A few more thoughts about self-driving cars

The two Steves behind the Freakonomics franchise have just released another book, in which they apparently criticize self-driving vehicles. Unfortunately I currently have neither the time nor the money to read their book, so I’ll have to rely on this blog post from the Wall Street Journal, which seems to sum up their argument pretty well:

“Driverless cars could turn out to be a scourge on humanity.

They may lead to a worldwide surge in binge drinking since drunk driving would no longer be a worry. They also could be vulnerable to hacking by terrorists who send every self-driving vehicles in the western U.S. plunging into the Grand Canyon.

And by making car travel easier, driverless vehicles could lead to more congestion and pollution.”

They also cite the potential for self-driving cars to eliminate jobs (something I’ve addressed here) , though they also apparently admit that self-driving cars could reduce the number of car accidents.

I’m going to criticize the freaks’ approach to the issue, but I want to make clear at the outset that I don’t mean for a second to suggest that their predictions are implausible. They could be right. While the terrorism thing seems a little bit far-fetched, the result of this technology could be a world full of long-distance commuters in self-driving vehicles. This would contribute to vastly expanded urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, climate change, and oil resource exploitation. That is a plausible scenario, and it is a bad one.

Despite this, however, I think that the freaks’ logic is badly misguided. To illustrate why, it helps to point out that at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most common destinations proposed that somebody would drive to with the newly invented automobile was the railway station. Cars, it was assumed, were mainly for local transportation or transportation through areas too remote to have their own rail lines. But if you wanted to go to a big city, then the train was your best bet. What this illustrates is that people always understand new technologies in terms of old ways of doing things. Historically, very few people have been able to accurately grasp the real implications of a radical new technology at such an early stage. That’s like trying to predict what the political landscape will look like in fifty years: It’s simply too complicated to accurately assess in advance. The best you can do is a lucky guess.

Levitt and Dubner, then, have probably made a mistake in assuming that the self-driving cars of the future will be used in same way that people use manually-driven cars today. This is not necessarily the case, however. Self-driving cars, in fact, open up a whole new range of possible behaviours. I’m going to explore one possible scenario, which I think is predominantly a good one, using two short speculative vignettes. The idea is to illustrate how everyday habits and lifestyle choices could be completely transformed by autonomous vehicles. Here’s the first one:

Julie was tempted to buy a car. That was, after all, what you were supposed to do when you got your first salaried job, and she did need to commute 20 miles every day to the office where she worked. But the autonomous taxi service that she had been using for the past year already served that purpose just fine. It meant that she didn’t have to drive or maintain a car. And the self-driving taxis were cheaper to boot. She decided she would rather spend the extra money on travel.

A huge part of the price of a taxi ride is the labour. That makes perfect sense, as taxi drivers need to make ends meet. But when you take the driver out of the picture, then suddenly taxis become a whole lot cheaper. This is especially the case if the self-driving taxis are electric, which will save considerably on fuel costs. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the price per mile of a self-driving taxi in the year 2040 will be, but it is plausible that it will be cheaper for the average person to rely on them than drive their own car. Self-driving taxis will be used far more efficiently than private cars could be; will be maintained by efficient, cost-optimizing businesses, and won’t have to pay for downtown parking.

This could start to make car ownership far less compulsory, even for those of us who live in the farthest-flung suburbs. Even if reliance on a self-driving cab is slightly more expensive than owning a car, it could still be a very attractive option due to the added convenience. And that means fewer cars on the roads.

“Alright, Andrew. We’re done predrinking. It’s time to go to the bar. I’m calling a cab”, said Stephen.

“Ugh. A cab? Do we have to? I’m kind of broke, and that’ll cost me like two beers”, replied Andrew. “It’s only three blocks away. We can make that in like half an hour”.

“Yeah, okay. Screw it”, said Stephen. “Let’s just walk.”

People who own cars tend to use them. Once you’ve paid the very substantial cost of a car, the marginal cost to use it to drive half a mile to the store becomes insignificant. So even if driving to the store is on balance a more expensive way of getting there than walking; this doesn’t translate into any direct perception of expense by the person deciding to drive to the store.

If, on the other hand, people rely on self-driving taxis, then the marginal cost of driving to the store suddenly goes up. Even with the vastly decreased price of a trip compared to a normal taxi, the fact still remains that the traveler has to pay upfront. And that means that many people will look to save money by walking or cycling for shorter trips. That means fewer cars on the road in total.

