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trueHUE® Water cooler stories
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.
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?
“The road was once an open-ended adventure, full of wrong turns and serendipitous discoveries,” Albert writes. “Now the phone knows every mile and every minute before we leave the garage.”
In 1909, there were two million horse-drawn carriages manufactured in the United States and eighty thousand automobiles. By 1923, there were ten thousand carriages manufactured and four million cars; by 1930, more than half the families in the United States were car owners, and the horses went to pasture. A key factor in the explosion of the market was the release of the Model T, created by Henry Ford, in 1908.
In Albert’s telling, the versatile Model T further de-urbanized the automobile, turning it private, populist, and rural. At a moment when cities were building out their transit systems, the places between places in America filled up with middle-class cars.
There are two strong claims in favor of the idea that our century-long adventure in owning and crashing gasoline cars was, although not perfect, a step forward. The first is infrastructural: cars let Americans cross cities, states, woods, mountains, deserts, and, ultimately, the nation in reasonable time. Cities and towns thrived with the flow. The second is cultural: the idea that car travel conjugates American life in its healthiest and most distinctive forms.
A saner worry is about the environment, which new toys habitually defile. On paper, autonomous vehicles promise fuel efficiencies, and Schwartz notes that they also have the potential to prune back infrastructure excess. Lanes in the U.S. are normally twelve feet wide, to allow for what he archly calls “the swaying of imperfect drivers”; eliminate the radius of human error, and major roads could gain a lane or two. Guardrails and other bulk meant to protect humans from themselves could melt away, as could some perilous practices. Drinking and driving would be less of a menace (although, unfairly, the party-bus phenomenon would persist). Motorcycling is already on the wane. Trucking, notoriously a battle between schedule and sleep, is more safely and efficiently done by robot.
In theory, private driverless cars can reduce that waste. Instead of owning two cars, you can have a single car that drives Mom to work, drives itself back home, ferries Dad and the kids around, and zooms back to the office to pick up Mom. Yet the new gridlock-producing waste of this arrangement—“zombie car” trips, by empty vehicles—leads Schwartz to argue that we must move away from the idea of owning cars and see them as a shared resource, like taxis. He favors “a pricing strategy that discourages private ownership in urban areas, recognizing that, for people who live in rural areas and remote locations, personal vehicles are a necessity.”