19th September 2021

The Spokesmen Cycling Podcast

EPISODE 283: Autonorama


HOST: Carlton Reid

GUEST: Peter Norton

TOPICS: US academic Peter Norton, author of the classic “Fighting Traffic,” talks about his new book “Autonorama” which details the historically-resonant threat to pedestrians and cyclists from driverless vehicles.


Carlton Reid 0:13
Welcome to Episode 283 of the Spokesmen Cycling Podcast. This show was engineered on Sunday 19th of September 2021.

David Bernstein 0:25
The Spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast is brought to you by Jenson, USA, Jenson USA where you will find a great selection of products at unbeatable prices with unparalleled customer service. Check them out at Hey everybody, it’s David from the Fredcast. And of course, I’m one of the hosts and producers of the spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast since 2006. For shownotes links and other information, check out our website at And now, here’s my fellow host and producer Carlton Reid and the spokesmen.

Carlton Reid 1:10
I’m Carlton Reid and one of the perks of my job is get my mucky little paws on books before they’re published. A few months back I read the new book by US technology historian Peter Norton and he promised me the first of what will be many media and podcast interviews. And this is it. Peter is an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. You’ll likely know him from his classic book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.” As you’ll soon hear, Peter only wrote a book per decade so it was a rare treat to get my hands on a pre-publication copy of “Autonorama,” an historically-resonant warning about driverless cars and how the tech bros need to get cyclists and pedestrians out of the way. I got an early copy of Peter’s book so I could write a cover blurb for it. Janette Sadik-Khan also penned one. The former commissioner of New York city’s Dept. of Transportation wrote that Peter’s book shows that “safer, more livable cities will be achieved not by the tech in our cars, but by our actions on our streets.” Amen. And here’s Peter.

Carlton Reid 2:42
Peter, I have I’ve had a copy of your book in digital form.

Carlton Reid 2:48
It’s a few weeks ago now. And when I read it, it was absolutely fascinating, as I would expect, of course, from you. And then I was just looking now, at the date of this book right now is going to be probably October ish, I think when it comes out. But that’s 2021. Your last book, which I’d like to talk about first actually was 2011. So you’re basically doing a book every 10 years, is that right?

Peter Norton 3:14
Well, that’s a that’s a small data set for a trajectory plot there. Let me add also that my first book actually came out in 2008. And the paperback came out in 2011. So if you saw 2011, then then you saw the paperback.

Peter Norton 3:33
So I don’t know what my trajectory is. I do have another book project now but I don’t have an expected date for it to come out yet. And, you know, I, since there’s other work involved besides books, I don’t I’m not confident giving you a sort of mathematical projection.

Carlton Reid 3:56
Well, what we’ll look forward to it in 2036 it’ll be worth the wait.

Carlton Reid 4:02
so what what is it what it tell us what you do? You know I could do this in the intro, of course, but why don’t we hear from the man himself? So what do you do when you’re not writing books?

Peter Norton 4:14
Most of the time, I’m teaching and that especially means grading papers. I have a lot of students they write and I read their work and that’s really the biggest part of my working time is is that um, and when that’s not happening, then I really enjoy some of the other things that I get to do. Like, for example, you know, talking to you is is a delight.

Peter Norton 4:39
talking to other people. One of my favourite things is when an advocate of some kind comes along somebody who thinks that walking should be normal, or cycling should should could really make a big difference in terms of sustainability and affordability.

Peter Norton 4:57
When those people come along, transit, advocates

Peter Norton 5:01
and they say that they find what I’ve done useful. Well, that really brings me joy, because you know, they’re the ones actually doing something I just write about it,

Carlton Reid 5:10
Because you are one of these authors, who will be perennially paraded in effect, because what you wrote about when I would like to talk about that even you’ve been on the show before, I think we absolutely should. We should talk about your your first book and where you’ve come from, because that kind of feeds into the into this, this this next book, your new book.

Carlton Reid 5:32
But you’re paraded because you talked about something which happened in the 1920s 30s 40s. But it’s absolutely still with us today. They said there’s a dominance of a certain four wheeled thing. So “Fighting Traffic” brought into the public sphere that jaywalking is not a natural thing, it was an invention. So I don’t want to pigeonhole your book to say that’s all it’s about. But you could say that’s one of the good takeaways is it’s bringing that history of jaywalking, being motordom creating that. That’s why a lot of people quote your work.

Peter Norton 6:16
I think that’s a useful way to sort of distil it down to something very elemental, and, and concrete and specific. Because while jaywalking is obviously just a very small part of the story, it really captures a lot of what has been missing from the story.

Peter Norton 6:36
So the story that we get in the States especially, is that car domination, which you know, is ubiquitous, is the effect of mass demand of a free market of, of democracy of values, such as individualism, and freedom, and so on. And sure, there have been critiques of that dominant narrative. Since automobiles began. That’s still the dominant story. The USA is a car culture, this is what people want. And, you know, in the end, they got what they wanted. And so we get jaywalking says, Well, now Hang on.

Peter Norton 7:21
There was a time when few people drove and walking in the street was normal, and that had to be denormalized. And once it was denormalized, well, then actually, part of the motive for getting a car was that the alternatives were getting worse, not just the walking, but also riding a street car, taking the bus or riding your bike, all of those got harder as they inevitably do when you have an environment that favours driving. And that that fact of course, then complicates what it means when people say they prefer to drive Well, you naturally prefer to drive when all of the alternatives have been, you know, impaired, so much. So yeah, I think I think that’s a nice way to capture the the gist of “Fighting Traffic.”

