Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools. When I first got behind the wheel, I had to print out directions from MapQuest before I left. I would have to stop and ask someone for directions if I hadn't planned correctly. Everything changed when the phone and the gps device were used. Getting lost became a thing of the past when everyone had a navigator. The tech sector didn't improve transportation. We were told to fly cars. "We got 140 characters instead," Peter said. Few people were better positioned to make useful, world-changing technology over the last 20 years. Instead, he sat on the board at Facebook and shilled internet money. The phrase "we were promised flying cars" has remained as a gripe about our stupid tech toys and a lot of people have continued to promise those flying cars. In their new book, Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Paris Marx takes a look back at all the ways that self-driving cars, micro mobility scooters, electric vehicles, and ridesharing services were supposed to make the world a better place. Our tech overlords have made a lot of things worse and their own faith in tech's ability to solve any problem has left many of them in an untenable situation of moving the goal posts while hoping shareholders get distracted by shiny objects Tech Won't Save Us was hosted by Marx and they did a thesis on the future of transportation. To help us understand how things have gone wrong and what we can do to make sure the next 20 years of innovation actually meet the challenges of our times, Marx spoke with Gizmodo. The Boring Company tunnel may be a template for public transportation. Is there anything left to say about the company's actions? Apple could be a knight. All that and more are discussed below. What do you think about the last 20 years of technology trying to tackle transportation?
Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.
When I first got behind the wheel, I had to print out directions from MapQuest before I left. I would have to stop and ask someone for directions if I hadn't planned correctly. Everything changed when the phone and the gps device were used. Getting lost became a thing of the past when everyone had a navigator. The tech sector didn't improve transportation.
We were told to fly cars. "We got 140 characters instead," Peter said. Few people were better positioned to make useful, world-changing technology over the last 20 years. Instead, he sat on the board at Facebook and shilled internet money. The phrase "we were promised flying cars" has remained as a gripe about our stupid tech toys and a lot of people have continued to promise those flying cars.
In their new book, Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Paris Marx takes a look back at all the ways that self-driving cars, micro mobility scooters, electric vehicles, and ridesharing services were supposed to make the world a better place. Our tech overlords have made a lot of things worse and their own faith in tech's ability to solve any problem has left many of them in an untenable situation of moving the goal posts while hoping shareholders get distracted by shiny objects
Tech Won't Save Us was hosted by Marx and they did a thesis on the future of transportation. To help us understand how things have gone wrong and what we can do to make sure the next 20 years of innovation actually meet the challenges of our times, Marx spoke with Gizmodo. The Boring Company tunnel may be a template for public transportation. Is there anything left to say about the company's actions? Apple could be a knight. All that and more are discussed below.
What do you think about the last 20 years of technology trying to tackle transportation?
Maybe I can be generous but I would probably say an F.
That's not bad.
Marx said they had a lot of ideas for transportation and how technology could be used to make improvements. Many of the promises made about those technologies weren't realized. Whether we are looking at the early promises that it made about reducing traffic congestion, improving convenience, and serving people who are underserved by transportation as well as making things better for drivers, or something else altogether. It was certainly convenient. A lot of people are finding it more difficult to use than it used to be. It hasn't provided benefits on those other counts We could look at how self-driving cars were going to change the way we get around and how it wasn't able to do that. It looks like it won't have the wide-ranging impacts we were told it would.
We can look at things like micro mobility and electric vehicles. The electric vehicle is an essential contribution to reducing emissions in the transport system but it is not the only thing we need to do. The technologies that have been integrated into the car can be looked at as well. Silicon Valley tech companies push things that have been developed with the auto industry. There are benefits to some of those systems. The desire to expand the size of those kind of screens is what drives the entertainment systems and tech companies. People are being made more distracted by studies. I don't think we're seeing a lot of benefit, but a lot of potential problems.
Everyone is watching and anticipating one of two outcomes: it will be the most valuable company ever or it will be zero in a few years.
Marx is definitely correct. Edward Niedermayer, the author of the book, describes how early on in the company's existence, it was promised that it would create a luxury vehicle and use the money from that to make a more affordable vehicle. There is a recognition that the strategy is not working and that the money that is needed is not being brought in. The amount of money that is needed to get its cars out into the world has always been a problem for the company.