The ultimate outcome of these trends could be fewer cars on the street, more efficient use of the cars that remain on the street, and more electric cars. That would also mean more use of active transportation; more incentive to build high-density, walkable cities, and a more sustainable transportation system in general. As soon as you start to reduce the rate of car ownership, you reduce the incentives for car use. The neat thing about self-driving cars is that they allow a reduction in car ownership while allowing the same rate of car use to be maintained, at least temporarily. That makes them an ideal lever for changing the makeup of our transportation system and our cities, in addition to their recognized benefits in reducing drunk driving and accidents, and offering more travel options for the disabled.

Of course, my scenario is just as uncertain as the one proposed by the Freakonomics guys. Most likely, the way this will actually play out is completely different from either of our predictions. But my scenario suggests a few takeaway lessons. Firstly, it illustrates the value of a transitions perspective, which uniquely takes into account the complex ways that new technologies can interact with society. Secondly, it suggests a program for action. We can, to some extent, control the way that self-driving cars are introduced, through government policies and social advocacy. Self-driving cars could be good or bad in the end, but for the moment they’re an opportunity to change our transportation system. And we should think about how to take advantage of that.

Streets paved with Silica: An Assessment of Solar Roadways

I woke up this morning to find a link to this video sitting on my facebook newsfeed:

The video promotes solar (freaking) roadways: octagonal road tiles topped with frosted glass that not only generate power, but can also use it to light up in different patterns to direct traffic, heat themselves up to melt snow, and communicate with each other to detect the presence of obstructions on the road. The technology is also proposed as a way or revolutionising outdoor public spaces such as parks and squares by allowing them to instantly transform themselves into basketball courts, children’s play areas, or anything else.

Solar roadways are a very intuitive concept. Solar power installations require a lot of space, while roads take up a lot of space, so why not combined the two? But the couple developing the technology have apparently gone way beyond this simple intuition. Not only have they built a prototype solar parking lot near their house, but they also have a lengthy FAQ on their website that answers a lot of pretty important and detailed technical questions. They’ve considered everything from traction to earthquake damage to what happens if people start stealing the tiles. They also have a very viable plan for expansion of the technology: They will start with parking lots, driveways and sidewalks before moving on to harder stuff like highways. And something definitely has to be said for their recent promotional efforts. The video seems destined to go viral, while the various images they have on their website seem like some pretty effective and attractive future visions. And above all that, they apparently have the backing of both Google and the Department of Highways. So that’s nice for them.

That being said, there is one gigantic red flag in both the videos and the website. They haven’t made any effort to price the technology. Not even a ballpark estimate. I can understand why this is the case. The technology is still at a very early phase of development, and they haven’t really had a chance to figure out the realistic production costs of the panels. But the entire premise of solar roadways seems to be that they can allow roads to pay for themselves by producing solar power-a promise which depends pretty heavily on whether the power generated by the panels over their average lifetime will be sufficient to pay for their production and replacement. So the cost question needs an answer, and quickly.

Of course, there are ways that the panels could be made a good deal cheaper. Maybe they can eventually be 3D printed. And it maybe by self-driving automated road maintenance robots could replace them. And maybe broken ones can be repaired in some centralized facility to keep replacement costs down. All of these seem like plausible ways that this system could in fact be affordable. But they are mere possibilities at this stage, and so we shouldn’t rely on them.

One of the proposals for this technology that I don’t like is snow clearing. The idea is that in the winter, heating elements installed in the tiles would maintain a temperature just warm enough to stop snow from collecting on the road, and that would mean no need to shovel snow. It sounds great, but some problems emerge as soon as you start to run the numbers. The website, to its credit, acknowledges that solar roadways would have to take power from the grid to melt snow. After doing a bit of math and wikipedia research, I was able to figure out that for a 3.7 meter wide highway lane, a one centimeter snowfall would require at least 85 megawatt-hours to melt. In Ontario, that would cost between $6000 and $11000. If the power came from natural gas, it would release 37 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. If it came from coal, it would release 85 tons. And remember that this is just for one kilometer of road, with a measly one centimeter of snow. The financial and environmental costs of keeping the road clean all winter would be immense. So I’m not sure how suitable this technology would really be for some places. The snow-melting proposal doesn’t seem viable to me, and I don’t expect that solar roadways would do much good in, say, Manchester, where it’s always raining. You need sun to make solar panels work, even if those solar panels are cleverly integrated into roads.

There’s one other concern I have about this technology that I haven’t seen mentioned yet: surveillance. If the panels have pressure sensors in them, ostensibly to detect obstructions in the road, then it would be trivial to determine the mass of somebody’s car and use that information to track their movements. This would be handy in catching criminals or tracking stolen vehicles, of course, but I can think of a lot more nefarious uses for that capability and I don’t trust organisations like the NSA to avoid putting them into practice.