Carlton Reid 8:11
I don’t know how much this comes across in the US. But in here in the UK, we have this huge issue, and it does go mainstream now and again, in the mainstream press, low traffic neighbourhoods. And then when you start talking to people who are very much not in favour of low traffic neighbourhoods, you just see this just amazing mindset of they really cannot imagine not being able to get places in their car. And just a slight thing, like putting bollards in the way of where they used to driving, they can still get into these these areas, but the narrow driveway a little longer. They use all sorts of arguments, including, you know, well how are disabled people going to get around. And they’ve never been interested when you look at their social media and disabled people before but they, you know, use this, they also use air pollution. It’s just it seems to be such a favourite of people in favour of motoring. It’s a strange one, but they talk about how cars when they’re standing still in traffic jams are incredibly polluting, so we must have them moving freely. So free up the roads, and then we will have no more pollution. So these these arguments come out just

Carlton Reid 9:29
so frequently, it’s been taken on board by these people so so carefully, and they regurgitate this, but there’s just no imagination of a life without a car. So how on earth Peter, are we going to have a different future when there are an enormous amount of people, probably even worse, where you are, who really cannot imagine a future without automobiles?

Peter Norton 9:59

Peter Norton 10:00
Carlton, there’s a word you used, I think three times in that question, imagine or imagination. And I think that’s exactly the key. So a failure to imagine is exactly the, you know, for. First of all, I should say that the people who wanted to sell us car dependency recognise that imagination is essential. And they helped us imagine futures, where car dependency is liberating. And they were extremely good at it. And I think we have a lot to learn from the people who sold us car dependency about how you make different futures. Imagine it imaginable because they excelled at it. Now, when you have generations growing up in a car dependent environment, well, it’s not too surprising that, you know, if that vehicle that they depend on literally depend on is threatened. Now, this becomes a source of anger or opposition to to even elementary reform, like putting in a bollard to make the space more accommodating to anything except driving.

Peter Norton 11:18
So, yeah, that opposition is, is there. And yet at the same time,

Peter Norton 11:26
we know from harder and experience from the past that that these kinds of obstacles can be overcome. I think one way to do it is to frame it correctly. So you can frame

Peter Norton 11:41
the change we need to make as taking away driving. But we can also frame it as giving people choices.

Peter Norton 11:49
In it’s interesting fact that the Netherlands ranks very highly on places where people like to drive, I got a top rating on that from

Peter Norton 12:02
some app company. But

Peter Norton 12:06
at the same time, you have choices. And I think one of the reasons why the Netherlands scores high on places to drive is that the people who are driving or driving by choice, they don’t have to drive there. And that takes off everybody off the road who is there by compulsion, and makes the, you know, the driving experience and experience of choice? Well, if we give people choices, then,

Peter Norton 12:30
you know, we I mean, we can frame this as now you can choose to walk now you can choose to ride a bike, and yes, even now you can choose to drive so that that’s another possibility. I’d like to offer one more.

Peter Norton 12:45
Which is that when it became quite clear that cigarette smoking was shortening people’s lives, often by multiple decades. And this is going back to the 60s especially the tobacco companies were very good at framing that as a threat to people’s preferred way of living. And their advertising helped delay the transition by presenting cigarette addiction as pleasurable. And what people have gradually figured out, at least most people is that even more pleasurable than enjoying a cigarette when you’re addicted to a cigarette is not being addicted at all. And of course, that transition from a state of addiction to a state of non addiction is a very difficult one.

Peter Norton 13:35
But in the end, that destination of being addiction free, has a liberating feel. And that extends even to being free of your car dependency, as long as you have the alternatives that you need for that to work.

Carlton Reid 13:51
So your latest book

Carlton Reid 13:54
is very much extrapolating forward on on car dependency.

Carlton Reid 14:01
Let’s go into the book. First of all, it was called “Autonorama.” Why the no, but why is it auto no roma and not autorama?

Peter Norton 14:10
Well, it could be Autorama because autorama was the name of some shows, automobile shows that were put together in the USA in the mid 20th century. And this all goes back to the word diorama you make something vivid three dimensional experiential. I mean, this is an immersive experience before you know video games gave us immersive experiences. There were these giant shows. And the the American automobile companies in particular General Motors excelled

Peter Norton 14:42
at these shows, and General Motors hit on this in the biggest way back in the late 30s when they developed a famous show called Futurama combining the words future and diorama you’d like you’re travelling to the future.

Peter Norton 14:59
This was their way of making a future of car dependency, both vivid and apparently liberating, because after all, it’s a model, it doesn’t have to really work. And now, to get to the word autonoma, which is you know how I choose to pronounce it, I can’t correct your pronunciation because it’s not even a word. I just made it up. But when we in, in 2015, note, said again, said again, so I write a net again. So I get it the way I say it is Autonorma, Rama, which is like autonomous.

Carlton Reid 15:37
Okay. yes, right? Yes. So it’s just a matter of new cars autonomous driving does come a lot into into the books.

Peter Norton 15:45
Yes. And so “Autonorama” is a fusion of autonomous and futurama. And I’m claiming in the book that this is the fourth generation of a sales spectacle of a futuristic fantasy. It’s being presented to us to influence us, and to, frankly, deceive us about the feasibility of car dependency.

Peter Norton 16:10
And so the book argues that there have been really four waves of this each about 25 years apart, so roughly 1940, 1965, 1990, and 2015. And in each one of the these waves were presented with a futuristic spectacle of car dependency made possible by the latest technology. And the people presenting these spectacles recognise the power of imagination, and they help us imagine these futures, not in ways that are realistic, but then in ways that are persuasive and attractive. So it’s called autonoma, Rama, because I’m trying to argue that while it looks like the last 10 to 20 years of this futuristic spectacle has been about something that’s fundamentally new. I think it’s really the same show. It’s it’s a retread of a show we’ve been seeing for over 80 years. It’s, and what makes it seem new each time is it’s dressed up with technology that’s brand new until this time, above all, it’s machine learning, LIDAR, and so on. But it’s what matters isn’t so much the technology, but just that the technology is new enough and dazzling enough to lead us to drop our scepticism a little and believe that anything’s possible. Arthur C. Clarke said one…

Carlton Reid 17:49
Do you not think that …?

