The strange obsession with innovation

By Pearl Ahrens and Christian Wolmar

Innovation has become something of a buzzword in recent years. From Uber to Deliveroo, autonomous cars to Hyperloop, innovation in the field of transport technology is spreading fast into cities, and in some cases supported by regulatory changes. There are many claims that these technologies are disruptive, but despite the constant media focus, should we actually take any of these ideas seriously?

Those promoting these innovative ideas usually gloss over the tough questions, such as whether they are economically feasible, offer solutions to existing transport problems and genuinely have the capability to provide mass transit. Moreover, they need to be assessed in terms of whether they can play a role in a decarbonised transport system. In this article, we address four innovative ideas and assess them in relation to these key factors, ultimately considering whether they’re a distraction from the search for solutions or worth paying attention to.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk is at the centre of numerous of these initiatives, featuring large in the tech and transport press, who gleefully lap up his every word on his latest developments in Tesla electric cars, SpaceX space travel, driverless cars, Hyperloops and underground car tunnels.  Elon Musk has been called a “Modern day Christopher Columbus”[1] for the colonial attitude he takes towards the natural environment, including space.  Whatever Musk does, such as his recent trip into space, becomes big news and that’s a problem because the agenda behind his many innovations is by no means benign.

While some may argue we should just let this man fulfil his fantasies, to do this would be to ignore the negative aspects of his notion that new technology is always the first place to look for solutions. As one commentator suggested, “Elon Musk styles himself as a guy who’s thinking about — and building — the future. When he says things, no matter how outlandish, people listen to him.”[2]  And what he’s saying is, for example, “I think public transport is painful. It sucks,”[3]  and he uses his money to push that agenda. For example, he has blocked new public transport systems in favour of his high tech solutions: Musk’s ‘Boring Company’ recently successfully persuaded local authorities to change plans for a much-needed new train tunnel in Fort Lauderdale into a vanity scheme exclusively for use by Tesla cars.[4]

Such decisions clearly run counter to the interests of rail commuters who simply want the trains to be cheaper and run smoother so they can get to work. One gets the sense Musk is a rich kid meddling in the way our cities are run merely to attract attention and promote his outlandish ideas. We already know the best way to move large numbers of people around: it’s trains, buses and trams. Existing public transport is better in terms of carbon emissions, cost, and efficiency, there’s no reason to overcomplicate the matter. Yet Musk’s extremely large fortune empowers him with the ability to determine the future for many Americans, despite the fact that “his vision […] is not emancipatory or even particularly innovative; it’s actually quite conservative,[5] and only caters to those who can afford a Tesla.

Autonomous vehicles

The most hyped transport innovation of recent years has undoubtedly been the driverless car – the popular name for autonomous vehicles – and consequently it has also absorbed the largest amount of investment. And yet, after a decade and a half of work, and quite literally hundreds of billions of dollars in funding, the prospect of a commercially available driverless car produced at a profit still remains decades away.

Again, the roots of the development of autonomous vehicles lie with a tech billionaire. In the late 2000s, co-founder of Google, Larry Page was fascinated by the achievements of several teams in a competition to show off autonomous vehicle technology. The competition was organised by a wing of the military called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense which was keen to develop autonomous vehicles for the battlefield. As a result of Page’s obsession, Google funded a wide-ranging programme to develop driverless cars and other tech companies, not wanting to miss out, jumped on the bandwagon.

Initially, Google’s autonomous vehicle subsidiary company Waymo anticipated that fully autonomous vehicles would become commercially viable in the middle of the 2010s. Conventional car manufacturers, became concerned that if Waymo succeeding in developing driverless cars, they would be able to establish a monopoly on vehicles the traditional driven car would become obsolete. If you can’t beat them, join them, and conventional car manufacturers also embarked on massive autonomous vehicle development programmes of their own.

The result of these development programmes was the integration into conventional cars of various driver assistance features such as automatic braking and lane changing which have proved to be excellent safety aids for everyday use on highways but are not really designed for use in cities.  Indeed, the concept of a fully driverless car able to operate safely and constantly in all weathers, road conditions and traffic levels has proved so elusive that even Waymo is now suggesting it may never be achievable. In addition, with this middle stage brings a problem that appears insuperable – as more driver aids are added, drivers become deskilled and lose attention, making the road environment ironically less, rather than more, safe. This was highlighted by the death of a woman in June 2018 who was wheeling a bicycle when hit by an Uber car being driven automatically, and as a result, Uber, and several other companies have now abandoned their driverless car programmes.

