If you visit Mountain View, California, and if you’re lucky, you might see the strangest vehicle in America: a small bubble-shaped car. Peer inside as it rolls by, and you’ll find that the people inside aren’t driving—because they can’t. It’s a car with no steering wheel, no brakes and no gas pedal.
It is one of Google’s new self-driving cars, designed to navigate city streets all by itself. Equipped with an array of sensors that scan nearby traffic and pedestrians with laserlike precision, a GPS-brokered sense of the road, and a slew of algorithms frantically working to avoid collisions, these cars—Google hopes—are the future of driving.
How would a robotic car transform the way we travel? They’d certainly change what you’d do during a ride. Passengers could read, nap, watch movies or peck away on a laptop; new forms of car-sharing might emerge, since a vehicle could drop you off and then zip itself over a few blocks to pick someone else up. Cars could be standalone couriers. Indeed, we might see many cars empty of any humans at all.
It’s a prospect straight out of Ray Bradbury, by turns captivating and goosebump-inducing. And if it comes to pass, it’ll be the apotheosis of how cars have utterly remolded the way cities work. Because when automobiles entered American life a century ago, their first trick was to start a war between humans and machines: They drove people off the streets.
When you visit any city in America today, it’s a sea of cars, with pedestrians dodging between the speeding autos. It’s almost hard to imagine now, but in the late 1890s, the situation was completely reversed. Pedestrians dominated the roads, and cars were the rare, tentative interlopers. Horse-drawn carriages and streetcars existed, but they were comparatively slow.
So pedestrians ruled. “The streets were absolutely black with people,” as one observer described the view in the nation’s capital. People strolled to and fro down the center of the avenue, pausing to buy snacks from vendors. They’d chat with friends or even “manicure your nails,” as one chamber of commerce wryly noted. And when they stepped off a sidewalk, they did it anywhere they pleased.
“They’d stride right into the street, casting little more than a glance around them...anywhere and at any angle,” as Peter D. Norton, a historian and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, tells me. “Boys of 10, 12 or 14 would be selling newspapers, delivering telegrams and running errands.” For children, streets were playgrounds.
At the turn of the century, motor vehicles were handmade, expensive toys of the rich, and widely regarded as rare and dangerous. When the first electric car emerged in Britain in the 19th century, the speed limit was set at four miles an hour so a man could run ahead with a flag, warning citizens of the oncoming menace, notes Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).
Things changed dramatically in 1908 when Henry Ford released the first Model T. Suddenly a car was affordable, and a fast one, too: The Model T could zoom up to 45 miles an hour. Middle-class families scooped them up, mostly in cities, and as they began to race through the streets, they ran headlong into pedestrians—with lethal results. By 1925, auto accidents accounted for two-thirds of the entire death toll in cities with populations over 25,000.
An outcry arose, aimed squarely at drivers. The public regarded them as murderers. Walking in the streets? That was normal. Driving? Now that was aberrant—a crazy new form of selfish behavior.
“Nation Roused Against Motor Killings” read the headline of a typical New York Times story, decrying “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.” The editorial went on to quote a New York City traffic court magistrate, Bruce Cobb, who exhorted, “The slaughter cannot go on. The mangling and crushing cannot continue.” Editorial cartoons routinely showed a car piloted by the grim reaper, mowing down innocents.
When Milwaukee held a “safety week” poster competition, citizens sent in lurid designs of car accident victims. The winner was a drawing of a horrified woman holding the bloody corpse of her child. Children killed while playing in the streets were particularly mourned. They constituted one-third of all traffic deaths in 1925; half of them were killed on their home blocks. During New York’s 1922 “safety week” event, 10,000 children marched in the streets, 1,054 of them in a separate group symbolizing the number killed in accidents the previous year.
Drivers wrote their own letters to newspapers, pleading to be understood. “We are not a bunch of murderers and cutthroats,” one said. Yet they were indeed at the center of a fight that, clearly, could only have one winner. To whom should the streets belong?
By the early 1920s, anti-car sentiment was so high that carmakers and driver associations—who called themselves “motordom”—feared they would permanently lose the public.
You could see the damage in car sales, which slumped by 12 percent between 1923 and 1924, after years of steady increase. Worse, anti-car legislation loomed: Citizens and politicians were agitating for “speed governors” to limit how fast cars could go. “Gear them down to fifteen or twenty miles per hour,” as one letter-writer urged. Charles Hayes, president of the Chicago Motor Club, fretted that cities would impose “unbearable restrictions” on cars.