Peter Norton 17:50
Go ahead.

Carlton Reid 17:52
Sorry, Peter, that the scepticism

Carlton Reid 17:56
wasn’t there, say four or five years ago in the mainstream?

Carlton Reid 18:01
I just I just get much more

Carlton Reid 18:04
inkling from the press now that that there does seem to be more scepticism. So people like you and me who have been sceptical about autonomous vehicles for a number of years, are now becoming a bit more mainstream. And if things like you know, even just recently at the,

Carlton Reid 18:20
at the Paralympics in Japan, where, you know, a certain form of autonomous bus, ran into a blind athlete, what these these things are just terrible, terrible stories. And then the head of Toyota comes out and says, Well, you know, autonomous vehicles, you clearly haven’t got a future, certainly with the current technology. So do you think the technologies and the sorry, the, the scepticism around the technologies is catching up to where it should be, which is these technologies are nowhere near ready for for human consumption?

Peter Norton 18:56
Yes. In other words, the degree of the extravagant promises that were ubiquitous five years ago, are scarcer now. And the promises are more modest now. But what hasn’t changed is the same basic claim, which is that the technology is coming. It may take a little longer than we thought. But it is coming and it’s the technology that will determine what we do not we who will determine what the technology does. And companies are very smart about adapting to these, you know, these disappointing or these broken promises and the disappointing news like the one you just referenced from the Olympics, the Paralympics

Peter Norton 19:43
and for example, right now Waymo has been building up a reputation for itself as the people who are actually today, in 2021 every day of the week, delivering

Peter Norton 19:57
fully autonomous driving or

Peter Norton 20:00
For riding experiences in Arizona, and this way of framing it, in other words, we’re doing it right now is deployed in a way to sort of

Peter Norton 20:15
expose people like me and you as the Luddite naysayers, that that, you know, they would like to characterise this as, in other words, then they’ll say, you know, the the somebody will say, Well, you know, can this ever really happen? And we must says, we’re doing it right now. It’s, it’s bogus for a lot of reasons that you already know. But it’s rhetorically very effective when they can say we’re doing it right now.

Carlton Reid 20:42
What are you doing?

Carlton Reid 20:42
What are Waymo doing? What are Waymo claiming and not able to actually stack up?

Peter Norton 20:47
Yeah, so Waymo can, in fact, pick you up in Chandler, Arizona, and then take you to another destination in Chandler, Arizona, in a vehicle that has no driver, including no so called safety driver, the person who you know, is there to supervise the vehicle and take over in the event of an emergency, there’s not even that. And now, of course, the vehicle is under constant monitoring, and the passengers are in close communication and so on. But it really is autonomous, in that specific sense that there’s nobody operating the vehicle who is in the vehicle. Now, I think this is a sort of

Peter Norton 21:45
And of course, then the the operation costs, the overhead are very, very expensive as well. And this is all because it’s operated at a loss by Alphabet Incorporated, the company that owns Google. And, you know, this is this is another words, they’re paying a lot of money to get a claim of credibility across. It’s not a profitable business model or anything close. Also what makes Waymo possible is that it operates in a — I’m I was about to say town, but it doesn’t hardly is recognisable as a town — in an in an semi urban environment, in which there are almost no pedestrians because it’s so unwalkable The streets are enormously wide. You know, there’s ample there’s a left turn, you know, two or three left, turn lanes, right turn lanes everywhere you go.

Peter Norton 22:46
In other words, they have to have a highly contrived environment. And this, to me is another repeat of history. Because to make car dependency work, the environments, urban environments had to be completely reconstructed, just so you could move each person in their own 100 square feet of of automobile space and park them when they got there. And so what Waymo is proposing implicitly, they’re not saying this, of course, is sort of rebuilding America again, or the world again, around what the vehicle needs instead of around what people need.

Peter Norton 23:23
Now, I know you have a lot more that you could probably offer about what what makes Waymo more an illusion than a reality and I’d love to hear it. But

Peter Norton 23:45
An extremely influential public intellectual named Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast that’s hugely popular and he has an episode called “I love you, Waymo.” And it really presents Waymo as delivering us from every imagined and real evil in the urban environment. It’s It’s It’s really the vehicle as a magical deliverance, again, presented by a very eloquent and appealing intellectual in a way that makes it seem credible. So that’s, you know, an illustration of the fact that public relations is a really big part of this as it always has been.

Carlton Reid 24:27
So, yes, we haven’t got conditions like

Carlton Reid 25:06
It’s a natural conclusion? That’s that’s where the technologies have to go. They have to say, “Well, okay, we can’t see everything. But if we just chip your, your cap, if we just chip your trousers and we just chipped your phone, if we’re just chip everything, then everything will be found in future” will be fantastic if we chip everything?

Peter Norton 25:24
Yeah, that’s certainly what we’re we’re hearing, often implicitly, sometimes in explicitly that this is where we have to go to make this work. And

Peter Norton 27:33
I’m laughing, too, it’s almost incredible, how we will go to such elaborate lengths to solve problems at the high tech end of the spectrum, only when we could solve them at the low tech end, or already do solve them. At the low tech, and there’s a, an expression I’ve taken to using with students where my students are all engineering students. And so I draw a line at the on the board. And at one end, I write high tech. And at the other end, I write low tech. And I circled the high tech end. And I say, if you’re only looking at the high tech, and you may be missing something really useful at the low tech and and to help them overcome the bias against low tech, I say, why don’t we call this high sosh, like, if it’s high tech, then high social, or high social would be the better counterpoint rather than low tech, which sounds like, you know, something primitive or

Unknown Speaker 28:34
simple. So I think we’re missing the low tech end of the spectrum. It’s not being a Luddite, to say it has a lot of value, or a lot we can value in it. And often, the low tech end can help us make the high tech end work. You know that a lot of the most useful systems we can have in the world, combine high tech and low tech instead of pitting them against each other.