To conclude, then, I’m calling this project distinctly plausible. It has some interesting potential uses, a working prototype, a pretty good public relations campaign, and the backing of some big players. If these are rolled out strategically, starting with private driveways and then moving to public sidewalks and basketball courts and finally on to roads, then solar roadways could become a thing. And while I think the case for solar roadways is somewhat overstated (which is itself a strategic move), and there are issues with the costs of snow melting and surveillance, they do seem like a good idea on balance. So keep an eye on this, and maybe even go donate to their indiegogo campaign.

The Ideological Nature of Transportation

The British Public were so excited about the motorways in the 1960s that they printed postcards of service stations. The railways had a hard time competing in this modernist cultural environment.

Here’s an interesting  fact to mention next time you hear somebody railing against railway subsidies: During its entire history of operation since it was created in 1970, Amtrak, the American public passenger rail network, has received less in subsidies than the American highway network receives in a single year. Amtrak’s total subsidies since 1972 are estimated by the Cato institute (which has every reason to overestimate them) at around $13 billion, while the American Road and Transport Builders’ Association cites federal highway investment at around $40 billion per  year for at least the last few years.

This shouldn’t really be seen as paritcularly damning either of Amtrak or the highways, because it’s a pretty well-recognized fact that good transportation networks need subsidies. I have yet to encounter a single form of mass transportation that can be profitable on its own. Cars, trucks and buses need roads, and the various fuel taxes and fees paid for by drivers generally don’t cover the costs of building, maintaining and policing them. Trains are virtually always subsidized. Aviation is massively subsidized, with airlines receiving government bailouts fairly frequently. With the possible exception of active transportation such as walking and cycling (and even cyclists need roads), there are probably very few modern transportation networks don’t receive some money from the taxpayer.

One obvious implication of this is that we shouldn’t be pointing to subsidies to argue against the usefulness of particular modes of transport-something that critics of rail are particularly guilty of. But this has another important implication, namely that transportation infrastructures are inherently politicized. Regardless of your political position, you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the government, in its benevolence, wisely considers the methods of transportation available to it and supports the most promising one. Subsidies are doled out at least partly due to political and ideological commitments. And this means that transportation networks are an inherently political and ideological entity.

To take one example from my own research, consider the competition between road and rail transportation in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. After the Second World War, the British government undertook several projects to repair and update its transport system. On the railways, this took the form of the modernisation plan, which was launched in 1955. The plan was intended to introduce improved signalling systems, electric traction, station refurbishments, and a whole host of other improvements to prepare the newly nationalised British Rail for the demands of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport was also beginning to build the country’s first motorways. Starting with the Preston Bypass and the M1, which ran from London to Birmingham, the country’s modern road network gradually began to take shape. This all happened in the cultural and ideological context of modernism. This was a period of high modernism, when visions of a Jetsons-like future of a rational, efficient, high-tech and technocratic society were extremely popular. This modernism, I believe, played a very important role in shaping the transportation system as it exists today in the United Kingdom.

If  you read discussions about these two programs in both parliament and the press, however, you realize that the public perception of a modernised railway system was not the same as it was for a modernised road system. On the one hand, newspaper columnists tended to aggressively support motorway construction. This support was often based on the idea that the promotion of cars, buses and trucks was an essential part of being a progressive nation in the later part of the Twentieth Century. The Daily Mail put it in 1953, “like it or not, we are in the motor age, and we must make the best use of it” [1]. When the motorway program suffered setbacks, the government weathered a storm of criticism in the press. The Daily Express’s motoring correspondent, apparently not one for subtlety, penned one article about the motorways whose headline was “DREADFUL, DREADFUL, DREADFUL” [2]. Nobody questioned the costs of the project, and almost everybody with a platform seems to have been pressuring the government to make it happen as quickly as possible. The motorways were seen as modern marvels inherently deserving of support and investment

The railway modernisation plan had a very different hearing. While it did get some tentative support in the press, there wasn’t anything near the same pressure to see it through to the end. There were, indeed, many questions as to whether it was worthwhile in the first place. The editor of The Guardian speculated that it would be “…an unfortunate economic waste if, for example, the modern diesel trains now coming into service should fail to pay by 1970 because people had taken to their cars” [3]. One phrase that comes up again and again in the discussions of railway modernisation is the phrase “nineteenth century”. Increasingly, the railways were seen as an obsolete nineteenth century transport system when measured against the motorways and the cars that drove on them. The result was that when the financial situation got a little bit tighter, the modernisation program was curtailed and eventually gave way to the Beeching cuts, which eliminated more than half of Britain’s railway network in an attempt to make it profitable. The cuts got more support in the press than the modernisation, and that the phrase “nineteenth century” continued to be repeated by journalists supporting Beeching’s plans. The Daily Mirror, for example, proclaimed that “The plan for making Britain’s 19th century railway system fit snugly into the second half of the 20th century will impress the travelling public by its inescapable logic—and shock them with its ruthlessness” [4]. Many people saw the railways as an old-fashioned system, a relic of the previous century. And this meant that it was only logical to dramatically scale it back while motorways were being built.

