Behind the shiny new models, billion-dollar investments and new technologies emerging each week, a new argument is bubbling within the transport sector: maybe Silicon Valley got it wrong.
evo Magazine Australia, December, 2023 (PDF)
As this issue goes to print, several automotive news stories have been circulating, all revolving around technology perpetuated by Silicon Valley. In the US, Tesla is now under criminal investigation over its ‘fully self-driving’ claims for its Autopilot software. This statement dates back to 2016 and is so dangerously confident that a video on the Tesla website states, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” Argo AI, the autonomous vehicle startup backed by the Volkswagen Group and Ford, is shutting down, allegedly due to a lack of new investors and
a failure to meet expectations of bringing autonomous vehicle technology to public roads by 2021. Increasingly, industry leaders are speaking out (and coming to terms with) whether the promise of Level 5 autonomous driving will ever be viable, mostly settling on the consolation prize of Level 4 – fully self-driving but within a limited or geofenced area. While
on the driver’s side, Volkswagen has followed Honda’s lead, with CEO Thomas Schäfer announcing the marque will be reverting to physical buttons instead of capacitive touch
on its steering wheels after realising how distracting the latter is for many drivers.
A correction between society’s needs, the realities of the transport/automotive industry, and the utopian promises of Silicon Valley is currently underway, and car makers and consumers are waking up.
“To a large degree, the automotive companies did drink the Kool-Aid,” says Canadian writer, technology critic and commentator and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast Paris Marx, who has investigated the rise of tech’s influence on personal mobility in Road To Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation (Verso). “Largely, I think what a lot of these auto companies saw was the tech industry moving in the direction of autonomous vehicles in particular, and saw the need to follow along with that because there was a lot of hype and excitement around it.” The issue, he says, is tied up in Silicon Valley’s mindset of individualised solutions. Silicon Valley might offer to solve problems, but is so rooted in the ideation of individual power and freedoms, enterprise and ego, the personalised solutions on offer don’t necessarily fix anything for the greater good. Look at the impact of Uber and the rise of the ride-share startup: it decimated the taxi industry, exploited workers, put more cars on our roads, causing more congestion and pollution, did little to protect occupants and through a promise of cheap convenience, mitigated the need for city residents to push for more efficient, accessible and cleaner modes of public transport.
“Because a real premium was put on a lot of tech, there was an expectation that the car companies would embrace the ideas coming out of the tech industry. But we’re in the process of seeing the vision of autonomous driving really fail and not be realised,” says Marx. “This has also impacted other aspects, like how a lot of the auto companies approach design. There are more assisted driving features, which are not necessarily bad if their use is properly communicated to the driver. But we’re also seeing a growing push to redesign the interior
of the vehicle, like when you take away all of the buttons and knobs that people are used to, and replace them with large touchscreens.” He adds, “I’m worried about that because the argument is that it makes the car safer because you don’t have to change as many things yourself, and you can do it through voice command.
But more and more studies show that taking away the physical, tactile objects that allow people to adjust things while they’re driving, without having to look away from the road,
is making driving less safe and drivers more distracted.” What we’re seeing now, and will in
the near future, says Marx, is that the pursuit of some of the big moonshot ideas led by tech innovators (and of course, Tesla) and adopted by traditional automakers may not pan out as safe, viable or as user-friendly as expected.
A crucial part of the issue is how technology in personal transport has been communicated to consumers – we’ve all fallen for the hype of a shiny new vision of betterment. “Wit the tech industry, academics call it a bribe,” says Marx. “They dangle convenience to us and say, ‘this is going to make your life better; it’s going to make your life easier because
we have these new technological solutions that you can take advantage of.’ But there’s
a downside that comes along with it that we don’t expect or in some cases, haven’t even realised. And now people are becoming less and less comfortable with what that trade- off actually is.” This includes: data collection and brokering, a rise in industrial waste from
discarded ICE cars, unethical mining practices, increased road pollution caused by heavier vehicles, the lifespan of EVs vs ICE cars and a war on pedestrian/green space to make room for bigger and more energy-hungry cars – the makings of a modern-day dystopia once you line them up. “There are studies that show that a lot of the benefits that we’ve had from increasing the fuel economy standards on cars over the past couple of decades have been wiped out by the fact that, in the process, we’ve also moved to larger vehicles,” says Marx. “If we look at the transition over to electric vehicles, and we expect this trend to continue, and that puts us in a dangerous space. So I think that as this transition from internal combustion to battery-powered vehicles continues, we need to start resetting our expectations around how large and how heavy a car should be, and the expectation for people to move from a sedan or smaller car to a large SUV. Because it really doesn’t make sense. It makes the road more dangerous, and it has a climate impact.”
It might seem like an anti-car stance, but on the contrary: the argument presented by Marx, fellow academics and futurists is rooted in balance, liveability and making room for societies to move, whichever way they want to, efficiently. The shift questions if Silicon Valley’s solutions are the best we can do – look at Elon Musk’s The Boring Company Tesla tunnel in Las Vegas, which could have been a renewable- powered train, for example – when the alternative is better and cleaner public transit infrastructure; so that cities can be navigated without cars as a mode of forced, everyday transport. This move also makes room for those who drive for pure necessity, emergencies or occasional enjoyment, not from lack of efficient options. Not to mention a return to designing cars for drivers, not robots. “I think that right now, we’ve had the balance kind of wrong, where there’s too much reliance on cars for us to get around in our society. That needs to be reoriented,” he says. “When we’re talking about the enthusiast in particular, the idea that people can have nice cars they enjoy, and might take them to the track or outside of the city centre traffic – that makes sense to me,” he says. “But it’s a question of balance, of how reliant we are on the car. We’ve skewed a bit too far in the direction of everyone needing to use a car, with little choice.” As for change, Marx says to watch the horizon. “There’s a recognition that the solutions that the tech industry sold us were not real; they didn’t solve the actual problems that we have,” he says. “And that actually addressing the contribution to climate change, the road deaths, the traffic problems we have, requires us to make greater investments that will allow people to get around without being forced to use a car.”