Carlton Reid 29:02
There is a technology Peter that you mentioned in “Fighting Traffic,” your first book, and you mentioned it in this book, and I believe we haven’t discussed it before, but that is the speed governor so the speed limiter so this is technology that you would think would be a preamble, a precursor I should say really to autonomous driving if we’re really gonna have autonomous driving well the next stage should be let’s let’s let’s take over some of the takeaway some of the human element and put speed governors in cars and that technology as you’ve discussed it in both books is not exactly brand new that you’ve been able to have speed governor speed limiters since early 19 hundred’s so why haven’t we gone to that stage? Why? Why are we missing out quite a critical stage which would actually have unbelievable speed, safety benefits if you had every car, GPS speed track.

Carlton Reid 30:00
Or in previous technologies just literally speed governed?

Unknown Speaker 30:04
Well, you know, the the early version of that the speed governor from the 1920s, which a lot of city people in America were calling for is a way to make streets for pedestrians device that would make it impossible to drive faster than 25 miles per hour. I think there’s a lot to be learned from why that was so zealously fought by the automobile interest groups. And I am pretty confident I know why, because they read their own statements to each other. And in effect, they said, people have to pay a lot of money for a car. And that means they wanted to do something that other vehicles don’t. And that one thing that cars do best relative to the other vehicles of that era, is go fast. And so if you make it impossible for the car to go faster than say, an electric streetcar, well, then people will just keep taking the electric streetcar. Why would they, you know, pay a lot of money for an automobile. And I think that basic reason is still with us. I mean, one of the biggest obstacles to among many obstacles to the autonomous vehicle future that’s being sold to us is that an autonomous vehicle can be extremely safe. If it doesn’t matter how fast or slow it goes. But, you know, the people who want to make a go of this in a business sense, know that no one will pay money to ride in an autonomous vehicle that has an average speed of eight or 10 miles an hour. So that, you know, the speed is is is, you know, essential from a business point of view. In the US in particular, it also was sort of built in to our urban geography, it because of engineering standards.

Peter Norton 31:58
I mean, it to an American audience, often the first objection I’ll get when I criticise car dependency is people will say, well, it’s a big country with long distances. And this is, of course, a kind of a silly claim, because what the distance that matters is not the distance from one coast to the other coast. The distance that matters is the distance between your home and your workplace, or your home and your school, or the shop and your home, or whatever it is those distances. And those distances can be extremely short. But in the US are our, our highway engineers, when they look at the fact that the time it takes you to get your to your destination, is the product of two factors, namely the distance and your speed. the only factor they actually worked into their calculations was speed. In other words, they never bothered with the distance. And they never made any serious effort to ask, how can we keep our destinations, close enough together, that we will save you time on your way to work? Instead, they said, How can we get you travelling faster? Now, it’s the same problem, how much time does it take you to get to work, but they chose to attack it only from one side of that equation and not from the other. And because they committed themselves immediate a public responsibility to fight what they called delay, delay being travelling slower than the speed limit, then every time you were delayed, the problem had to be solved at public expense by adding new highway capacity that would let you go the speed limit again. And as a consequence of all of that, we already have destinations so far apart, that you cause anxiety, when you tell people that we made in need a future where you go slower.

Carlton Reid 33:53
Your definition when you when you’re saying use high social instead of low tech. That’s kind of interesting and worthwhile. It doesn’t seem to be something that people would tend to use apart from, of course, advocate, because you mentioned the phrase before you I term Luddites, so you know, autonomous vehicles, speed, even

Carlton Reid 34:22
capacity of roads, and making roads fit for whatever car whatever motor vehicle is on the road at the time, for instance, Tesla’s now this is all progress. And Peter, what you’re doing, and if you say things like, well, we could use public transport and we could use bicycles, or we could walk that’s anti-progress, that’s not moving forward. We already have got that.

Peter Norton 34:47
What’s interesting about that, it’s a great question. And it’s actually one of the reasons why I thought, why don’t we call low tech high social, because then we can sort of try to characterise social

Peter Norton 35:33
As you know, for ‘Autonorama’ one of my inspirations is Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring.” And her book was highly critical of the high tech,

Peter Norton 36:24
you know, “Silent Spring” is a reference to a future where there are no songbirds because of chemical pesticides. Well, there equivalents of that for urban mobility, like,

Unknown Speaker 36:37
you know, a future where we can have parks that you can walk to, we can have playgrounds that your children can walk to safely without you having to drive them to the playground, children going to school, these are attractive images, like songbirds are that, you know, high tech, incidentally can help us get to because there’s a place for high tech in a sustainable, Livable Future, there’s a vital place for high tech and that, but it’s then again, a question of making sure that we are the ones choosing the tech that we need for our chosen purposes. And not, and we don’t turn into people sort of waiting for tech to happen to us, which is how it’s getting framed right now.

Carlton Reid 37:25
Are you worried about the Apple Car? Because that, you know, every time they do Apple do take on a technology, they they pretty much transform it in their own making, and make it incredibly popular? Or do you think they will be burned just as, as other companies have have actually been burned in this this this space? Because clearly they they’ve lost? An executive just recently has gone to another company for I think,

Carlton Reid 37:52
and and they haven’t brought out this this is this much vaunted car, despite working on it for a long time. So do you worry about Apple? Or is it thing you’ve got no real worries?