To put it more simply: The railways were an easy target, and the suffered financial cuts as a result. The public and the press insisted on having motorways, while they were much less enthusiastic about the supposedly old-fashioned railway network. The ideology of modernism played a big role in this. Whether they drive on the motorways or travel on the scaled back railways, Britons today are living out the legacy of 1950s and 1960s technological ideology.

What this says for the present day is that we need to be very explicitly conscious of the role of ideology in the present transportation system. Cars are seen as the embodiment of freedom, individuality, and masculinity, and that supports continued public investment in roads. But cars are also increasingly seen as dangerous, antisocial, polluting machines. The clash between these two understandings of today’s transportation system will have important implications not only for tomorrow’s transportation system, but also for the global environment.

Primary Sources

[1] The Daily Mail., 1953. “Money for the Jam.” The Daily Mail. 24 July 1953. P. 1.

[2] Cardew, Basil., 1956. “Look, Mr. Watkinson! Look at this!”. The Daily Express. 24 February, 1956. p. 4.

[3] Savage, C.I., 1958. “What future for the railways? Next Few Years Decisive.”. 29 April, 1958. P. 11

[4] Beechcroft, J., and Morton-Smith, 1963. “The Railway Revolution”. The Daily Mirror .28 March, 1963. p. 15

Boats and Borders: A Longwinded Meditation on our High-Carbon Society

Cars embarking on the cross-channel ferry at Dover. Is this really the most efficient way to carry people across water?

I’ve recently been invited to speak at my first conference. Even more exciting than that is the fact that the conference is being held in Valencia, Spain. So within literally half an hour of receiving my formal inviation, I came up with a very exciting plan: Go to the two-day conference in Valencia, and then go find a nice Spanish beach to lie on for the rest of the week. I immediately commenced procrastinating from my real work by planning my trip from Manchester to Valencia. Being a bit of a hippy environmentalist who loves trains and boats and hates sitting in front of screaming babies on planes, I looked for a some combination of rail and ferry networks that would get me there. This turned out to be frustrating, however. Partly because the Spanish rail network is an a bit of a shambles, but more importantly because many of the ferries from Southern England to Spain do not allow foot passengers on board.

It is this last point that I want to riff on a little bit in this post. If the fact that many of our major water-borne transport networks can’t be boarded without a car isn’t a knockdown demonstration of car culture, then I don’t know what is. Even those ferries that do allow foot passengers often put them at a considerable disadvantage. I know from experience that such boats often require foot passengers to disembark using a bus that drives off the boat after all the drivers have already left, which effectively adds at least half an hour to the journey time. And port facilities are rarely well-connected to railway or bus terminals. I’ve had to walk over a mile to catch a ferry in the past.

The reason this is so problematic is that ferries are the only really sustainable way to travel over water. My flight to Valencia, which I reluctantly booked after two days of fruitless searching for a viable ferry itinerary, will emit 0.3 tons of carbon dioxide each way, which will add up to a whopping 40% of my ideal annual carbon budget over the course of the whole trip. So if we are going to transition to a sustainable economy then ferries are going to have to play a big role. The problem here is that, under the status quo, in order to avoid using the most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet (flying), it is highly advantageous and sometimes mandatory to own a car, which happens to be the second-most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet. There is very little space for people who choose to forego both technologies, and this is a problem.

What I’d really like to see here is an alternative ferry system, designed specifically for foot passengers. It would involve boats that are big enough to carry a large number of passengers safely across the English Channel, but not the behemoths designed to carry cars and trucks. I would like to see these boats making quick, cheap, efficient trips across the channel, in which people would embark on foot from a small pier, rather than having to wait for countless vehicles to be painstakingly loaded on at a gigantic terminal. Of course, I have to confess that I know virtually nothing about the ferry business, and there are probably a lot of very serious problems with the suggestion I have just made. It would, at the very least, require considerable changes to port infrastructure and dominant travel habits. It would also require a major change to how customs and immigration services are managed. More border guards would have to be built at more ports, and they would have to be built with foot passengers, rather than a stream of motor vehicles, in mind. I’m no more an expert on customs and immigration than I am on passenger marine travel, but somehow I doubt that border agencies could easily be persuaded to do such a thing.