It is a moment when Musk starts to make more big promises in order to get investors to buy the stock in order to inflate the price of the stock. According to Musk, the company is going to be useless if they can't solve self- driving technology. The company has evolved from an electric vehicle company into something else. It's valuation depends on that.
Do you think Biden's decision to keep Musk at arm's length is a good one? The White House supports fossil fuel dependent manufacturers and his competitors.
It makes sense for Biden to have Musk with him. It isn't so much because Biden supports fossil fuel companies, but because he hasn't implemented the climate measures he promised. The general mood on the tech industry has changed and it feels like it has changed as well. Biden came to power as a strong supporter of unions. He has talked a lot about that. There was an earlier proposal for electric vehicle tax credits that included money for vehicles that were produced in a factory where the workforce was unionized. It makes sense that the Biden administration hasn't been as close to Musk because he's opposed unions and continues to oppose them Musk no longer needs a relationship with the government that he once had with Obama or the Trump administration.
Gizmodo says thatTesla had a good start. New start-ups and incumbents are making progress. Have you ever read about how Tesla compares to its competitors?
Marx doesn't say that traditional car companies have never had their own problems. Some of the Japanese or Korean auto plants in the US don't use union labor. The American automakers have had a lot of issues with safety in the past, and have had their own issues with labor, layoffs, and fighting unions. Over the occasional fights with unions, a lot of the labor issues are worked out. Musk's company seems to have bigger problems. Poor manufacturing practices leave workers at higher risk of injury and result in lower quality cars. The statements of the workers suggest that the company has a particularly racist workplace. There are a lot of women talking about sexism at the company. It isn't something that you hear a lot from the other auto companies. I don't think it's a good idea to say that the traditional ones are great and there aren't any issues with them. If we're thinking about ethics, I think thatTesla is worse.
At least as far as their ability to save us from climate death is concerned, you are pretty critical. What are some of the biggest myths about electric vehicles?
Marx is not opposed to EV. Electric vehicles have a role to play in addressing climate change in the transportation system. In North America, we have decades, almost a century of building for the automobile, and that is not going to be reversed immediately. If you replace a conventional fossil fuel vehicle with an electric one, I think we should still have cars on the road. Environmental benefit tends to be overstated. We act as though it's a silver bullet. There are a lot of issues with the electric vehicle that are left out of the narrative about the electric vehicle.
There are inherent problems with cars that the electric vehicle doesn't fix. Electric vehicles still have global air pollution because a lot of the particulate matter comes from tire wear and brake wear. Those things aren't different. Electric vehicles are heavier than conventional vehicles and that makes them worse.
There will be energy burn and emissions if the vehicle is not powered by renewable sources. The emissions come from the power plant where the vehicle is located. Lower income communities are where those are located.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't move towards electric vehicles, but we should be aware of those things. The main issue for me is the supply chain. What is required to make that battery? There is a desire to have us not pay much attention to this because there is a huge mining footprint for these batteries. The focus of these batteries has been on having a long range. Finding those minerals will cause a significant increase in the amount of mining that needs to be done, but all of that will have consequences for the communities that are around those mines. There are both environmental consequences and local environmental damage. They are better than fossil fuel vehicles, but we need to be aware of them.
Is there anything left to say about the company that people who pay attention won't understand?
One of the things that stood out to me as I was researching the book and going back and looking at the history was to see howUber emerges in this particular period where there had already been some chipping away at taxi regulations in the U.S. Taxi regulations were put in place to give cities control over the number of vehicles on the street. Control over that was given to them. By controlling the number of vehicles, you could make sure that the drivers had an expectation of earnings and that there were regulations on fares. There is a slow chipping away at that regulatory framework as well as the unions of the taxi drivers themselves. Over the course of a number of decades, the process of slowly chipping away at the regulation of the fare has been done. Drivers can still expect to make a certain amount of money.
There was an attempt in the 90's to remove the protections that existed in the regulatory framework. A lot of major cities didn't do that well. The campaign was funded by libertarian groups in the US It was established in the 1990s so that it could wage its war on taxi regulations when it emerged as an entity. It was written out of the rules. It wasn't a taxi company but a transportation network company. There was no limit on the number of cars on the road. They completely destroyed the regulatory environment for taxis.
