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“The foundation has been laid for fully autonomous,” Elon Musk announced in 2016, when he assured the world that Tesla would have a driverless fleet on the road in 2017. “It’s twice as safe as a human, maybe better.” Promises of technofuturistic driving utopias have been ubiquitous wherever tech companies and carmakers meet.
In Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, technology historian Peter Norton argues that driverless cars cannot be the safe, sustainable, and inclusive “mobility solutions” that tech companies and automakers are promising us. The salesmanship behind the driverless future is distracting us from investing in better ways to get around that we can implement now. Unlike autonomous vehicles, these alternatives are inexpensive, safe, sustainable, and inclusive.
Norton takes the reader on an engaging ride —from the GM Futurama exhibit to “smart” highways and vehicles—to show how we are once again being sold car dependency in the guise of mobility. He argues that we cannot see what tech companies are selling us except in the light of history. With driverless cars, we’re promised that new technology will solve the problems that car dependency gave us—zero crashes! zero emissions! zero congestion! But these are the same promises that have kept us on a treadmill of car dependency for 80 years.
Autonorama is hopeful, advocating for wise, proven, humane mobility that we can invest in now, without waiting for technology that is forever just out of reach. Before intelligent systems, data, and technology can serve us, Norton suggests, we need wisdom. Rachel Carson warned us that when we seek technological solutions instead of ecological balance, we can make our problems worse. With this wisdom, Norton contends, we can meet our mobility needs with what we have right now.
"This is a bracing challenge to the dogma of autonomous vehicle enthusiasts and a clarion call for more varied and humane mobility solutions."
"From my own experience with this text in the classroom, the book was very well-received by undergraduates interested in transportation planning and I am certain the book would make a fine addition to a graduate student’s reading list. The author’s broader message is necessary for transportation planning practitioners and our colleagues within motordom."
Journal of Planning Education and Research
"Offering iconoclastic arguments that are well worth our attention, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Professor Peter Norton is especially and unreservedly recommended for community, college, and university library Automotive History and Contemporary Social Issues collections."
Midwest Book Review
"Norton ... concludes that the only way to end the vices caused by automobile dependency is to reduce automobile dependency itself—to rebuild public transit and facilitate walking and cycling, so that Americans have the same level of transportation choice as Europeans and Asians."
"Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking."
"[Norton’s] contention that the public is being sold a bill of goods that further reinforces car dependency and freedom against alternative options that are more environmentally and socially friendly creates a thought-provoking analysis of the underlying influences of car company business interests on future choices."
Donovan's Literary Services
"Autonorama is a 'road-switch' for a human-powered age, showing that safer, more livable cities will be achieved not by the tech in our cars, but by our actions on our streets."
Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg Associates and former commissioner, NYC Dept. of Transportation
"Provocative, forcing AV proponents to explain why things will be different this time around after the failed promises of the past 80 years, and whether the answer to the urban transportation problem can actually be more, albeit smarter, automobiles."
Journal of Urban Affairs
"Autonorama is a timely reminder from a first-class mind that, like the cartoon dog catching the car, realizing the 60-year-old dream of autonomous driving can only ever be a disappointment. Norton demonstrates that the snake-oil promises of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion hide the goal of perpetual and damaging car dependency. He also shows that the urban mobility modes too often degraded and therefore despised—public transit, walkability, bicycling— would bloom if only they were funded with a fraction of the financial love lavished for too long on automobility."
Carlton Reid, Senior Sustainability Contributor, Forbes.com; author of "Roads Were Not Built for Cars" and "Bike Boom "
"Autonorama is a thought-provoking, timely, and profoundly important book that will enable readers to avoid being taken in by false promises of high-speed, delay-free cities for drivers. Peter Norton reveals how the pursuit of self-driving cars is not only unrealistic; it’s a dangerous distraction from far cheaper, healthier, sustainable, and equitable transportation solutions."
Sally Flocks, Founder & Former President, Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety (PEDS)
Introduction: Not If but When
Chapter 1: Futurama 1: New Horizons
Chapter 2: Futurama 2: Magic Highway, USA
Chapter 3: Futurama 3: From CenterCore to Demo ’97
Chapter 4: Futurama 4: Autonorama
Chapter 5: Data Don’t Drive
Conclusion: Escape from Futurama
About the Author
The Walktober Walkinar 2021 series kicks off with a look at national efforts on walkability, including how pedestrian infrastructure has evolved, and some of the key challenges that pedestrians are facing across the country.
Timothy Taylor of the Federal Highway Administration will share details of the agency’s Safe Transportation for Every Pedestrian (STEP) program, which was established in response to the growing number of pedestrian crashes on America’s roadways. Anat Caspi, who leads the University of Washington’s Data Equity Project, will share advances in building equitable data frameworks to improve inclusive access for all pedestrians. And Peter Norton of the University of Virginia will look at the history and future of mobility and sustainable mobility, and the social dimensions of transportation engineering. His new book is Autonorama.
Timothy Taylor, Federal Highway Administration, STEP Program
Peter Norton, Associate Professor, University of Virginia, Department of Engineering and Society
Anat Caspi, Director, Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, University of Washington, Data Equity Project
Join Autonorama author, Peter Norton, the Smart Growth Network, and the Maryland Department of Planning for a webinar about the distraction of autonomous vehicles and how we must invest in the transportation alternatives available now that are inexpensive, safe, sustainable, and inclusive.
Attendees of the live event can receive 1.5 AICP CM credits.
Peter Norton will discuss his new book, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving
According to tech companies, automakers and consultancies, autonomous vehicles will drive themselves, better than we can, and sooner than we think. They promise us that with high-tech cars, we can have “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” Despite the extraordinary technological developments of the last twenty years, however, the practical possibility of widespread automatic driving remains elusive. High-tech “solutions,” always just over the horizon, are supposed to offer the anticipated deliverance. The lack, however, lies not in technology but in the aspiration itself.
In "Autonorama," Peter Norton argues that technology cannot make car dependency sustainable, affordable, healthful, or inclusive. The expensive, high-tech “solutions” that we are being sold are not so much an effort to meet our practical transport needs than a way to perpetuate unsustainable car dependency. Meanwhile the supposed solutions, in promising us an eventual end to all our afflictions, divert us from transport sufficiency: an unspectacular state we can pursue now, at far less cost, with technology we already have.
Peter Norton is an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. Norton has also been a visiting faculty member at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and is a member of the University of Virginia’s Center for Transportation Studies. He is the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press), and of Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving (Island Press, 2021). Norton is a winner of the Abbott Payson Usher Prize of the Society for the History of Technology. He is a frequent speaker on the subject of sustainable and equitable urban mobility.
The Kinder Institute's Urban Reads series showcases recently published works on pressing urban issues by local and national authors.