This brings me to the final point of this somewhat rambly post: Maybe border guards are an unexamined part of the transport system. Border stations are expensive, and immigration agencies probably save money by building a small number of big checkpoints at major transport hubs. I’m willing to bet that a small ferry entrepreneur couldn’t simply request one wherever she needs it. Since most long-distance travel takes place between separate sovereign states, modes of transport that connect to pre-existing border control points at airports and large ferry terminals have a major advantage over alternatives. This locks in established unsustainable transport systems. Even the land border between Windsor and Detroit-the most highly trafficked border in the world-requires pedestrians to board a “tunnel bus” in order to cross the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. So groups like No One Is Illegal can add one more argument to their arsenal: Borders contribute to climate change.

The general point I’m trying to make here is that the systems that entrench environmentally destructive technologies manifest themselves in complex and surprising ways. We build boats that can only be boarded by cars, and the legal structure of international travel encourages the use of pre-established transport systems. If we want a more sustainable future, then we need to be critical of all this stuff. And we need to have the courage to change it.

Some Thoughts on Automation and the Future of Labour

In my last post, I alluded to some problematic implications that Amazon PrimeAir might have for workers and the economy. I didn’t have time to give the matter full consideration then, but I think these issues are going to become extremely important in the coming decades, so they deserve a post of their own. My thesis is that while PrimeAir and other automation schemes might appear threatening, they can actually be highly beneficial if we are willing to make dramatic changes in our economic values.

These experiments with driverless trucks could herald big changes to how our economy works.

To illustrate this, I’m going to consider the case self-driving cars, which have a much better shot at widespread commercialization than drone delivery. Google’s self-driving car has an impressive record, and Volvo has just released a huge test fleet of the vehicles onto the roads of Sweden. More and more governmental bodies are legalizing the testing of autonomous vehicles, and a recent study predicts that self-driving cars will overtake manually driven cars by 2050.

This is all a little bit exciting. Self-driving cars are, after all, something that we have been promised in science fiction for decades. But one thing that I don’t think is being adequately considered is the fact that if you can have a self-driving car, then you can have a self-driving truck. The aforementioned study predicts that a self-driving car will cost as little as $3000 more than its manually-driven counterpart by the time such cars become commonplace-a cost that pales in comparison with paying a driver. Self-driving trucks will also be able to make faster deliveries and reduce costs by driving without rest, and may well save trucking firms on insurance payments. Some of the first motor vehicles on the roads were commercial vehicles, and we could see a similar pattern with self-driving vehicles.

You can probably see the problem here. Truckers make up a pretty big chunk of the blue-collar workforce. There are 3.5 million of them in the United States alone. Self-driving vehicle technology, when combined with other forms of automated logistics, will put many of these people out of work. While some vehicles and some roads will probably continue to need human drivers into the foreseeable future, it seems likely that there are going to be a lot fewer jobs available for professional drivers in the second half of the twenty-first century.

This seems pretty scary on first glance, but I think there might be some reason for optimism. The fear of losing jobs is based on an economic ideology originating in the industrial revolution that made jobs essential for well-being. For the last few centuries we have needed people to work to produce essential services, and so we created an economy and a set of economic values that required people to contribute materially to society in order to have access to its material products of that society. The thing is that this set of values becomes completely obsolete in a society where we can rely on robots to provide most of our basic goods and services. In such a society, we will no longer need to make paid labour a prerequisite for material comfort.

Of course, transitioning to such a society will be easier said than done. Labour unions will probably fight to block automation, while those who own the robots will likely fight to keep any of their profits from going to support the workers they have replaced. It’s difficult to predict how these battles will go, but I I don’t think either one of these groups is likely to completely achieve their goals. Labour unions fighting against automation might win a few victories, but automation only has to win out in one area or sector to provide a niche from which it will expand. Displaced workers, meanwhile, will be both numerous and (justifably) angry, and will have to be placated somehow.

One possible outcome would be the imposition of a guaranteed minimum income. This would in effect alter the economic social contract from “You must contribute your labour to the society that helps you survive”, to “You have an absolute right to a share of the products of society”. There would still be jobs, as not every task can be automated and some people would (fortunately) prefer to work, but such people would have to be very well-paid in order to persuade them to give up eight hours of every day. Meanwhile, people without jobs would be free to pursue political action, volunteerism, parenting, or art without worrying about finding a way to monetize these activities. It could also be good for business and innovation, by making it far less personally risk for inventors and entrepreneurs to start companies.

