When Will Cars Go Extinct?

A technology historian talks to Emily Badger about the decline of the car—and why most of us can’t conceive of it.

Last week on The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger had a fascinating piece on "socio-technological transitions," a term that refers to long-term shifts in technology. In it, she talks to Maurie Cohen, an academic who studies how societies transition from one technology to the next. Cohen explains that these paradigm shifts happen so slowly, over so many decades, that it’s hard for us to recognize the transition while it’s happening. He also suggests that "we’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning":

'There’s not going to be a cataclysmic moment,' Cohen says of what’s coming for the car. 'Like any other technology that outlives its usefulness, it just sort of disappears into the background and we slowly forget about it.' The landline telephone is undergoing that process right now. Your grandmother probably still has one. But did you even bother to call the phone company the last time you moved into a new home? 'It’s not as if we all wake up one morning and decide we’re going to get rid of our landlines,' Cohen says, 'but they just kind of decay away.'

According to Cohen and Badger, this process is already occurring, thanks to rising gas prices, cultural shifts, and "insurgent niches" of car-share programs and environmental advocacy groups. It’s a fascinating read, simply because it requires us to recalibrate the time scale upon which we think about technology. Rather than year to year, it’s century to century—something humans of the moment aren’t particularly adept at:

He worries that in the U.S., we’ve lost our 'cultural capacity to envision alternative futures,' to envision the Futurama of the next century. More often, when we do picture the future, it looks either like a reproduced version of the present or like some apocalyptic landscape.

In a way, the pace at which new technology emerges these days is exactly what’s inhibiting our ability to think holistically about long-term trends. If you’re constantly focused on the next product launch, it becomes difficult to recognize patterns in the larger scheme of things. In other words, we’re missing the forest for the gadgets.

The full story is definitely worth a read—check it out here.

[IMAGE: Arrow via Shutterstock]

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  • Robertcarter4132

    ok, i can easily see cars becoming obsolete but what will replace them?
    i mean if we backpedal and go back to using our feet, horse drawn buggies, and bikes then we as a people really haven't solved anything accept the oil shortage problems. 
    And along with all of this we need to keep in mind what will happen to the world if we stop using and needing cars. think about it, if we gradually stop using cars and fuel powered vehicles then oil drills will get shut down, trading with foreign countries will plummet, millions of people in the automotive industry will be out of a job and years of schooling will be useless to those that pursued that future.

    I think we as a people need to farther pursue electric cars and maybe go a few steps forward and start pouring more money into miniature nuclear engines. 

  • Skibb

    There's going to be new transport technology to replace cars. Also with the growing telecommuting trends and being able to do almost anything from your home like pay bills, do shopping etc. cars will indeed slowly become obsolete. Somewhere faster then in other places though. In many cultures having a car is more than a need, it's a status symbol.

  • Karl Smith

    Joining the dissenting voices already posting comments, let me say that although the car my one day fade away, personal transportation in some form will always be with us.

    I believe the best days of the car may be ahead of us-even in cities. Electric power and autonomous driving technologies can transform the car from a white knuckled commuter frustration wagon to a mobile urban lounge, extending and transforming the urban experience.

    I believe this so much, I wrote a book about it. Check it out:

  • Cameron Nielsen

    When will zealous urbanist progressives accept that the personal vehicle is very valuable and will be around for a long time to come, especially in the US which is so large? Lots of people would love to save gas money and commute time, but trading the freedom of the car for that is almost always a step backwards in freedom, except in the most condensed and developed big cities.

    Horrible pork transportation projects that are both unsustainable and impractical (like in CA) do not help the cause. While lots of us love to watch Futurama, many also remember the wisdom taught by the Simpsons' 'Monorail' episode.

  • Andrei Druta

    Not sure if I agree with the above written. First of all, with the landline example we do indeed have a clear winner in face of a mobile phone. There isn't such with cars. As far as I am aware the production of cars increases year to year and if we are talking century to century wise, gas will be swapped for electric. There is no other mean of transport that provides nearly same functions as cars. 

    Ofcourse something different may come up in say 100 years, then will take further 100 to fully develop, etc.... roads will still be there, vehicles will still be there too

  • Cameron Nielsen

    Yes. We would also do well to consider if our transportation fuel should be completely interdependent with our power grid. To say nothing of the morality of making vehicles less affordable or the environmental tradeoffs.