Karl Benz loved bicycles. So when he invented the first production automobile in 1885, he combined his knowledge of bicycle and motor technology with a desire to create a “horseless carriage.” The vehicle had its flaws, crashing during its demonstration period. He further refined his invention, still thinking he was just creating a bicycle-inspired alternative to the horse and buggy.
He had no idea he was reaching into a Promethean fire that would change the world.
Benz’s invention led, through Henry Ford, to massive changes in manufacturing. It put oil companies among the world’s biggest. It revolutionized the way wars were waged. It affected the content of our atmosphere. It altered the landscape of the earth, with wide swaths cut for roads, then streets, then parking lots, then interstate highways. It changed the way we live, as old cities built for pedestrians and horse-powered transport gave way to suburbs reaching ever farther to the horizon.
Benz would not have foreseen any of this. Nor have many of us foreseen in our own lifetimes how landline phones would give way to something entirely different. As recently as the early 2000s, on a visit to Japan, I was surprised to see all the young people on the commuter trains hunched over their flip phones. Soon enough, young people in the U.S. started hunching over their flip phones. These quickly gave way to smartphones in which our schedules are contained, our bills are paid, our memories are stored, our music is played and our news is shared. Smartphones have changed whole industries. They have changed the very way humans interact with each other. Some have even blamed this technological change for a rise in depression, anxiety and lower cognitive functioning among young people.
For good or ill, we are easily swept along by technological changes. New technology can serve as a useful tool to help us better control our lives. (Who doesn’t like having a camera and a calendar always at hand in one device?) Or new tech can become the means by which we are controlled. (Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the waves of information and propaganda constantly flying our way? Who doesn’t remember with nostalgia the days when you could disconnect from the buzz of digital technology?)
The same pertains to transportation. Just over half of Americans now live in areas they consider suburban (with the remainder roughly split between urban and rural). More than 90% of commuters get to work by car. On average, we spend about 100 minutes per day in our vehicles.
Most of us love our cars. We love the experience of driving, the freedom our cars give us to travel and the flexibility to live where in the place that best fits our budget and lifestyle.
On the other hand, we don’t love the sense of futility and lost time with family that come with sitting in a traffic jam. We don’t love spending gobs of money on gasoline. We don’t love polluted skies.
But we may have a chance to harness technology to address these issues. With advances in efficiency, fuel alternatives, public transit, autonomous vehicles and new modes of transport, we may well live through a transportation revolution during the next decade or so.
In light of these changes, Utah Foundation is bringing together a panel of experts on July 10 for a forum on the future of transportation in our state. Proper foresight is critical to ensure that we place the changes in our service, rather than simply being swept along by them. That requires us to get a clear view of the road ahead and set our course accordingly.