If this sounds utopian, it’s because we don’t yet know what kinds of problems will arise in a society with a guaranteed income. And, of course, my speculation above could be totally wrong and automation could facilitate a whole different set of social changes. The outcome I described above is only one of a number of possibilities. But even if the struggle over automation turns out differently than I have predicted, I think that there’s a wider point to be made here about the relationship between technology, ideology, and culture. Our ideologies and our technological systems are interdependent. Our current set of economic values focus on the moral and economic value of hard work. But such values were crafted at a time when hard work was absolutely necessary. Different systems generate different values. Greek philosophers, for example (who generally had slaves), disparaged any manual work. If we recognize that such values are not absolute, then we can start to seriously consider what it might mean if new technology has made them obsolete..

Sustainability, Drop-in Innovation, and the Self-Driving Car


Most environmentalists might be more excited about the bicycle on the right, but Google’s self-driving car may well have more potential to enact real sustainability.

In transition studies we like to talk about what we call “drop-in innovations”. What this refers to, roughly, is a radical new technology that can be easily implemented without difficult modifications to existing social and technical structures. Smartphones are a good example of a drop innovation: The infrastructure and social practices associated with cell phones already existed, and so iPhone, Blackberry, and Android phones were easily accepted, allowing them to be the catalyst for some pretty major social and technical changes.

Existing infrastructure and social practices constitute a major stumbling block for many sustainable technology schemes, so the concept of drop-in innovations is very important in sustainability. If you want to use a new technology to change the way human society interacts with the natural world, then you will have an easier time accomplishing your goals if your new technology can be simply purchased off the shelf  without requiring any major changes as a prerequisite for its use.

With that in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the self-driving car. Many will likely be skeptical of Google’s latest innovation, pointing out, for example, that we already have self-driving cars called buses. But I think this criticism misses the point. Buses are going to have a very hard time changing peoples’ travel habits because they come with a lot of social, political, financial and infrastructural baggage. The same thing goes for trains, which will require massive infrastructural investment in order to compete with cars.

The self-driving car, however, has an advantage over these other means of transportation. So long as self-driving cars are legalized (and it looks like they will be), there is nothing stopping a few pioneering travelers from buying them. These people would be able to travel with all the convenience that attracts people to cars, and they would pay no infrastructural or financial penalty for their choice.

Once self-driving cars catch on, however, there are a huge number of ways they could be made greener. They could be fitted with electric motors, for starters, but if we think beyond that, we can imagine even more exciting possibilities. Suppose, for example, that some enterprising taxi firms start running self-driving electric cars that can be called to pick up passengers using a smartphone app. Such a system would require no drivers and thus be extremely cheap to operate, and would free travelers from the hassles of parking, refueling, or maintenance. A fleet of such cars could form long trains on highways, in which they could draft off each-other and save enormous amounts of energy-something that would be highly unsafe with human drivers. They could constantly circulate, or automatically return to out-of-the-way garages, thereby freeing up a great deal of urban space otherwise used for parking.

This is all very speculative, of course. But it’s an important example of the power that a drop-in innovation can have. Radical system change is undoubtedly far more exciting than such incremental and uncertain improvements, but it’s also a lot more difficult. I’d love to see cities of the future that are criss-crossed with electric trams and cycle lanes, but there are a lot of physical, political, social, technical, and financial barriers in the way of that. The only major obstacles I can see in the way of the system of automated vehicles I have just described are driving schools and cabbies-not exactly groups who wield enormous political influence.

There seems to be a lot of optimism about the future right now. With projects such as spacex, the hyperloop, the oculus rift, and google glass, it seems like we may finally be moving towards the future that was imagined in 1990s films. Environmentalists should seize on this trend to find promising new technologies that can save the world, rather than stubbornly insisting on pre-established visions.

From World Wars to Bush Planes: Some Reflections on The Future of Commercial Space Flight

There’s a lot of excited talk about spaceflight these days. The successful completion of the X-prize challenge by SpaceX and the subsequent launch of Virgin Galactic has a put lot of space geeks in a very optimistic mood about the future of private, civilian space-flight. Perhaps within you or your children’s lifetime, it will be both possible to visit an orbital or lunar hotel. Even if that is beyond your price range, you might still wind up using quick orbital hops to make trans-continental business trips in a fraction of the time taken by a jet airliner. The technology is all there, say the space-age optimists. It just has to come down in price.