Hayes and his car-company colleagues decided to fight back. It was time to target not the behavior of cars—but the behavior of pedestrians. Motordom would have to persuade city people that, as Hayes argued, “the streets are made for vehicles to run upon”—and not for people to walk. If you got run over, it was your fault, not that of the motorist. Motordom began to mount a clever and witty public-relations campaign.
Their most brilliant stratagem: To popularize the term “jaywalker.” The term derived from “jay,” a derisive term for a country bumpkin. In the early 1920s, “jaywalker” wasn’t very well known. So pro-car forces actively promoted it, producing cards for Boy Scouts to hand out warning pedestrians to cross only at street corners. At a New York safety event, a man dressed like a hayseed was jokingly rear-ended over and over again by a Model T. In the 1922 Detroit safety week parade, the Packard Motor Car Company produced a huge tombstone float—except, as Norton notes, it now blamed the jaywalker, not the driver: “Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.”
The use of “jaywalker” was a brilliant psychological ploy. What’s the best way to convince urbanites not to wander in the streets? Make the behavior seem unsophisticated—something you’d expect from hicks fresh off the turnip truck. Car companies used the self-regarding snobbery of city-dwellers against themselves. And the campaign worked. Only a few years later, in 1924, “jaywalker” was so well-known it appeared in a dictionary: “One who crosses a street without observing the traffic regulations for pedestrians.”
Meanwhile, newspapers were shifting allegiance to the automakers—in part, Norton and Vanderbilt argue, because they were profiting heavily from car ads. So they too began blaming pedestrians for causing accidents.
“It is impossible for all classes of modern traffic to occupy the same right of way at the same time in safety,” as the Providence Sunday Journal noted in a 1921 article called “The Jay Walker Problem,” reprinted from the pro-car Motor magazine.
In retrospect, you could have predicted that pedestrians were doomed. They were politically outmatched. “There was a road lobby of asphalt users, but there was no lobby of pedestrians,” Vanderbilt says. And cars were a genuinely useful technology. As pedestrians, Americans may have feared their dangers—but as drivers, they loved the mobility.
By the early ’30s, the war was over. Ever after, “the street would be monopolized by motor vehicles,” Norton tells me. “Most of the children would be gone; those who were still there would be on the sidewalks.” By the 1960s, cars had become so dominant that when civil engineers made the first computer models to study how traffic flowed, they didn’t even bother to include pedestrians.
The triumph of the automobile changed the shape of America, as environmentalists ruefully point out. Cars allowed the suburbs to explode, and big suburbs allowed for energy-hungry monster homes. Even in midcentury, critics could see this coming too. “When the American people, through their Congress, voted for a twenty-six-billion-dollar highway program, the most charitable thing to assume is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing,” Lewis Mumford wrote sadly in 1958.
This is precisely what makes modern critics nervous about self-driving cars. Will they, too, create radically new driving patterns—and dangerous changes to society?
Norton sees two roads forward, one good and one dreadful. If we’re lucky, self-driving cars could reduce overall driving by allowing superefficient ride-sharing. Imagine a system that’s half Zipcar and half taxi service, where you buy access to a private fleet of vehicles that work out sharing on the fly. Stoplights could become obsolete: Some computer models suggest that self-driving cars could navigate intersections simply by weaving around each other, reducing emissions from idling. Maybe we could cross the street wherever we wanted—because the cars would stop and flow around us.
But there’s a dystopian view, too. Self-driving cars, Norton warns, could usher in an explosion of driving and even more far-flung exurbs. If you can now work on your laptop while commuting, why not live even farther away? “That scares me,” he says. “We might pave the whole country that way.” But Vanderbilt isn’t as worried. “The [computer] models I’ve seen suggest we’d drive less,” he says, and he suspects most people have an upper limit on how much time they’re willing to commute, even if they’re not driving. “I don’t envision two-hour commutes.” Auto deaths would likely shrink dramatically; Google’s prototype self-driving cars have been on the road for five years, and, Google says, haven’t had a single accident under computer control.
But when the rare accidents do occur, it’ll create—as with 100 years ago—a big public debate about who’s to blame. The passengers (who weren’t piloting the car)? The carmaker, who wrote the algorithms? A cloudy day that temporarily occluded the car’s GPS?
And carmakers may again need to mount a big public-relations campaign—this time to convince us to trust the cars. Would you put your faith in a self-driving robot to stop in time when your children step into the street against the light? The cars may change, but the détente between them and us may always be uneasy.