthful, and unsustainable."

I see major themes that power these technofuturistic visions:

  1. Rhetorical Closure. At the heart of the technofuturistic visions is the implication that nothing should be done with any present-day, competent, proven technology because something much better is coming soon. Therefore, known ways to improve city mobility get ignored: walkable urbanism, public transit, bicycling, walkable neighborhoods, or mixed-use urbanism. Rhetorical closure stifles any further discussion of these known ways to improve transportation and the mobility of people in cities. The lure of the technology that is claimed to be soon perfected is never questioned. Objections are ignored, such as how can a city based on autonomous cars be any different from one based on regular cars--with the same spatial inefficiency, inequities, car-oriented design, and deaths.

  2. Technological Determinism. Technofuturistic visions imply that technology is so potent in our lives that we must follow where it leads. Technology is held superior to knowledge about current technology and history, empirical observations, human agency, patterns of human behavior, and even common sense. The belief in the potency of technology--technological determinism--has shaped public policy along a parallel track in the same timeframe Norton examines in this book.

  3. The Lack of a Systems Perspective. Norton provides an extended comparison of his observations to the methods of Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson (pp. 214-219). Both women observed systems (Jacobs in cities) or (Carson for the environment) and saw complex webs of relationships that, when disturbed, had unexpected and uncontrollable results. Jacobs observed how disrupting the "sidewalk ballet" of cities doomed neighborhoods to more dangerous, empty, less livable, and less productive streets. Carson observed that an obsession with eradicating all insect infestation of crops led to greater and greater decimations of the environment through harsher chemicals. In both cases, experts wanted to control nodes of complex webs of relationships. They chose a thoughtless attempt at control and did not anticipate, acknowledge, or rectify the severe problematic consequences of their actions. In these cases, highways and DDT were both monstrous, blunt-force technologies that decimated the systems of cities and the environment. They did not achieve their stated goals and wrought peripheral damage.

  4. Motonormativity. Recent research into the biased thinking that tends to favor cars has identified a name for this car bias--motonormativity. Research shows a measurable bias toward favoring automobiles in many situations. Researchers discuss how "these biases systematically distort medical and policy decisions" (Walker, Tapp, & Davis, 2022). For decades, urban planning and transportation efforts have supported car dependency as a policy goal (Kay, 1997; Kenworthy, 2017; Newman & Kenworthy, 2021), with a bias that also endangers a healthy mix of transportation options.

  5. Public Transportation Technofuturism. Norton does not cover this; it would make a whole book unto itself. However, when a competent-edge, proven public transit system is proposed, opponents might raise technofuturistic visions to distract, delay, or demolish support for these proven systems. For example, the proposal for a streetcar often leads to suggestions about pods on overhead rails or some other system with shiny (usually pod-like) containers for one or a few people to ride. These pods are immediately declared superior and cheaper, with no supporting evidence or operational system. These distractions waste money and sometimes derail a public transit system or significantly delay it. The motivations behind these distractions are complex but may involve ideology, car bias, or the easy gullibility of people to believe futuristic diagrams that armchair commenters believe must work. The method--technofuturism as a distraction--is the same as for automobile technofuturism.

    For example, see the Web page, "Personal Rapid Transit Has Always Been a Bogus Excuse to Defund Rail Transit" or "Wacky Skytran Pod People Invade Detroit, Australia and Canada." The article, "Invasion of the pod car: The dream of personal rapid transit picks up speed," Boston Globe, October 4, 2009, takes a more circumspect view of the historical efforts and beliefs that some sort of pod system is better than established streetcar or bus transit. Modern versions include hyperloops or any number of failed pod systems with numerous faults in a basic design that does not scale well, cannot carry the needed capacity, nor can be deployed cost-effectively in a city landscape. Most importantly, no working city-wide system of pods like the ones described in the technofuturistic diagrams. In contrast, there are hundreds of operating streetcar systems worldwide and thousands of operating bus systems worldwide, many of which have been operating for over a century but now with modern vehicles. The basic functionality of a streetcar or bus shows an able, modern, proven form of public transit with thousands of working systems. However, techno futurists repeatedly develop the same ill-conceived pod designs that have never worked.

