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Watts: Driverless Cars

Technology as a solution to society’s ills is a compelling story-line – like nuclear power will be too cheap to meter, or carbon sequestration will address climate change, and driver-less cars will reduce air pollution. It was nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg who coined the term “technological fix” back in 1967, writing in his book “Reflections on Big Science” that “The future of our society depends upon the continued success of … scientific technology.”

While nuclear energy and unlimited cheap electricity were core to his vision, Weinberg also extended the idea of science and scientific planning to address poverty and economic ills.

But scientific planning ran into the buzz saw of reality in the 1960s and ‘70s. The “best and the brightest” applied their rational planning to urban planning, foreign policy and the war on poverty – with disastrous results. Urban renewal destroyed cities, wars in Southeast Asia ended in quagmire and poverty and social and racial injustice continue.

Yet the lure of the “technological fix” remains all-powerful.

Driver-less vehicles certainly do sound cool - almost irresistible. Google and other technology companies are rushing to bring them to market. We’re told they’ll reduce automobile accidents and carbon emissions. And this sounds a lot less painful than actually changing behavior with programs like Sweden’s pioneering concept of “Vision Zero.”

In 1997, Sweden initiated a sweeping effort to reduce car fatalities to zero. Today the rate of traffic fatalities per one thousand in Sweden is about one-quarter that of the U.S. Instead of turning to technology, Sweden chose the far more difficult path of changing cultural norms.

Environmentally speaking, the impacts of building a new car can have a greater impact than driving a car for its entire lifetime. So building more than one hundred million new cars, even if they're driverless, to replace existing fleets will have negative consequences from mining the metals to processing the plastics.

So it seems to me that the technological fix obscures the more far-reaching changes that will have to be made if the goal really is to reduce the social, physical and environmental impacts of car dependence.

What we really need are systems that encourage and enable people to drive less – like charging more for parking and gasoline, providing public transit systems that work, building more sidewalks and bike paths, supporting workplace incentives and fostering car pools.

We already have driverless cars. They're called bicycles, buses, trains and ride sharing.

We’re facing tough challenges that require visionary leadership - not the magic wand of technology.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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