How Silicon Valley keeps screwing up our national transportation ambitions

Rhett Jones over at Gizmodo has an interesting interview with Paris Marx, author of the new book “Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.”

Of course, the subject of that charlatan Elon Musk comes up repeatedly, and not in a good way.

Gizmodo: How would you rate the last 20 years of tech trying to tackle transportation?

Paris Marx: Geez, uh, maybe I can be generous and say like a D-plus, but I’d probably say an F.

Gizmodo: Well, that’s not too bad.

Marx: They’ve certainly had a whole load of ideas for transportation and how technology could be integrated into the transportation system to make improvements. But I would say in many cases, the promises that were made about those technologies simply weren’t well realized. Whether we’re looking at something like Uber and all 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. Certainly there was a convenience element to it. And as I think we’re seeing recently, a lot of people are finding it less convenient than it used to be. But on those other counts, it hasn’t really provided benefits. We could look at self-driving cars and how that was going to transform the way that we get around and how it really has not been able to follow through on that. And it looks unlikely that it will ever have the kind of wide-ranging impacts that we were told it would.

We can look at things like micromobility, we can look at Tesla, and the electric vehicle. The electric vehicle is certainly an essential contribution to reducing emissions in the transport system, but treating it as a silver bullet or as though it’s going to be the only thing that we need to do is wrong and misleading. Then we can also look at the technologies that have been integrated into the car itself. And that’s pushed less by Silicon Valley tech companies and in many cases are things that have been developed with with the automakers. And certainly there are some benefits to some of those systems like lane keeping systems and things like that. But if we look at the entertainment systems, these automakers and the tech companies who make things like CarPlay and Android Auto, their desire to expand the size of those kind of screens. Studies increasingly show that they’re making people more distracted rather than less. So I think that we’re not seeing a whole lot of benefit there, but a lot of potential problems.

Gizmodo: Everyone is just watching Tesla right now, anticipating one of two outcomes: it’s going to be the most valuable company ever or it’s going to zero in a few years.

Marx: Yeah, absolutely. Edward Niedermayer, who wrote this book, Ludicrous, kind of describes how early on, Tesla was very much this electric vehicle company and it promised that it was going to create this luxury vehicle and it was going to use the proceeds from that to make a more affordable vehicle and then use the proceeds from that to make an even more affordable vehicle. There’s this real shift, because there’s a recognition that that strategy is not really working and it’s not bringing in the money that’s necessary. Tesla has continually had problems raising the amount of money that it needs to actually get its cars out into the world.

And so that is really a moment when you see Musk starts to make more of these big promises, like autonomous vehicles, like battery swapping stations and things like that in order to excite investors to buy the stock, to inflate the price of the stock by expecting that there’s going to be larger returns in the future when these big promises are realized. And even just recently, Elon Musk said that if they can’t solve self-driving technology, then the company is basically going to be useless. And so you can really see how the company has evolved from this electric vehicle company into something that is certainly more than that. And its valuation is [dependent on] that.

Gizmodo: Do you think Biden’s instinct to keep Elon Musk at arm’s length is a wise move? Or does Elon have a point about the White House backing fossil fuel-dependent manufacturers and his other competitors?

Marx: Sure, I think it kind of makes sense for Biden to have Musk at arm’s length. But it’s not so much because Biden is supporting fossil fuel companies, though he certainly hasn’t embarked on the climate measures that he’s promised. I think that it’s more that the general mood on the tech industry has changed and Elon Musk, it feels like, has changed as well. But also, Biden has really come to power as someone who is strongly supportive of unions. And he’s talked a lot about that during his time in office. And the earlier proposal that they had for electric vehicle tax credits involved additional money for vehicles that were produced by a factory where the workforce was unionized. So I think it kind of makes sense that the Biden administration hasn’t been as close to Musk because he’s continually opposed unions and continues to oppose unions. And Elon Musk himself has become more kind of powerful and doesn’t need to have that relationship to the government that he once needed with Obama or the Trump administration.

Gizmodo: Tesla’s had this nice head start. But incumbent competitors and new start-ups are increasingly making progress. Have you gotten any kind of read on how Tesla compares to its rivals on an ethical level?

Marx: In pointing out issues that Tesla has had is not to say that traditional carmakers have never had their own series of problems. I believe some of the Japanese or Korean automakers, I think some of their plants in the US don’t use unionized labor. And the American automakers have had a lot of issues in their history with safety and have certainly had their own issues with labor, layoffs, and fighting unions. I do think, though, that a lot of the more labor-oriented issues are worked out over the occasional fights with unions around compensation and layoffs. Whereas Musk’s company seems to have much deeper problems. There are also very poor manufacturing practices that leave the workers at higher risk of injury but also result in lower quality vehicles. And the statements of the workers themselves suggest that Tesla does have a notably racist workplace. A lot of women have spoken about the sexism at Tesla as well. And that’s not something that you hear as much from the other automakers where [workers] are unionized. So I do think that if we’re kind of grading the different automakers, it’s not to say that the traditional ones are incredible and great and there are no problems there. But I do think that ultimately Tesla is worse if we’re thinking about ethics.

The interview is long, but worth the time if you geek out over things such as the intersection of tech, government, and transportation policy. Even if you don’t, it’s probably worth the read.

You can read the rest at this link.

Meanwhile, now that we know that Musk used his pie-in-the-sky Hyperloop bullshit basically as an attempt to kill high-speed rail in California, it’s useful to look back at articles (like this 2018 one by Kate Baggaley at NBC News) about the Hyperloop and marvel at how much Musk was able to get credulous tech reporters from our largest news organizations to believe every fantasy that came out spilling out of Musk’s mouth.

NBC News Headline: Elon Musk’s hyperloop dream may come true — and soon

Subhed: “It’s happening far faster than I would have ever expected, and it’s happening all over the world.”


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