The company was able to figure out what that would look like in different cities. That is where we get the increase in convenience. Since there are more cars on the road, it's easier to get a ride in a vehicle that's been hailed by someone. That increased traffic congestion. A number of studies show that this is what happened. It had the effect of decimating the incomes of taxi drivers, but also decreasing the amount of money that drivers made as well. It shows how this company wanted to change the regulatory structure and the rights of workers to benefit themselves more than any other thing. More than a decade after this process began, we are starting to see those regulations being written into law, and that is having consequences for people in other industries who are doing other types of work as well.
The company spent $32 billion to reach a point of positive cash flow.
Marx is not sure of the numbers.
Do you think accounting magic is a sign of entrenchment for them? Do you think their situation is the same?
I was reading an analysis of those numbers by a long time critic of the company, who has always had the receipts. Part of the reason for their improvement in this quarter is that they are taking a larger portion of the customer's fare because they've increased it. Revenue is transferred from labor to capital.
It is not clear if they will be able to continue that approach because of the fact that the actual service that they provide is not as efficient as the traditional taxi service. When you think of the high executive salaries, the expensive HQs, the software teams and all these engineers that they have to pay that have really high salaries compared to what you'd be paying at a taxi company, it's hard to believe. They have a less efficient model of delivery because you have all of these vehicles waiting around, but the vehicles are part of a fleet. You don't have the same level of efficiency in keeping them as a traditional taxi company. For a long time, the company has been trying to convince us that it is finding a more efficient model, that it is finding profitability, and so on. It doesn't seem to be possible to follow through on those things. Its model is precarious because it isn't better than before.
The promise of self-driving technology and flying cars has been a major part of the company from the start.
That is all gone. Micro mobility is gone. All of it has been sold off.
At the moment, full self- driving is still the plan at the company. Even though they dropped Lidar, he admits that his company is worthless without it.
In regulatory filings,Tesla admitted that it isn't self- driving. On the other hand, there is a kind of public face for this autopilot system and full self-driving prototype that is being put out there. It seems to be an admission that it isn't the same. I believe that the ability to really achieve self-driving is not going to happen and that it is more of a PR play by the company. Major companies have admitted that they are going for level four self- driving instead of level five. It won't be able to deal with everything, but it will work within a sort ofgeofenced area.
At one point in the book, you said that Google has too much faith in its self-driving technology because it doesn't matter to them. They have a profitable business.
Marx said that it would become a huge revenue stream that would transform the business and that there was a general belief in technology. All of the companies working on self-driving technology really believed that it would be possible within a few years, because they had faith in the technology. They had to understand how hard it was to realize their goal. It just speaks to a bigger faith in technology that exists within many of these companies and even the society as a whole, that you just kind of turn these big data sets towards what you want to achieve. They eventually come up with a solution. I think we are seeing that is not reality.
Do you know anything about the Church of Artificial Intelligence?
Marx knows of that. I wouldn't say I know anything about it.
It is always fascinating to me. There is a lot of evidence to show that this was a guy who knew when he was selling a lie. There is an engineer who believes that we will build a God bot that will be so powerful that we will worship it someday. What do you think about the technology industry as a whole? Are people true believers or are they just keeping their cards close to their vest and making big promises?
Marx says that there is a mix. There are people who are more true believers, and more people who are just, who put policies out there and hope it will benefit them in a certain way. Silicon Valley is defined by its faith in technology and its ability to solve problems if we put enough energy into it. In transportation, that can be seen.
There is a desire to believe that all we need to do is to connect the transportation system with these new technologies, whether it's technologies to put in your car, whether it's hailing taxis from your phone app, or having a computer. There is a belief that technology will be able to reduce traffic congestion, eliminate deaths on the road, and reduce the transportation system's contribution to climate change if we use it. That has not been done.
The opposite has been achieved by companies like Uber. General faith is there. A lot of the thinking and approach to problem-solving in Silicon Valley is defined by that. I think there is a desire to ignore the politics and why problems are the way they are. Better technology isn't enough to solve these problems. It is necessary to take on the difficult political side of these problems because people don't want to engage in them.
