It is not easy to know if we are living on the cusp of a true transportation revolution or whether our Sixties-era Jetson fantasies have got the better of us. Alongside all the recent hype about e-cars and flying taxis, the New York Times is this week running a series of think-pieces on the inevitable triumph of autonomous vehicles. It opens with this breathless introduction:"SO, WOW, IMAGINE we get there: total autonomy. Manual driving is outlawed." In the Uber-egalitarian dreams of self-driving car enthusiasts, we all become happy wanderers in driverless pods, bobbing and weaving our way through a GPS-choreographed traffic ballet, free of gridlock and impervious to human error. It is a high-minded and virtuous ideal. As the catch-phrase of a driverless-vehicle industry website has it, "Gearing up to save lives, reduce costs [and] resource consumption." Yet it is also obvious that autonomous vehicles are going to make humans a lot less autonomous. As Gareth Cook observes in the Times series, "In the coming world of ubiquitous self-driving, it will just be you, the open road and the vast apparatus of the nanny state."
What many of these mass-transit visionaries seem to have in common is a tendency to imagine that the main users will be affluent urbanites going short distances in small groups with light loads—much as people do when they hail conventional taxis. And therein lies the problem. Here in the real world, notwithstanding the inexorable pressure on citizens to ditch their gas-guzzlers and support carbon taxes, our personal transportation needs remain highly varied and carefully considered. This explains why SUV sales are again sky-rocketing. Last month (October 2017), SUV and pickup-truck sales accounted for fully 70% of vehicles sold in Canada. What is more, the return to larger vehicles appears to be global in scale. “This is not just a trend," says auto analyst Michelle Krebs. "This is a total shift in the market, and it isn’t just in Canada and the U.S. It’s in China, it’s in Western Europe, it’s everywhere.” Critics will say that the size of our vehicles is inversely proportional to the price of crude, and they're right, but only to a point. What these divergent transportation futures demonstrate is that, despite our enduring fascination with flying taxis and driverless pods, we remain deeply invested in the older ideas of autonomy and freedom of choice that we have for a century identified with North American car culture.