What the Steamship and the Landline Can Tell Us About the Decline of the Private Car

Even the most ubiquitous technologies eventually disappear.

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Wikimedia Commons

This prediction sounds bold primarily for the fact that most of us don't think about technology – or the history of technology – in century-long increments: “We’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning,” says Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “If we’re 100 years into the automobile era, it seems pretty inconceivable that the car as we know it is going to be around for another 100 years.”

Cohen figures that we’re unlikely to maintain the deteriorating Interstate Highway System for the next century, or to perpetuate for generations to come the public policies and subsidies that have supported the car up until now. Sitting in the present, automobiles are so embedded in society that it’s hard to envision any future without them. But no technology – no matter how essential it seems in its own era – is ever permanent. Consider, just to borrow some examples from transportation history, the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar.

All of those technologies rose, became ubiquitous, and were eventually replaced. And that process followed a pattern that can tell us much about the future of the automobile – that is, if we’re willing to think about it not in the language of today's "war on cars," but in the broad arc of time.

“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.

“I think cars will kind of disappear in much the same way.”

They may still exist at the periphery (there are still canal boats out there). But, for the most part, in all likelihood we’ll move on. History is full of these "socio-technical transitions," as academics like Cohen call them. The history of the steamship has particularly influenced this line of thinking. Society spent a good hundred years transitioning from the sailing ship to the steamship. “It wasn’t as if steamships instantly demonstrated their superiority,” Cohen says. There were problems with the technology. Kinks had to be worked out. Sometimes they blew up.

We often think of the car as having arrived with a flourish from Henry Ford around the turn of the last century. But the history of the automobile actually dates back more than a hundred years earlier to steam-powered vehicles and the first internal combustion engine. Early prototypes of the car used to blow up, too. People were afraid of them. You had to acquire a special skill set just to operate them. And then there were all the networks we needed to develop – roads, gas stations, repair shops – to make cars feasible.

“We tend to focus on the car itself as the central element,” Cohen says, “and we fail to recognize that it’s not just the car.” Like any ubiquitous technology, the car is embedded in a whole social system. In this case, that system includes fuel supply lines, mechanisms for educating and licensing new drivers, companies to insure them, laws to govern how cars are used on common roads and police officers to enforce them. In the academic language of socio-technical transitions theory, all of that stuff is the regime around the car.

“People who are part of that regime get up in the morning, put their shoes on and reproduce that system on a daily basis,” Cohen says. “So that system also has a profound ability to beat back any challenges to it.”

But we can already start to see cracks in the regime. New automobile registrations have plateaued in the U.S, even as the population has continued to grow. Rising gas prices have made some housing patterns predicated on the car unsustainable. Twentysomethings are now less likely to own cars and say they’re less enamored of them. The 1973 classic car flick American Graffiti, Cohen points out, would never be made today.

Within any social system, there also exist what Cohen calls “insurgent niches” challenging the regime. Niches are fragile, they’re underfunded, they’re stigmatized. The car was once an insurgent niche in the age of streetcars. Now in the age of the automobile, we might think of those niches as car-sharing companies or bike advocacy groups.

Some niches eventually grow to replace the prevailing regime, as cars themselves once did. But that process is equally dependent on so much more than technological invention. Look at how the cell phone has evolved to replace the landline. Our need for cell phones didn’t arise in a vacuum. Work practices changed. Commuting times got longer, creating the need for communication inside cars. Batteries got smaller. Cell phone towers proliferated.

These are the unnoticed events that happen in the slow course of technological transition. We didn’t even recognize that the car was a fundamentally new thing until around World War I, Cohen says. Until then, many people viewed the car as just a carriage without a horse.

“The replacement of the car is probably out there,” Cohen adds. “We just don’t fully recognize it yet.”

In fact, he predicts, it will probably come from China, which would make for an ironic comeuppance by history. The car was largely developed in America to fit the American landscape, with our wide-open spaces and brand-new communities. And then the car was awkwardly grafted onto other places, like dense, old European cities and developing countries. If the car’s replacement comes out of China, it will be designed to fit the particular needs and conditions of China, and then it will spread from there. The result probably won’t work as well in the U.S., Cohen says, in the same way that the car never worked as well in Florence as it did in Detroit.

We’re not terribly well positioned right now to think about what this future will look like. Part of the challenge is that, culturally, we’re much more accustomed to celebrating new gadgets than thinking about how old technology decays.

“And people don’t have the perspective that extends beyond their own lives,” Cohen says. “They were born into a society and culture where cars were everywhere, and they can’t envision – with good reason – living their lives without a car.”

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. But this exercise requires a lot more imagination: What will be the next carriage without a horse? The next car without an engine?

The above public-domain 1736 English Patent Drawing of a Steamboat is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.