Of course, if “It just has to come down in price” suspiciously like somebody’s famous last words. The path from an effective technology to mass use by society is far from a simple one. While I am very excited by the prospect of commercial spaceflight (I want to play golf on the moon), the history of technology suggests a critical perspective towards the possibility.

What we essentially have with space-flight is a completely new technological function which allows forms of consumption that are completely impossible without it. On the one hand, this helps space entrepreneurs, because what they offer is so completely different from any other consumer product that they will have to compete with any existing industries. On the other hand, it also means that they will have to build a customer base from scratch, which is not always an easy thing to do with an unproven technology. To understand better how this process occurs, it would be worthwhile to look at another example of a radically new technology that was successfully introduced to the market.

To that end, I want to draw your attention to the Silver Dart, which was basically Canada’s answer to the Wright Flyer. It flew for just half a mile in 1909. That same year, it was able to complete a circular flight of around 35 kilometers, and shortly afterwards it successfully flew with a passenger. These accomplishments are impressive, but the Silver Dart, like most aircraft of the time, was more novelty project than business venture. It was never intended to fly with paying customers. In fact, the only way that pilots ever managed to make any money in Canada before the First World War was by performing acrobatics at fairs. Flight at this time was a technological novelty used mainly by the rich.

Things became very different very quickly after the First World War. Bush flying became a commercial pursuit, with pilots reaching places in the Canadian hinterland that could previously could only be reached by canoe and dogsled. Government and corporate surveyors began to use planes to document the natural resource wealth of the Canadian North, and during the depression a series of airstrips was built to link the country from coast to coast. Air services were also being established in Britain, Australia, and the United States. And those are just the countries I have researched. Planes had, in short, became a profitable proposition in a very short time.

So what happened? Well, in Canada, at least, this happened:

The HS-2L Flying Boat


The Curtiss HS-2L flying boat was ubiquitous in the early years of Canadian bush flying. While it was designed for practical use and was therefore an improvement over the Silver Dart, the specific practical use it was was designed  for was submarine hunting. This meant that it had some major drawbacks when it was pressed into civilian use. Its large wingspan made docking  difficult, and it had to be periodically lifted out of the water or its hull would get waterlogged. Despite these problems, however, the HS-2L is commonly thought of as the aircraft that kick-started commercial flight in Canada. This had nothing to do with the technological sophistication of the aircraft, and everything to do with the fact that hundreds had been built for a war effort that was now over. This meant that an aspiring commercial pilot could get his hands on a surplus flying boat for very cheap. The glut of unemployed pilots returning from the war created a class of entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of this opportunity, and so Canadian air industry was born. This dynamic was not limited to Canada: surplus war aircraft and pilots were similarly central in the creation of the American, Australian, and British air industries. This was strengthened even further after the Second World War and its more advanced aircraft opened space for the air industry as we know it today.

Let’s return to space, then. Each of the two examples above shows that a major global event, namely war, was necessary in order for a new consumer technology to become attractive to the private sector. I suspect that the large-scale commercialization of space might require something similar. While Virgin Galactic might show promise , I think that in its current form it fills the same role that was filled by air and car travel around the turn of the century: that of a recreational novelty for the rich. In order for a new commercial space industry to take hold, something will need to spur the construction of large numbers of manned spacecraft, the development of inexpensive launch facilities, and the training of space pilots. Whatever that is will then have to end abruptly, so as to create a surplus of vehicles, infrastructure, and manpower that can be used in a new commercial space industry.


Does this mean that I won’t get to play moon-golf until there is a war in space? Hopefully not. In this case, a war might not even be sufficient, due to the fact that most realistic visions of space warfare don’t involve very many manned craft. There needs to be some other massive, publicly-funded push to get large numbers of human beings into Earth’s orbit, and it has to produce surplus, reusable, manned spacecraft. Perhaps this is a justification for Neil Degrasse-Tyson’s one penny proposal, or an international mission to Mars. Honestly, I don’t know what it will take. Maybe the unique economics of space flight will mean that all but the rich will just have to stay in the atmosphere. If you don’t like that, then start thinking of ways to get massive investment in manned space-flight from the public purse.

Further Reading

Butler, Tom.,1971. Flying Start: The history of the first five decades of civil aviation in Australia. Sydney: Edwards and Shaw, 1971.

Blee, Jill., 2007. Aviation in Australia. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing Ltd.

Fortier, Rénald and Masters, Don., 1996. Flight into History: Canadian Vignettes. Ottawa: National Aviation Museum.