The Boring Company is one of the dumbest transportation innovations of the 21st century.
Marx thinks it has a lot of competitors. It was founded on a stupid understanding of transportation and how it works. Most people who know anything about transportation would tell you that it wouldn't work. It is interesting that before Musk proposed tunnels, he wanted to build a second level on the highways in order to increase traffic flow. Expansion of highways doesn't actually reduce traffic. It's worse if you put tunnels under cities. I think it's appropriate that the first tunnel is like a Disneyland ride for fans of the electric car company. I don't think there's any sensible future for that kind of company and the idea of transportation that it's trying to sell
His idea of making public transport but with cars appeal to Americans who are comfortable with cars. I don't understand what he's doing
Marx thinks it goes back to what he said about the distraction that Musk has been able to achieve. To distract from the problems that the automobile has created and things that would require less car dependence and to actually offer people alternatives to the car and to instead kind of intervene and say, no, actually, I have these ideas that are going to be even better than that. He admitted to his biographer that the reason the Hyperloop was announced was to try to disrupt the high-speed rail project in California.
The Boring Company is trying to distract from efforts to improve public transit and have a greater focus on transit as a way to solve these problems with the automobile. He could have said, "Look, we're going to build these cheap tunnels, you'll be able to take your car into it." He said that it should be made so people who don't have cars can use it as well. It doesn't exist anymore. That is a good thing for him as an automobile manufacturer.
Apple is more sensitive to being seen as helpful and tries harder to avoid making promises that fail in public. They want to make sure it's perfect before they say anything. I want to know if you have thought about what you want to see from an Apple car. What can Apple do to make transportation better?
Marx wants to not see an apple car.
Gizmodo said yes. The thesis of your book is no more cars.
Marx said yes. As little as possible. I don't think we'll eliminate cars just because of the infrastructure. I think that the role of the company is to provide a brand for the car. A type of car is created for a person who wants to present themselves in a certain way. The auto industry has a long history of making cars that appeal to certain groups of people, but they never really made the tech part for the Silicon Valley folks. A lot of people with a car that they can identify with were given a car byTesla.
One of the things that Musk has contributed to transportation over the last decade or so is trying to get people out of cars. He wants people to take cars instead of public transportation. That is something that Musk has done. He has tried to make the Apple of cars. If Apple succeeds in getting into the automotive market, it will appeal to a certain market segment and will try to create cars that will encourage certain people to remain drivers and still own a car. I think Apple could find a way to discourage people from driving. I don't think they're going to do that because Apple won't offer a public transit service. Public agencies will have to come up with the solutions to these problems. I don't believe that Apple orTesla will lead us in the right way.
According to a lot of the evidence, Apple is going to make it even more difficult to drive with some kind of in-car system.
Marx said yes. We didn't see the car. We don't know what they're going to give us. If you look at their most recent keynote, you'll see that they showed off an update to their entertainment system, which is called CarPlay. This was not the only one. Even though a lot of regular drivers complain about the fact that these touch screens make it harder to adjust temperature and other things, the large touchscreen that replaces all of your physical knobs and buttons is something that was pioneered byTesla and then adopted by other cars because there was a desire to replicate this
Apple showed off a screen that goes along the entire front of your car, from the driver's side to the passenger side. It had information on where you are going, the speed you are going, as well as a lot of other information that you don't need while you're driving. Studies have shown that the earlier CarPlay and Android auto systems make people more distracted. When you see the systems expand, you make people even more distracted by turning the car into a phone so we don't look at our phones while we're on the road.
There are many risks there. These companies are assuming that self-drive has been created. Making things more dangerous is what it is.
It's been said that Apple has been working on self-driving cars for a long time. According to a recent report in The Information, they are not having a lot of success with that. I don't think it will have the self-driving capabilities that have been promised. It may have more screens that make driving riskier.
In an alternate universe, do you think we would be any better off than we are now?
Marx thinks there could be some benefits from that. I think that these companies have a reason to sell it like a vision that has the negative aspects of it obscured or not present in it's vision. The tech industry is just one of many that do that.