Peter Norton 38:04
Well, I do worry about all of these companies, including Apple, and maybe apple in particular, for the reasons that you mentioned, they’re very good at this. You know, the iPhone is something that people feel an attachment for, which is unlike, you know, the phones we remember as kids, which you weren’t strictly, you know, utilitarian objects.

Unknown Speaker 38:26
I also worried because not just Apple, but also the companies to get apps onto your phone are very good at commanding our attention. And a lot of the thinking around autonomous vehicles right now is that they can be profitable if they’re really massive data collectors. And that’s what has made the iPhone profitable for many companies. And it can also make a sort of Apple Car. What some people in the industry call the ultimate mobile device, a device we will be as attached to as our phones. Now, part of your question is, will this will they actually succeed at this and I actually don’t think autonomous vehicles will ever succeed at being anything like what they’re represented as to us as as something you know, you’ll be able to summon it anywhere, anytime. And it will take whisk you away to your destination, right away the way all the public relations shows. But the fact that I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t want that to distract us from the fact that the pursuit of that goal can be really, really destructive. In other words, you may never get to the goal. But the destruction in the wake of that effort could be profound. And I mean, I think history is trying to teach us that because in America, we’ve been pursuing a city where you can drive anywhere at any time without delay and park for free when you get there, we’ve never achieved that city. And yet we’ve never stopped pursuing it. And in pursuing it, we have really destroyed the pre automotive cities of America and turned the post automotive cities into kind of car dependent energy, wasteful, vast expanses of pavement. So I think we could we could repeat history, we’re at risk of repeating history, because the unachievable promise of the autonomous vehicle may lure us along a path of extravagant spending over use of energy. Carbon emissions, I mean, the list goes on.

Carlton Reid 40:45
Peter, many people, and this is where the Luddite comes in. Many people have said, you know, technologies will be unachievable. And then lo and behold, they become achievable. And the Luddities are proven wrong. And before you said somthing about choice, and how, if only you had the choice of a form of transport, so the Netherlands, you’ve got lots of choice, and you choose whichever transport mode you want, whereas other countries, you know, there’s really ones, it’s monolithic, only one

Carlton Reid 41:14
transport choice, really, because that’s been designed. But autonomous vehicles, if they get it right, and if we are wrong, and where we are proven to be Luddites and Apple, a miraculously in in a year’s time, 18 months time comes out with a product that is just genuinely the real deal? Isn’t that something that could potentially

Carlton Reid 41:39
make bicycling and walking, perhaps not public transport, but certainly those two modes, that can be a golden age for those modes, because you get rid of the nut behind the wheel, you get rid of the most dangerous part of the motor vehicle. And that’s the human driver. So surely, why is you as a technology, intellectual or technology academic? Why are you not saying we can do this, but maybe have parameters in so we steer in a certain direction?

Unknown Speaker 42:14
That’s a wonderful question. And so rich possibilities about about how to approach it.

Peter Norton 42:22
So I mean, first of all, in any book about the future, and “Autonorama” although most of the actual text is about the past, that’s there to help us get the future. Right. So the book I think of is fundamentally being about the future. And I think every author of such a book has to admit they may be wrong. And I, I admit, I may be wrong about autonomous vehicles. But I think, I think the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on the side that says,

Peter Norton 43:33
There was a an article that came out maybe three or four years ago, by Adam Millard Ball, where he concluded and the conclusion he presented the conclusion with extremely high confidence that autonomous vehicles will return streets to pedestrians and cyclists and even children playing games, because the vehicle will be programmed to avoid injuring those people at any cost really. And here’s that, to me, this is a perfect illustration of why we have to study history or we will get the future wrong.

Peter Norton 44:59
autonomous vehicles would either be mostly stopped in cities, and therefore no one would pay a penny to ride in one. Or they would operate only in wastelands like Chandler, Arizona, where no one walks anyway. So those two alternatives I think are equally unlikely. And here’s here’s where history comes in.

Carlton Reid 45:23

Peter Norton 45:23
Go ahead.

Carlton Reid 45:26
Well, there’s your future. The future is every single place in the world looking like Chandler, Arizona. In other words, you get rid of the pedestrians, you get rid of the cyclists, because they’re the ones holding back progress, Peter!

Peter Norton 45:39
Exactly. And and, Carlton, I do believe that it’s possible. In other words, it is possible that, that to make these things work, they will, you know, they being policymakers, engineers, corporate interest groups, and so on, they will make sure that

Peter Norton 46:54
designed with such that the pedestrian comes first that automatically you have a pedestrians paradise neglects the fact that the laws, the engineering standards, the social norms, and so on, are all subject to change from the groups with the most at stake and with the most influence. So motordom’s response, the automotive interest groups response to the fact that their drivers were getting into deep legal trouble and deep financial trouble every time they hit a pedestrian and to the fact that the newspapers were were demonising vehicles and their drivers wasn’t to say, well, we have to make cars that only go 10 miles an hour or something like that. Their response was to change the social norms. The jaywalking campaigns were part of that, to change the laws, and to change the engineering standards, such that now, you know, in a typical American city or suburb, a pedestrian wouldn’t even dare try sometimes to even exercise their legal right at the typical American crosswalk, especially on the fringes of a city, you see people waiting patiently at a marked crosswalk where they have the right of way, while drivers just race on through. So I think you’re going to see the same thing with autonomous vehicles. In other words, the autonomous vehicles will, there will be ways to make sure the pedestrian gets out of the way might be an obnoxious noise or a flashing light could even conceivably be cameras that ultimately have facial recognition in them. They’ll make sure that the laws are a certain way.

Carlton Reid 48:40
China already does that.

Peter Norton 48:41
That’s right.

Carlton Reid 48:42
The Chinese already have that. They have that right now. If you if you jaywalk, you can be instantly fined.

