A sixteen-year-old stands in line at the DMV, waiting to take the driving test to obtain her license. Nervous though she is, it’s a fairly mundane affair. The others in line are begrudged to deal with a bureaucratic inconvenience, and the sense of “time wasted” saturates the room. Even for the sixteen-year-old, it’s hard to get excited about standing in line at the DMV. Yet if she passes, few other milestones confer an independence as tangible, as official, and as immediate as the license to drive a car. The young woman may not realize it fully, but she is about to experience a dramatic shift in her social life—A new autonomy in deciding where, how, and how often she spends time with friends, the responsibility of shuttling around younger siblings at her parents’ request, the need to find a job to pay for it all—It is a rite of passage into adulthood that millions of young people have experienced for generations. But what would happen to this ritual of independence if you no longer needed a license to drive?
For 70 years, dating back to Norman Bel Geddes’ “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, automated transportation has been synonymous with our most optimistic conceptions of the future. Now finally on the precipice of becoming a reality, few upcoming technologies generate as much excitement as the self-driving car. And why not? The implications are vast. Traffic congestion will vanish. Accident rates will plummet. We could work, relax, or sleep during the commute. Urban environments will be transformed through the accommodation of this fundamentally new mode of transportation. But while much emphasis has been placed on how today’s driving experience will change, we want to think about it from a human and outcome-focused perspective. The car has had a huge impact on culture in American society in the past 50 years- how can we shape it to have the impact we want, in the next 50?
Nearly three quarters of metropolitan Americans live in suburbs.4 This wasn’t always the case—it is the outcome of a centuries-long migration, first to urban centers during the industrial revolution, and then away into the burgeoning suburbs during the mid 20th century. That exodus, when new families began to move to the outskirts of dense urban centers in post-war years, can be directly attributed to the rise of individual car ownership.1 The suburban life, made possible through the ubiquity of the automobile, came to epitomize the culture of the era. The term “nuclear family” conjures visions of a family of four living in a suburban home with a white picket fence—the very embodiment of The American Dream.
The automobile didn’t just change where we lived, it changed how we lived. From our highest collective aspiration down to the seemingly minor triumph of a sixteen year old woman passing her driving test, the entirety of our culture has been shaped by the disruptive mode of transportation that is the automobile. Now it is about to be reinvented, and the rippling effects of ubiquitous self-driving cars will extend beyond the driving experience, beyond the amendments to city infrastructure, and have the potential to redefine society and culture, just as the automobile did during the 20th century. These cascading disruptions would be impossible to predict, but nonetheless important to explore, because it is not just our interactions with cars or environments that that will change, but our interactions with each other.
48 million Americans will be over 75 by 2050.6 As evidenced by Google’s promotional video in which a blind man “drives” to Taco Bell, self-driving cars have enormous potential to serve the disabled and the aging. The direct benefit to those in need is obvious—aging populations will enjoy additional years of mobility, preserving a level of autonomy. On a large scale, self-driving cars would empower millions of aging persons to leave their homes, resulting in a greater presence in the public sphere. This new independence of the aging class could serve to reduce the discrimination and stereotyping of older persons, a plight known as ageism.
“Older adults in the United States tend to be marginalized, institutionalized, and stripped of responsibility, power, and, ultimately, their dignity.” 5 Ageism has its origins with the invention of the printing press, when the wisdom and authority of elders was threatened by the duplicable printed word. The second major shift in attitude against the aging, according to Nelson, came with the Industrial revolution, which demanded a new and great mobility to seek jobs involving tough, manual labor. Older persons were less suited for this life, and combined with extended life expectancies, came to be perceived as a burden on society. These perceptions are reinforced by strongly age-homogenous networks—the result of institutional, spatial, and cultural age segregation.3 Today, the aging are at risk of being relegated to a “role-less, purposeless and devalued” life.6
Several strategies to reduce ageism have been proposed. One such strategy is to foster sustained and meaningful intergenerational contact through the creation of spaces where young and old can interact and build mutual respect.2 Another means of combating ageism is to restore meaningful social roles to older adults. It has been shown that “Observing elderly people carrying out a variety of social roles…override[s] the more restrictive stereotypes of the past.” 2 The overarching theme of strategies to reduce ageism is the fostering of positive cross-age contact.
The self-driving car may have a role to play in the fight against ageism. Keeping in mind some of the proposed strategies—the disruption of age segregation, meaningful roles, greater intergenerational contact—consider the potential rippling effects of the self-driving car. The aging will enjoy new mobility, relieving some of the pressure to relocate to senior communities that further segregate the young and the old. A greater autonomy provides the aging with the opportunity to retain meaningful roles in society. And greater mobility implies an increased presence in the public sphere, providing more opportunities for intergenerational interaction. Simply by providing mobility to the aging, self-driving cars have the potential to reintegrate seniors back into the public sphere, thereby playing a major role in promoting equality for an entire class of people.
Designers have long sought to address challenges of ever-greater scope and moral worth (think of the innumerable events and collectives advocating for “green design” or “sustainability”). Once we can effect meaningful change of this scope, we have a responsibility to consider the unintended consequences of our designs, or risk causing greater harm than was previously possible. By transforming where and how we live, the automobile has touched virtually every aspect of our culture. By transforming the automobile, we will redefine everything that it has affected. Rather than coping with emergent outcomes, we should use this opportunity to design a preferable future. A “what-if” scenario articulated herein may or may not come to pass, but by exploring the possibilities, opportunities to design a preferable future will present more often.
This article is based on course work at the Institute of Design, in collaboration with ID students Natalie Scoles and Knowl Baek.
1 Ames, D. L., (1995). Interpreting Post-World War II Suburban Landscapes as Historic Resources. Paper originally presented at the conference, Preserving the Recent Past. Retrieved August 15th, 2013, from http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/suburbs/Ames.pdf
2 Braithwaite, V. (2002). Reducing ageism. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons (pp. 311–337). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3 Hagestad, G.O., Uhlenberg, P. (2005). The Social Separation of Old and Young: A Root of Ageism. Journal of Social Issues. 61 (2), 343-360
4 Kotkin, J & Cox, W (2013, May, 21). Content Section Poverty and Growth: Retro-Urbanists Cling to the Myth of Suburban Decline. Retrieved August 15 2013, from The Daily Beast Web Site: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/05/21/poverty-and-growth-retro-urbanists-cling-to-the-myth-of-suburban-decline.html
5 Nelson, T.D. (2005). Ageism: Prejudice Against Our Feared Future Self. Journal of Social Issues. 61 (2), 207-221.
7 Tsao, T. C. (2003). New Models for Future Retirement: A Study of College/University Linked Retirement Communities. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved August 15th, 2013, from http://www.uc.edu/cdc/urban_database/aging/new_models_for_future_retirement.pdf
6 Vincent, G. K., Velkoff, V.A. (2010). The Next Four Decades, The Older Population in the United States: 2010 to 2050. Current Population Reports, P25-1138, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC. Retrieved August 15th, 2013, from http://www.census.gov/prod/2010pubs/p25-1138.pdf