Hutchison, Iain., 1987. The Story of Loganair. Isle of Lewis: Western Isles Publishing Company.

McCaffery, Dan., 2002. Bush Planes and Bush Pilots. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.

Piggott, Peter., 1997a. Flying Canucks II: Pioneers of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Hounslow Press.

Piggott, Peter., 2002. Wings Across Canada: An Illustrated History of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Anthony Hawke.


Techno-tales, Visions, and Sustainable Transportation

This romanticized image may be an accurate depiction of the charms of travel, but it was also created to sell plane tickets. We need to question these kinds of narratives if we’re serious about sustainability.

A few years ago, while I was working Canada Science and Technology Museum, I had a lunch-room chat with a co-worker about sustainable transportation. I argued that it is simply untenable for the personal car to remain the default means of passenger transportation. He was sympathetic to my point, but still his response was dismissive. He insisted that that would simply never happen, no matter how badly it was needed for sustainability. According to his reasoning, the majority of people could never be persuaded to part from the convenience afforded by the private automobile.

My co-worker’s argument is an excellent example of what Colin Divall (2010) calls a techno-tale. According to Divall, these are common narratives which serve to justify the adoption and continued use of certain technologies or technological systems. My co-worker was citing the techno-tale of inevitability, in which a set of technological practices is supposed to be completely unchangeable, with well-meaning engineers, policymakers and activists limited to superficial modifications to the technology and its uses. Another common techno-tale is that of progressive innovation, in which it is assumed that a major problem imposed by a particular dominant technology will be averted by some new innovation. The persistent spectre of the electric car, which is always “ten years out” is a good example of this narrative. In some cases, techno-tales can ascend to the status of techno-myths, which provide a strong sense of underlying identity to a community or individual. Various techno-myths of the automobile are prominent in a range of North-American cultures. I’m sure you can think of a few examples.

Techno-tales and techno-myths have the effect of undermining discourse aimed at systemic change. They are therefore very useful for those that have a vested interest in the dominant technological regime. If a car company is concerned that the public might stop buying cars due to concerns about sustainability or gas prices, then they can take advantage of either of the two narratives I just discussed to insulate themselves and the technological system they depend on from criticism. Divall argues that this is why historians have an important role to play in transportation policy. Techno-tales and techno-myths generally have a historical component, and by engaging with the public, historians of technology can help aid in the critical evaluation of these stories. Public history is therefore an important component for the facilitation of technological transitions.

Beyond Divall’s point, however, I think there’s another intriguing implication to hisidea of techno-tales. In an earlier post, I discussed the concept of visions in technology studies. A vision is a positive or negative narrative of the futureused by the backers of a radical niche technology in order to draw in support for it. Do a google image search for “liveable city” or “climate catastrophe” to see some good examples of the visions commonly employed to support new sustainable transportation technologies. I’m studying the role of discourse and culture in socio-technical transitions, so visions are an important concept for me, but I’ve been puzzling for some time over the opposite of a vision. If niche technologies must break through entrenched regime opposition in order to become widespread, and deploy visions as a discursive tool to help them do so, then what does the regime do in response? Techno-tales and techno-myths might provide the answer. Perhaps regime actors strategically deploy or re-deploy techno-tales through advertising, political lobbying, and other forms of promotion, when they believe they are under threat by visions of the future that would make them obsolete. Perhaps these techno-tales can evolve from the visions that were used to build support for a technological regime before it ascended to its entrenched position. The possibilities are interesting, and I’ll have to do a lot more thinking about them.

In the meantime, though, I think there is one more important implication to the idea of techno-tales. Divall concludes his article with a description of a museum exhibit he curated. This exhibit shows the development of an idea that it is desirable to travel, and shows that this idea has been intentionally created as a techno-tale to sell train and airplane tickets. It’s important to note, I think, that a version of this techno-tale has deep roots in progressive communities, who are normally very sympathetic to sustainability transitions. Travel is frequently imagined in progressive communities as a great equalizer, which can build empathy and cultural understanding with others around the world. This might be true, but we should nevertheless think critically about it. If, as Divall suggests, our discourse is full of techno-tales which encourage the continued use of dominant and potentially destructive technologies, then it falls upon us to critically examine the ways we justify our use of technologies, even if that means we can’t partake in quite so many enlightening cultural exchanges.

Further Reading

Berkhout, Frans., 2006. “Normative Expectations in Systems Innovation”. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18: 3/4. pp. 209-211.

Divall, Colin., 2010. “Mobilizing the History of Technology”. Technology and Culture 51: 4. pp. 938-960.