Earlier this year, The Economist (March, 2018) published a special report speculating on the potential for autonomous or self-driving cars to solve the countless problems associated with today’s gasoline-powered, human operated vehicles. Autonomous cars, they and other tech-enthusiasts argue, will virtually eliminate road accidents, revive suburban areas, solve the problem of parking, and reduce traffic in our cities.
The naïve claim is that a single technology will solve a host of social, cultural and environmental problems, while allowing the economy to keep growing, never questioning whether the endless pursuit of autonomous mobility or economic growth is good for the planet, let alone urban regions.
I – Appropriation of Critiques
Ascribing commodities with magical powers is nothing new. Marx called it the fetishism of commodities. A commodity, he wrote, is a mysterious thing that achieves mystical properties, not due to its use value, but from ways in which it objectifies social relations. It is much easier, and profitable, to address the urbanizing planet’s profound socio-ecological crisis with a new technology than to question the social and cultural desire for automobile-propelled mobility.
Like the rhetoric of the sharing economy, which appropriates the collective idea of sharing in the monetization of everyday life — driving, dwelling, and eating — the rhetoric around the autonomous car appropriates critiques of the automobile that have long been made by environmentalist and anti-car activists.
The fantasy of this fetish object begins with its very naming as somehow autonomous (literally, outside of or beyond the law). All new technologies, be they cars or smartphones, pencils or paper, alter the existing cultural and social matrix of technologies. The question is how do they do so, who in particular will benefit from them, and how are they sold to the public because, today, all technologies are developed within the laws of capitalism — they have to make money and be profitable, and in the case of the autonomous car, further rather than overcome, the individualism that is at the core of the system of automobility.
Critics of the car, activists and academics alike, have long pointed to not just the physical violence that mass automobility brings out, but the conceptual violence of automobility as the symbol of autonomous mobility.
Automobility, in this sense is fundamentally contradictory. The ‘auto’ in automobility implies a coherent self, someone composing her biography in motion. Driving is the ultimate pursuit of the autonomous self. If freedom is motion, forever moving forward, then the car on the open road is the ultimate expression of autonomy.
At the same time, the ‘auto’ in automation, automaton, and automobile implies a machine, not a human, and a seemingly autonomous machine that is, however, utterly dependent on an infrastructure for it to express the driver’s autonomy, often at the expense of other non-car drivers.
Critical theorists of automobility have pointed out that automobility is not at all autonomous, but radically dependent on a host of infrastructure systems. They suggest that the vast system that makes automobility both possible and desirable, ironically, if taken as an intrinsic part of automobility would call into question the very idea and practice of autonomous mobility. Their point is that it is not necessarily the individual in the car that expresses autonomous mobility, but that it is rather the infrastructure, the vast network of highways, gas stations, traffic lights, licensing and insurance systems, that fosters the illusion that movement is autonomous. Thus, the editors of a 2006 edited collection called Against Automobility write, ‘the complex infrastructure of automobility produces, as one of its effects, the appearance of independent automobility.’
II – ‘Energy Crisis’
Ivan Ilich, the theologian and radical activist, made the same claim when he criticized the term ‘energy crisis’ in the 1970s in his landmark essay ‘Energy and Equity’ (1974). There was only a crisis, he wrote, because of the number of ‘energy slaves’ that needed to be fed. His point was that the energy crisis revealed the opposite of autonomy: our radical dependence on networks of infrastructure and energy. Autonomy, in his sense, could not be found with a technological tool, green or otherwise, but with social and political liberation.
If automobility as autonomous mobility is impossible on conceptual grounds, attempts to resolve such antagonisms will always fail. In his last book, the sociologist John Urry wrote that even the car manufacturers are beginning to realize that automobility’s antagonisms might be ‘impossible to ‘solve’ in any simple sense.’
The Economist said as much itself back in 2012. To address ‘peak car’ – saturation of the automobile market in the rich countries – car manufacturers had two options: either flood the economically poorer countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and India with more gas guzzling combustion engines; or bring technology and car companies together to offer rich countries the autonomous car, a ‘highly profitable innovation.’
The autonomous car, far from overturning the system of automobility that became dominant in the twentieth century, will only perpetuate it and fuel expectations for increased personal mobility, rather than collective, public mobility on public transit. The expectations that we should all have access to a private car to go, where we want and when we want, were in part produced by the infrastructure of automobility.
III – Uber-flawed
Uber’s former CEO, Travis Kalanick, argued that Uber was not, as might appear, in competition with taxis, although that is the most visible aspect of the clash (and the associated labour disputes of Uber’s drivers). Rather, Kalanick said that they were not competing in an existing market, but producing an altogether different one. Uber was competing against car ownership. The goal? To make, in Kalanick’s words: ‘car ownership a thing of the past.’
Kalanick’s claim points to a key aspect of the discourse of the autonomous car: its proponents have appropriated long-held knowledge about the damage cars do to society, in order to sell autonomous cars.
For years anti-car activists have pointed to a number of antagonisms. The response: autonomous cars will ease the antagonisms of automobility by reducing traffic, ending the over one million fatalities that occur on the world’s roads every year, cutting back carbon emissions (when the cars become self-driving), reduce parking and supplementing public transportation, or in some areas, offering a more cost-effective form of quasi-public transport. With autonomous vehicles, we find what The Economist describes as the possible saviour of both the system of automobility and the dispersed suburban form.