The optimistic announcement by the developers of autonomous vehicles that the huge road death toll from road collisions across the world would be reduced dramatically, even possibly to zero, has already shown to be a fiction. Despite the tens of billions of dollars invested annually, there is no confidence about the economic feasibility of the technology, and the huge sums involved, with no sign of a viable commercial product, only add to the sense that the world’s wealthiest men are merely playing with our lives.

 

E-scooters

The flagship innovation of recent years must be e-scooters. While they do not appear to be particularly high-tech, these vehicles not only exist in reality (unlike autonomous vehicles) but have proved hugely popular. Their decarbonisation credentials are certainly one up on cars.

However, there are doubts about whether they should be taken seriously as a mass mode. Responses from the transport sector have been mixed. On the one hand, some claim they are a mere fad, attracting such a small number of users that their reduction in car trips is trivial. Others suggest that they may become as commonplace as bicycles and lead to significant changes in many people’s transport choices.

Part of this is the result of confusion between two very distinct types of market. On the one hand there are the shared e-scooters, those big clunky branded machines increasingly being seen on the streets. They’re mostly operated by massive venture capital firms which struggle to turn a profit out of the business and consequently may soon disappear, just as fully dockless rental bicycles have mostly proved an unsustainable business.

More important, though, is the market for privately owned e-scooters. For these, the response from the transport sector is that they’re so dangerous that the Government needs to legislate against them. The claimed disadvantages are that they are dangerous to riders and to pedestrians, they discourage walking trips and therefore increase obesity, and consequently opponents suggest that they should be made illegal. All this negativity doesn’t seem to factor that 70 per cent of the UK population already own cars which are far more dangerous.

A strategic middle route seems the most justified: e-scooters may not attract a large percentage of trips and they’re certainly not the key to unlocking a whole decarbonised transport system. But they are, at least, a positive development which cyclists and pedestrians can use as leverage to expand the coalition of road users fighting for safer streets. That way, even if the e-scooter fad ends like the dockless bikes – heaped up in rubbish dumps in China[6] – we’ll still have got some cycle lanes out of them.

Freight

Londoners have recently begun to be bombarded with leaflets posted through their doors promoting the likes of Getir, Gorillas and Jiffy. Building on the success of Deliveroo, JustEat and UberEats, these new apps promise that they will do your grocery shopping for you, and bring it to your door in an unbelievably short amount of time – 10 minutes or less in some cases.

If that sounds impossible, it’s not due to the technological innovation of teleportation. And no, in reality the workers aren’t dashing round Sainsbury’s getting your Kettle Chips and dips. The innovation in this case isn’t in the app technology, it’s in the organisational model of the operation. The companies have rented industrial units in residential neighbourhoods to use as delivery bases, or ’dark stores’ (on the model of Deliveroo’s ‘dark kitchens’[7]). This highly-localised network of warehouse spaces, combined with the wholesale purchase of supermarket goods from suppliers[8], produces a fascinating development in the urban form, exemplifying either the success of mixed use housing developments, or the extreme laziness of today’s consumers (if anything is discouraging walking trips, it’s not e-scooters, it’s Getir).

These companies might be new to the UK but their (un)ethical working practices are well established in other countries. Experiences from Gorilla’s operation in Germany show random firings, poor equipment and conditions, and major wage miscalculations[9]. In decarbonisation terms they don’t seem to be much worse than just walking to the shops – companies often provide branded electric bikes or mopeds for the workers. But a mass replacement for shopping this is not, as the item limit makes it an inefficient way to purchase goods. The jury’s out on the cost, but as long as they can find a way to make a profit and raise working conditions, they might be on to a winner.

Driverless freight

The obsession with tech above all other considerations is neatly encapsulated by attempts to provide autonomous delivery of freight. Not satisfied with overcomplicating the car, tech developers have taken it upon themselves to overengineer the job of a cycle courier. Amazon seems to be funnelling serious amounts of money into its ‘delivery drone’ programme, developing complicated technology in-house[10] and gaining permission from American airspace authorities to test them out. Unlike military drones which are usually remote controlled, the vehicles are supposed to be autonomous[11], using sensors and cameras to understand the world around them.