These themes--rhetorical closure, technological determinism, lack of awareness of a systems approach, motonormativity, and public transportation technofuturism--contributed to extending car dependency. The result has been that some people doubt that improving the use of walking, buses, or streetcars to get around is worth it when they sincerely believe that autonomous cars (or flying cars, or some pods perhaps) will very soon be available for them to use to enter that dream of endless motordom. Likewise, highway officials relentlessly believe that widening highways will solve traffic problems despite decades of empirical evidence to the contrary (Blumgart, 2022; Litman, "Generated Traffic and Induced Travel"; Transportation for America, 2020 "The Congestion Con: How more lanes and more money equals more congestion"). However, by breaking our minds of the allure of these empty visions fostered by these forces, we can orient cities away from technofuturism to the real world of people and places.

Norton provides a succinct statement of his main point on page 219:

"Predictions that automated driving will make car dependency work have been failing for sixty years. Numerous innovations have offered important safety and efficiency benefits, but nothing has come close to solving the problems that make ubiquitous driving hazardous, spatially inefficient, unsustainable, and inequitable."

Norton further concludes that "AVs are no solution to mobility problems... promoters of automated driving are less interested in human mobility than in preserving car dependency." (p. 226).

The main conclusions that I take from reading this book are:

  1. Technology itself is not bad, but the unthinking use of it is. Norton uses the example of a carpenter who wants to use a hammer to pound a nail rather than pounding a nail with a wrench. This carpenter is not anti-wrench (p. 235). Norton observes that automobiles are a suitable transit mode for only some situations. That does not make Norton anti-car, but it does make him wise in wanting to use the right tool for the job.

  2. We can stop with the technofuturistic visions. The 80+ years since the New York World's Fair is plenty. These tales are simply rehashes of the same themes. Anyone attempting to trick us into another technofuturistic vision needs to stop and explain how human beings, in the here and now, will benefit from a technology that is here and now and competent. Starting with human needs, explain how the clever use of competent-edge technology will serve humans, not the other way around.

  3. These technofuturistic visions were never about building a better future for humanity but maintaining the automobile as the apex of mobility. Car dependence based on new technologies is still dependence. Norton observes that "In the absence of choice, choosing to drive is not a preference to drive" (p. 204). This lack of choice makes living in cities less livable. We must acknowledge that when people lack alternatives, the choice to use a car for nearly all travel is not a free choice.

  4. We can rejoice in the good news: we already have all the technology necessary to create diverse mobility networks. The downside is that these technologies are mostly boring and generate little money for automobile or tech companies. Technologies we have now include walking, bicycling, public transportation, sidewalks, affordable housing near mixed uses, and complete streets that accommodate people and all these modes operating together.

  5. The glue that has kept automobiles stuck at the apex of transportation has been ample parking in cities. Excessive parking has also acted as a poison to repel other transportation modes or land use patterns from gaining any foothold. Norton's two books (2008, 2021) thus provide a background narrative underpinning the emergence of parking policies (Shoup, 2005; Shoup, 2018), automobile dependency (Kay, 1997; Kenworthy, 2017; Newman & Kenworthy, 2021), and motonormativity ("automobile bias") (Walker, Tapp, & Davis, 2022).

  6. In order to move forward in urban policy, the role of automobiles, the car bias revealed by motonormativity, technofuturistic visions, and the policies of car dependency must be readdressed. Motonormativity shows an inherent bias in favor of automobiles in much of the thinking of decision-makers and the public, with a resultant bias that endangers health, safety, and the wise use of resources.

Norton's strength in this book is his dismantling of the con job of the ages of technofuturism. Many people will mistake this as a repudiation of technology itself. It is complicated to get across the idea that the mindful use of technology can help people. Technology can improve everything from electric buses to streetcars, build supportive technologies for people with disabilities, make safer streets possible, or enable affordable housing construction. Technology can serve people by improving public transportation operations, vehicles, and rider satisfaction. The tragedy of technological determinism is that it burns the connection between humanity and technology, with an emphasis that pushes technology to spiral out to a life of its own with less and less human agency, relevancy, and benefit. Simply put, it is a mistake to think that a critique of automotive technofuturism is anti-technology. Instead, fully recognizing the complexity of cities and their webs of relationships, nodes, modes, and connections requires a deep and ongoing understanding of both human beings and technology. Knowledge and research of the right technology in the right places for the right reasons can place technology in the service of humanity and not the other way around.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com