Peter Norton 48:50
Right. So China decided at some point they wanted a national automobile industry and suddenly the you know, when you have an authoritarian country like China, the that can be a policy that’s implemented quite quickly. They promoted that industry in part by becoming changing from a country where everybody cycled to everything into a country where it’s hard to walk safely and where you are treated like you know, an enemy of the state if you if you exercise, a little resourcefulness just to get across the street. And that may, I hadn’t thought of that illustration, but that may be the ideal illustration for why the Malcolm Gladwell Adam Millard Ball thesis won’t stand up. I think the other illustration is historical.

Carlton Reid 49:40
Do you know, I’ve never actually thought about this because this autonomous driving is very much a tech bro thing is very much Silicon Valley. Google. Apple. Now we’ve talked about them. We haven’t talked about China. Do you know is this something that never come up on your your LIDAR and then China will

Carlton Reid 50:00
What is China doing with autonomous vehicles, you know, they’re ahead in so many other ways. If this was a viable technology, you’d think they would be at least equal to the Silicon Valley Tech bros, or potentially even further afield, especially because there are, as you said, there are authoritarian country, they can do what the hell they like with their streets, whereas in some respects, even in auto-dependent USA, and then the UK, there’s still gonna be some kickback, whereas in China is gonna be no kickback, if they want to do the whole system where it’s gonna be autonomous vehicles, they can do autonomous vehicles.

Peter Norton 50:37
Well, I’m not privy to a lot about what’s going on there. Besides what, you know, I can pick up fairly easily in journalism, but

Peter Norton 51:01
an example I spend some time on in the, in the book is a 2010 movie that was co produced by General Motors, China and its Chinese partner, SAIC used to be Shanghai AutomotiveIndustries Corporation,

Peter Norton 52:08
Maybe not so much in the vehicle, if not in the vehicles themselves, then in the technology, the world would need to have these vehicles.

Carlton Reid 52:16
I can imagine they would also chip if, literally, you know, we we worry about this is like, Oh, you know, we’re gonna have to have chips on our phones. And then of course, we’re gonna have to have chips in, you know, embedded in our skin. We’re in China, that wouldn’t be a problem. Yeah, everybody who’s born, there’s your chip. And then all of a sudden, you’ve got a system where Yeah, China has got autonomous vehicles, no problem, because everybody wouldn’t be a

Carlton Reid 52:40
better dream come true for an authoritarian regime than to have not only chipped people, but they’re also travelling in vehicles that can be tracked, their location is known at all times.

Peter Norton 52:52
You know, it, it really is an authoritarian’s dream come true. Which of course is ironic, because car dependency was sold on the claim that it was personally liberating.

Carlton Reid 53:04
You talk in your in your book about “transport sufficiency,” what’s what’s transport sufficiency?

Peter Norton 53:10
I’m presenting transport sufficiency as the alternative to a sort of transport perfection. Now, obviously, perfection sounds more attractive than sufficiency. But that comparison changes when you recognise that transport, perfection is actually never achieved. It’s frequently invoked and frequently promised, because that has a way of opening up wallets of opening up public money for roads and so on. But it’s never actually achieved. And the result is actually kind of worse than transport sufficiency. Because in the pursuit of transport perfection, you get all kinds of nuisances, that are, you know, worse than transport sufficiency, and that are ubiquitous in the US, such as, for example, you know, buses, if they come at all come once an hour or something like that, or walking means walking next to a six lane highway, and having no place to cross and so on. So transports efficiency is saying, Well, if we forego perfection, then we have possibilities that are actually very attractive. This, incidentally, is another case where I want to give the credit to Rachel Carson, also to to Jane Jacobs, who were saying very much the same thing. They didn’t use the that vocabulary. But Rachel Carson, for example, was in effect saying, if you give up the dream of, say, pest free agriculture, where you have no insect pests at all, then you can actually do some quite wonderful things, you know, by crop rotation, varying your crops, you know, finding the suitable, the crop right crop for that

Peter Norton 55:00
environment and so on. Jane Jacobs was offering a version of that same kind of message, namely, the perfectionist visions of the planners was never really achievable. And the pursuit of it was destructive. But if we sort of agreed that it’s okay to have, you know, a mix of, of building stock, some of which may be a little decayed. And it’s okay if we have people who sometimes find it frustrating on the sidewalk, because there’s so many people walking and so on. If we accept those things as part of the deal, well, then we can take take that as a serious possibility as an alternative that looks very attractive compared to the pursuit of perfection, we never actually approach.

Carlton Reid 55:48
Also in your book, I’m now I’m going to pick out because I I’m lucky enough to have been sent an advanced copy. And I’ve, I’ve read it, and I picked up it, so I’m not gonna just pick out bits and throw them at you. And you’ve got to explain to us to everyone who’s listened to this. So you wrote “a city optimised for drivers keeps not only drivers dissatisfied, but everyone else, too.” So explain that.

Peter Norton 56:16
Well, this is actually related to the previous point, namely, a city optimised for drivers is ultimately unachievable for the simple reason that

Peter Norton 57:34
you will find that you can live further from work and maybe save yourself or rent or get yourself a lower price on your house. If you choose to live another 10, 20, 30 miles from your daily destinations, which in turn means more total driving, it means more people coming into the city from a wider radius of origin points, and all needing a place to park their vehicle all day. And so it’s a kind of a treadmill, where the more you accommodate drivers, the more driving there is, and therefore the more effort you have to take to accommodate them. And if you the ultimate example of this would be Houston, Texas, where if you you know do a Google image search for Katy freeway, which is interstate 10 near Houston. You see, I think it’s now 26 lanes of congested traffic. Which, which is it makes the most dystopian dystopian science fiction seem, you know, mundane by comparison. So it’s, it’s it’s an absurdity.

Peter Norton 58:46
And, you know, that’s the point I was just trying to make.