For decades, anti-car and environmental activists have been drawing attention to these problems with cars. Their point was not to find a technological alternative that could, in theory, provide the same pseudo-freedom of mobility that the car provides, but to question radically that pursuit, and support collective solutions in the interests of the common good: safe and effective public transportation, cycling, and an urban and suburban form conducive to walking and hanging around.
Today criticisms of the car are recycled by the industry because a technological alternative has become viable that does not call into question the economy of infinite growth. Those who for years persisted in supporting conventional cars because they were still profitable (and as such willingly sacrificed human lives in exchange for personal mobility and profit), now conveniently reach for the anti-car arguments.
IV – Unsustainable Growth
Autonomy (2018), is a book co-authored by Lawrence D. Burns, former vice-president of research and development at General Motors, and a key proponent of self-driving cars. The introductory chapter is entitled ‘The Problem with Cars’, and introduces a litany of problems associated with the ‘personally owned, gas-powered, human-operated automobile.’
These cars he writes are inefficient. Cars are usually occupied by only one person, and in city centres cars rarely travel faster than 12 mph (3). Cars are heavy, and so dangerous, killing 1.3 million people per year, and they contribute to American dependence on oil. And given all that, they still spend 95% of their lives parked.
‘Years from now,’ writes Burns, ‘we’ll regard as incredibly wasteful the way we got around in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries….The system is completely irrational.’
Adam Jonas, a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley, claims that the car industry is the ‘the most disruptable business on the Earth.’ ‘Happily,’ writes Burns, ‘the solution also happens to be better for the earth’. This is telling because it is economics, not an interest in climate change, that, in the end, drives such innovations. If it happens to pollute less, all the better, but the ultimate goal is infinite economic growth, which in today’s climate, cannot be sustained.
There are, however, two glaring omissions in Burns’s account: no mention of the vast sums of money spent on highway building and maintenance, particularly in North America, much to the detriment of public transportation, and not one mention of public transportation as an already available, collective option to much of the problems he discusses.
The bus does make an appearance in his narrative: co-founder of Google, Larry Page, while an undergraduate in Michigan in the early 1990s, was forced to wait in the freezing cold for buses that never arrived on time, if at all. While stuck waiting, writes Burns, Page wondered ‘how poorly we as a society had solved the transportation problem.’ The solution, was not to make public transportation more effective, but to come up with an idea for personal rapid transportation, which would lead to the race to build self-driving cars.
Most remarkably, The Economist’s 2018 special section on autonomous vehicles, claims they will save the suburb from the car by reducing or eliminating driving and the amount of space given over to cars, thereby, ‘updating the 20th-century dream of garden cities.’ Garden Cities, they write, can again become self-sustaining, producing their own power through solar, and growing their own food. Since autonomous vehicles can be parked elsewhere and roads narrowed, car spaces can be reclaimed as gathering spaces for people.
V – Suburbs without cars?
Is it possible to conceive of the dispersed suburbs without privately-owned cars? The lack of sidewalks will turn into a bonus as the playing field between cars and pedestrians is levelled. What about the demise of car ownership? If car ownership is part of the debtscape of suburban neo-liberal automobility (Walks, 2015), how might the de-privatized self-driving car change this?
For Wendell Cox, one of the staunchest supporters of neo-liberal automobility, the idea of suburban dwellers not only giving up car ownership, but sharing rides with their fellow suburban dwellers in self-driving cars is unthinkable. In other words, self-driving transportation services should not resemble in any form public transportation.
In all of these cases, radical alternatives that were about a right to the city, are commodified and sold to us as saviours of the city. And it is unlikely these self-driving cars will benefit the places that need them most: suburbs and peripheries lacking in good public transportation.
The current mood around self-driving cars places them in the increasingly exclusive central cores of cities like Google’s proposed smart neighbourhood, Quayside, on the Toronto waterfront, which will make use of self-driving cars.
If the current forms of ‘tech mobility’ (Henderson, 2018) are any indication – like the privatised Google buses in San Francisco ferrying workers from the downtown to their suburban tech campuses – so-called sustainable forms of liveability that are associated with self-driving cars, carbon-free mobility, and bike lanes, will exacerbate rather than overcome the infrastructural inequities between the central city cores and the periphery, enhance the autonomous mobility of the few, not the many.
Steffen Böhm, Campbell Jones, Mat Paterson, and Chris Land (Eds.), Against automobility. Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2006.
Jason Henderson, Google Buses and Uber Cars, The Routledge Handbook on Spaces of Urban Politics, Routledge, New York, pp. 439–450, 2018.
Alan Walks, Stopping the ‘War on the Car’: Neoliberalism, Fordism, and the Politics of Automobility in Toronto, Mobilities 10 (3): 402–22, 2015.
Lawrence D. Burns and Christopher Shulgan, Autonomy: the quest to build the driverless car–and how it will reshape our world, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
Evelyn Rusli and Douglas MacMillan, ‘Uber Gets an Uber-Valuation’, Wall Street Journal, 6 June 2014, <http://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-gets-uber-valuation-of-18-2-billion-1402073876>
Wendell Cox, ‘Driverless Cars and the City: Sharing Cars, Not Rides’, Cityscape, 18, 197–204, 2016
Ivan Ilich, Energy and Equity, London : Calder & Boyars, 1974, http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/EnergyEquity/Energy%20and%20Equity.htm
‘Seeing the Back of the Car’, The Economist, 22 September 2012 <https://www.economist.com/briefing/2012/09/22/seeing-the-back-of-the-car>
‘Special Report: Autonomous Vehicles’, The Economist, 1 March 2018 https://www.economist.com/special-report/2018/03/01/self-driving-cars-will-profoundly-change-the-way-people-live