In economics terms, this solves a problem which doesn’t exist – Amazon delivery drivers’ wages are already very low, and the cost of automating them out of a job is presumably higher – along with the costs associated with owning and maintaining the drones once developed.  Having been in the pilot stage for years now, it seems unlikely they’ll become a mass delivery mode within the next few years, if at all.

Nevertheless, there are autonomous freight vehicles being tested in the world right now. Undeterred by the strong negative reaction to their video advert in 2019, which showed the REV-1 autonomous delivery robot trundling along in a bike lane, earlier this summer these vehicles appeared on the streets of Austin, Texas[12]. While bike lanes are only installed on streets as the result of years of campaigning by cycle activists, and are a simple solution to the serious problem of road danger from motor vehicles, tech developers clearly see this life-saving infrastructure as a place to test out pet projects like unmanned delivery robots.

As one commentator neatly described it, “highway agencies, businesses, and law enforcement see bike lanes and sidewalks as disposable places. They use them as convenient dumping grounds for things they don’t want obstructing motor vehicle lanes.”[13]

 

For a long time, cities have been planned to facilitate the movement of cars, not people. We can see evidence of this all around us, as the most efficient ways of getting people around – public transport, cycling and walking – are pushed to the edges of the streets and consistently, systematically, underfunded.  None of the innovations described above has been a new mass mode for moving people around – and so none of them step out of the framework that cities are for moving vehicles around, not people.

In decarbonisation terms, too, innovation is a distraction. For carbon emissions, even autonomous cars (which are all electric) pale in comparison to trains, which have been running efficiently on electricity for decades. None of these innovations seems to be attempts to work towards the decarbonisation agenda. The economic feasibility of most, if not all, of these innovations takes a back foot to the whims of the wealthiest men in the United States.

Silicon Valley frames the world in terms of “problems” and “solutions”. And it’s true that capacity on urban and inter-urban transport is a problem right now. But to solve it, we should take inspiration from ‘Occam’s razor’ rather than Musk’s overengineered ideas, that is, the simplest solution is often the best.

 

[1] https://www.facebook.com/VersoBks/posts/1979636052069682/

[2] https://mailchi.mp/techwontsave.us/elon-musk-is-stalling-the-future?fbclid=IwAR1EBEhK1yBFC30sxq-YeD7I6t2sXD6eURV5w8UaSAlB0_l1ZInVab1N254

[3] https://www.wired.com/story/elon-musk-awkward-dislike-mass-transit/

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/emails-how-elon-musk-boring-company-got-fort-lauderdale-loop-2021-7?r=US&IR=T

[5] https://jacobinmag.com/2018/02/elon-musk-hyperloop-public-transit-tech

[6] https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/03/bike-share-oversupply-in-china-huge-piles-of-abandoned-and-broken-bicycles/556268/

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47978759

[8] https://www.uktech.news/news/getir-10-minute-grocery-delivery-service-enters-london-20210202

[9] https://braveneweurope.com/gig-economy-project-the-gorillas-revolt-interview-with-zeynep-karlidag

[10] https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/05/a-first-look-at-amazons-new-delivery-drone/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAEHnlCeH7fV3ebgYhYKmele_7XkHNlU7J0_HATlHBJPjpGqXff79pfaHQ0xHeXQeFCLZcw5NbLMxV2XCMSPvrVQssTUjotEM9726vi6qWINcx8GJFacxxcB07lhI3xqXQ5YDO83ICxaiOnrd3sS5JJXSrNFbHBYRKkAy3yQ1Fu3q

[11] https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/05/a-first-look-at-amazons-new-delivery-drone/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAEHnlCeH7fV3ebgYhYKmele_7XkHNlU7J0_HATlHBJPjpGqXff79pfaHQ0xHeXQeFCLZcw5NbLMxV2XCMSPvrVQssTUjotEM9726vi6qWINcx8GJFacxxcB07lhI3xqXQ5YDO83ICxaiOnrd3sS5JJXSrNFbHBYRKkAy3yQ1Fu3q

[12] https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2021/06/cyclists-split-on-sharing-bike-lanes-with-pizza-delivery-robots/

[13] http://www.kostelecplanning.com/coming-obstructions-botsinbikelane/