Carlton Reid 58:48
But 28 lanes will fix it.

Peter Norton 58:52
That’s right.

Carlton Reid 58:53
One more will fix it. We’re just looking for that sweet spot.

Peter Norton 58:57
Exactly, yeah, one more lane is what it’ll take.

Carlton Reid 58:59
So both you

Carlton Reid 59:02
and I, we, our research interests often coincide. Mine from the UK angle and from the US angle. But they often talk about or look at eventual dystopias and and but you when you’re reading the literature of the 1920s, 1930s, it’s full of optimism and and ditto for for here. So I’m I’m currently reading lots and lots of literature, from that time where modren was going to be perfection. It was you know, we weren’t going to ever reach

Carlton Reid 1:00:00
That’s basically where we’re coming we’re the Grouches is here, we’re, we’re the, the boring old Luddites, or not even Luddites. We’re the boring old people pointing out that, yes, you can have this technology, but it won’t actually do what you say it’s going to it’s going to do. And we did have to look at history to kind of prove that in all this optimism.

Carlton Reid 1:00:24
Now really ever we’re just stuck in traffic. Yes, this this, this is a freedom machine. If you’re the only one driving it, as soon as everybody else has this fantastic technology, it ceases to be practical.

Peter Norton 1:00:39
Quite so. You were reminding me of a word that might be applied to both of us as well? That’s very common, maybe more here than there naysayers were the naysayers. But yeah, certainly, if you compare the utopian visions of the 30s, or the 40s, or the 50s, with what we have now, it is profoundly disappointing. I think this compels us to ask why do we keep falling for these techno futuristic fantasy lands that can’t be achieved? And that was a question that was very important to me in autonoma? Why do we keep falling for these things? And of course, one of the arguments in “Autonorama,” is that we actually do get sceptical after each wave of these things. There’s a credibility gap that sets in

Peter Norton 1:02:33
inspire gets applied to make us believe futures that are both undesirable and unachievable?

Peter Norton 1:02:40
Well, then then we’re being manipulated again.

Carlton Reid 1:02:42
That sort of reminded me of a like a visual joke like, you know, you know, “Punch,” Punch, there are satirical magazine in the UK, I’m pretty sure it from them. So it’s there’s a, there’s an illustration of a horse and cart, a drunk farmer. And I’m sure this has been used in the US as well, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with this trope. But the farmer is drunk, leaning back, in effect, asleep in the in the back of his, his vehicle of the day, his character of the day driven by a horse, but the horse can actually get him home from the pub. So these technologies of autonomous vehicles, I’ve actually been with us before, you would just have the horse would take you home from the pub drunk. So nothing that they’re really dreaming of now are something that we couldn’t have done using other forms of technology previously, and you kind of make that point in the book where you say, and I’m quoting you here,

Carlton Reid 1:03:43
where “walkability, cycle routes and basic transit are so much less expensive, that even if we diverted a 10% of the funds now going to building, maintaining and policing roads, and and the future of these roads, means we can actually start to see beneficial trends in a year or two, never mind in 10, 20 years.” So that’s where we need to be brave and actually funding technologies

Carlton Reid 1:04:11
that work, that are proven to work,

Carlton Reid 1:04:15
but maybe not sexy.

Peter Norton 1:04:18
I love the way you put it. In fact, that opening analogy really ought to give us pause because that farmer’s horse, got the farmer home, even if there was an inch of snow and it was sleeping, and it was night. All of which would have made it you know, a technical nightmare to sort out at the best high tech companies r&d divisions today. It’s true that you know, the resources necessary just to make walking practical and cycling practical and to give people more reliable and better bus service and so on are not that significant. And he would finally give

Peter Norton 1:06:23
You know, yeah, that would be restoring choice to people and technology could be part of it. Because one of the reasons why we over built roads is that, you know, the excuse was, it’s not practical to charge people for their road use by the actual cost of each mile, their driving, that would require, say, a toll booth on every mile of road, and everybody would have to stop and get coins out of their pocket to pay the toll. And therefore, we’re gonna go with the gas tax instead. And the gas tax was this incredibly clumsy and stupid, low tech way to create a funnel of money for roads that became a self perpetuating treadmill of road building. Well, technology can let us undo that. So I’m being a high tech fan here and saying, why don’t we, you know, charge people and then put that money into giving people choices.

Carlton Reid 1:07:14
Do you see any? Because you mentioned many times in both books, how the automakers basically got everybody else to pay for their infrastructure, you know, society paid, governments paid on their behalf. Do you see

Carlton Reid 1:07:32
that happening with autonomous vehicles, because if we are going to have autonomous vehicles, and we know that the technology they’ve currently got aren’t going to be sufficient, they’re going to have to have a remodelling of the streets, which we’re going to have to pay for at the end of the day, it won’t be the automakers and never has been the automakers. And it’s never been the users, the motorists either. It’s always been society as a whole. Do you see in for instance, in the latest Biden’s infrastructure bill, you know, how much of that is actually going to subsidising all of these tech dreams?

Peter Norton 1:08:06
Well, I can’t speak very specifically about Biden’s infrastructure bill because I have some homework to do to get better acquainted with the details. I only have the headline level information about it. But what I can say is absolutely the costs, entailed in accommodating and enabling autonomous and other highly automated vehicles on the roads has already been getting picked up by the US taxpayer in a big way. And this goes across parties and administrations. At the end of the Obama administration, there was a smart cities competition where one US city got a enormous amount of money to promote.

Peter Norton 1:09:37
autonomous vehicles are coming in. It’s our job in the Federal Highway Administration to help it happen. And she announced large sums of money for that. And without even checking, I think we can be certain that there are substantial public funds from US DoT even under Mayor Pete for

Peter Norton 1:10:07
So yeah, these interest groups, these trade associations and lobbies are simply too powerful for that not to happen.

