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Leave the Driving to It

How would lives and landscapes change if every car had a computer in the driver’s seat?

Brian Hayes

Car Culture

The automobile itself has already worked quite a radical transformation on the human environment. In the 19th century, cities were full of horses. New York had more than 100,000 horses stabled on the island of Manhattan, and vast meadows in the outer boroughs were mown to supply the animals with hay. Caring for horses, hauling their food and manure, driving horse-drawn wagons and carriages—these were occupations that formed a major segment of the urban economy. All this equine infrastructure was swept away by the advent of mechanized transport—first the electric street car, then the automobile, finally the truck.

Of course cars and trucks gave rise to a new and larger infrastructure of their own, encompassing everything from parking meters and traffic signals to the entire worldwide petroleum industry. New York lost its 100,000 horse stalls and got millions of automobile parking places. Cities everywhere have grown fairy rings of suburbs and exurbs. A lacework of highways knits together distant communities, while sometimes dividing nearby ones. In most parts of North America, the automobile is how people get to work, how they get away on vacation and how they get home for the holidays. And a car is not just a means of transport; for many of us it’s also a medium of self-expression—both what you drive and how you drive make a public statement. For adolescents, getting a driver’s license is an important rite of passage and a step toward emancipation.

A hundred years ago, when sales of the Ford Model T were approaching 100,000 a year, an astute observer might have been able to foresee some of these developments—if not the specifics of Levittown, McDonalds, Walmart, Holiday Inn, NASCAR and Jiffy Lube, then at least the general trend toward a culture shaped by and dependent upon automobiles. If society eventually shifts to computer-driven vehicles, many elements of that culture will have to readjust. The details are inscrutable, just as they were a century ago. What effect will driverless cars have on pizza-delivery services or on the speed-trap revenues of small towns in the Midwest? As yet there are no quantitative answers to such questions. Still, the future is not completely opaque.

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