They made us believe that self-driving would create idyllic communities where we don't own cars and other things. Because of the way that society is right now, there are a lot of studies that suggest that more people will drive because they don't have to be in control of the vehicle. That will lead to more vehicle miles and travel, which will lead to more traffic congestion.
I am worried about what the data generated by those vehicles will mean for emissions and energy. When we think about self- driving technology, it gets downplayed. The idea that a self-driving vehicle wouldn't turn into something to track everything that goes on around it, everything that goes on inside of it, and to serve ads to people just doesn't make sense. It would be a negative development and they wouldn't want us to realize that before it actually gets entrenched.
There are hardly any self- driving vehicles on the road. Imagine if they were used by everyone. I don't believe it would be good.
Do you think the obituary of scooter companies is a good thing?
Marx agrees. Scooter companies have had positive impacts, according to some people. They helped to kick off a conversation about the distribution of space on the streets when they first came out. I don't think they've had the benefits they claimed The studies suggest that the emissions impact and the climate impact of these services were enormous because they had to recycle the vehicles so many times.
In the book, I identify how they took up space on the sidewalks without consulting the people who would be affected by that. One of the problems with this type of model is that it allowed companies to just bulldoze their way into VC, to not consider the impacts of their roll out, to not consider who was actually being served or the best way to serve the community. Whatever worked best for these companies was what it was.
Bolt abandoned a bunch of cities the other day, one of the good things about these collapsing companies. The vehicles were left on the streets and they couldn't be used. They will hopefully pick them up. Interest rates are going up as easy money dries up. The companies don't have the capital they used to. There is a chance that cities will be able to take back some of that control and make sure that there are proper regulatory structures in place in order for these companies to be able to operate.
I think there is a role for a bike share service on the micro mobility companies. I think that's correct. I don't think sharing scooters makes a lot of sense because they're more disposable and affordable, and I don't think they make any sense at all. When they are used in this scenario, they can be easily broken. I think a long-term rental service or incentivizing purchase would be better for those types of vehicles.
You are upfront about being a socialist and approaching your analysis from a socialist point of view. Do you think that fixing transportation is possible in a capitalist society?
Marx thinks it's a good question. In many places around the world, the decay of forces and desires of capital can be pushed back against in order to have good transit systems that serve people effectively.
The government has been slowly building these things over the course of a couple of decades and used the opportunity of the Pandemic to advance the plans to encourage people to cycle It has worked.
What would it take for Pete Buttigieg to get one thing done with the rest of his term as transportation secretary?
Reducing highway funding is one of a million things they can do. There has been a focus on that for Biden. Ensuring that there is a greater focus and more dedicated funding toward public transit systems so that cities can really start expanding those services, have dedicated funding for it, so that you're not just getting funding for like capital projects or building out subway lines
Do you think there are any transportation success stories in the U.S.
Marx says there are many. I am aware that Seattle has seen an increase in its transit usage. There has been a lot of investment in recent years in expanding the transit system in L.A. They have a lot of work to do. Even though there are a lot of obstacles in the way, it shows that these things can be done.
What should we do to fix transportation, and what are some specific things we can do to make it better?
There should be less of a focus on getting people new cars and cars with new technologies in order to address the transportation system's problems. You would like to see more investments in public transit systems so that they are more frequent, more reliable, serve larger segments of the city, but also have the kind of rights of way so that they are not being stuck in car traffic all the time. People can feel safe taking their bike to go places with the bike parking facilities. We would want to see investments in the rail system both to improve existing connections but also to finally build out a proper high-speed rail network in North America, which would encourage people to take those kinds of inter-city trips without cars.
We need to know that transportation is one of many systems. suburbia was made possible by the automobile. It made it impossible for people to get around in other ways. I think we need to focus on the housing system and how we build and create our communities so that people don't have to go to the doctor or the grocery store.
Improving the transportation system within a city or a housing system that is private can have its own problems. If you improve transportation and then the cost of housing goes up, you push out the people who would benefit the most. There are many issues that need to be considered. It isn't just one silver bullet that needs to happen because creating this did not just result from one action or one change. Better transportation is possible. It's just a fight to get things done.