Carlton Reid 1:10:16
So, Motordom Mark II?

Peter Norton 1:10:18
Yes, I think we still have Motordom and in fact, the Motordom club is expanded to include tech companies.

Carlton Reid 1:10:25
Peter, as always, it has been fascinating. Your book was excellent. I was kindly asked to write a blurb for it. That’s why I got an early copy, in which I hope I was as glowing as I ought to be. Because it was a fantastic book, and a very, very good follow up to “Fighting traffic,” like the kind of the next stage. So tell us, when’s it gonna be available? Where is it going to be available from tell us all of that detail.

Peter Norton 1:10:57
So the press is Island press, and Island press says it will be available October 21.

Peter Norton 1:11:06
A nice feature of the book’s title is that you won’t get a lot of irrelevant hits. If you type in the book’s title “Autonorama,” it t ought to be the first thing that comes up on any search engine. And it will be available through essentially all the book channels that people are already using.

Carlton Reid 1:11:28
And that’s all Now, where can you find more about you, because you’re not on Twitter.

Peter Norton 1:11:36
I know, I have a an About Me page on my department’s website, my department being the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia.

Peter Norton 1:11:52
I think if anyone searched just for “University of Virginia” and “Peter Norton,” it would probably come up near at or near the top.

Carlton Reid 1:12:01
So you’re proving yourself here to be that Luddite.

Peter Norton 1:12:05
Well, you know, I recently had a friend who so use of social media, I had a journalist friend I like very much recently tell me I have to be on Twitter. And then in the next sentence, he said, but I lose an incredible amount of time on it, I have to say, so I’ll consider joining the twittersphere. Again, but you know, I have some

Peter Norton 1:12:31
costs and benefits to to consider.

Carlton Reid 1:12:34
Yes, I wouldn’t encourage anybody to do it. Because it is can be a time sink, and you do tend to talk around in circles. But at the end of the day, it is good to, to have like,

Carlton Reid 1:12:49
cuz I use it the other day, in fact, for a Forbes article, in that I was taken on a whole bunch, I don’t know why they’ve adopted me, but a whole bunch of anti low traffic neighbourhood folks have adopted me as their bet and one of the name I have mentioned why I’m the one at the moment, which they’re there that they’re piling in on me. And so I try and win when I take them on. You know, it’s like, this is not radical, you know, a low traffic neighbourhood is not radical, you know, the Romans had low traffic neighbourhoods. 600 years ago, the York Minster had low,, these are bollard, these are not you know, the throughout history we’ve had, you know, motor carriages restricted. This is not unusual yet all the mass media and these people are seeing this as this incredible, new and novel to them dystopian future where you can’t go exactly where you want in your motorcar. So I take these people on, and I try and move it on. So because it’s not a very radical concept, they consider it radical. I just say, well, let’s just ban cars.

Carlton Reid 1:13:56
They then flip their lid, because that is just something that they haven’t is like, Whoa, we just thought we’re talking about you know, just a few bars here. Now this this lunatic is talking about banning all cars. Now, of course, I don’t have any power in it. I can’t do anything about this. But just mentioning that concept that that is your future and I kind of scared them. I hope it just nudges the Overton window for them, just nudges up a little. So they then think that LTNs or maybe they’re not quite as crazy, or as radical as we think because this nutter is talking about banning all cars. So maybe we will just keep quiet. Mostly you’re talking to the wind, you’re not gonna convert anybody people have got their their rigid points of view and I don’t know why they even start arguing about it. But there was a glimmer, it was two or three posters, who when you actually started chiselling away, and you actually showed them because they one particular one came on and was very anti LTNs but then

Carlton Reid 1:15:01
I started talking about highway removal. And how it didn’t lead to Carmageddon, there didn’t lead to congestion everywhere. And then I showed them a photograph of this particular the poster child of highway removal in South Korea and showed them how it is now a park today. And their argumentation had been about how all LTNs was shoving

Carlton Reid 1:15:27
all the heavy traffic onto these major freeways where there was actually lots of houses next to it. But when I showed them, like other countries have done this, they actually came around to this concept, and I just got one convert from this argumentation, I would consider that to be a success. So some Overton windows might be nudged open, but then one person who was anti LTN is gonna think ‘Well, actually, there is a different future, because South Korea did that.’ So that’s why I use social media and and I don’t mind spending time arguing with people, even though 90% of them, you’re not going to change their mind, you might change 10% of people’s mind. And perhaps those 10% could be an important 10%.

Peter Norton 1:16:15
Well, I am delighted by this story, and you’ve given me something to think about very carefully. I read that piece in Forbes, by the way, and I absolutely loved it. And the reason I saw it is that I am on social media. I saw it on Facebook. And I recall your sort of attention getting statement in that post, which was the first sentence is been banned cars are approximately that. So I loved the deliberate provocation that that was that was amusing. And I shared, of course, I shared the article because it’s it’s it’s common sense presented bbsolutely refreshingly. Well, yeah, I think I’ll give it a try.

Carlton Reid 1:17:09
Don’t blame me though.

Peter Norton 1:17:10
No, no,

Peter Norton 1:17:11
if I if I ended up

Carlton Reid 1:17:12
I didn’t, I didn’t.

Peter Norton 1:17:14
Yeah, if if my career stalls to a halt, because I’m constantly tweeting, or, and so on I’ll take full responsibility. And you have that on Zencastr.

Carlton Reid 1:17:27
Thanks to Peter Norton. There’s a photo of him and a link to “Autonorama” on this show’s website at Next month, I’ll have a chat with Lachlan Morton, who, as I’m sure you know, rode this year’s Tour de France by himself, but meanwhile … get out there and ride.

One Comment

  1. September 19, 2021

    Great! A level-headed discussion about the reality of AV technology.

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