A future with fewer cars in cities and where changes in transportation will also be dictated by the needs of environmental sustainability. Jeffrey Schnapp, humanist, historian and innovation expert (he is founder of Harvard's MetaLab) offers a modern and at the same time fully aware – historical, philosophical and scientific – view on the future. We talked to him about how we will understand transportation in the Twenties, how the internet will enter the everyday life of vehicles much more than we can imagine.
Jeffrey Schapp, let's start from our cities. You theorized that one day cars will disappear from urban centers. Are people willing to go that far?
As it always happens, when there are profound changes in habits, restricting car access to urban centres has led to conflict and will continue to do so. We have seen this in the protests against the increase in fuel taxes (the so-called yellow vests), in the resistance to the imposition of congestion fees in London, in the opposition of small businesses to the pedestrianisation of neighbourhoods in Milan or elsewhere.
A matter of convenience, you mean.
Yes, but whose? And at whose expense? In a city like Milan where so many green spaces have been transformed into sidewalks or parking lots, the convenience of some does not correspond, for example, to that of children, pedestrians or disabled people. For a cyclist the convenience is to have lanes at their disposal, breathable air and respectful motorists, but this of course means a reduction of the space available to cars in the urban center, where the space is limited by default.
So how do you bring about changes like this?
There is always a need for a convergence between various different elements: a clear and coherent regulatory framework, fiscal incentives and forms of education and communication that reinforce the emergence of new socio-cultural models (because mobility, after all, is culture).
Sustainability has not led to major changes in transportation in recent decades. No one chooses to fly to their vacation destination based on how much carbon dioxide the flight produces, but only based on the price or duration of the flight. Do you believe that the increasingly urgent climate emergency will change the perception of this issue in the coming years?
That’s right. By nature, humanity tends to be reactive (not pro-active) so sustainability can be recognized and shared abstractly even by the majority of the population, but with only a minimal impact on behaviors. However, when the environmental temperature in the Bois de Boulogne regularly reaches 42.6 degrees this summer, when drinking water begins to run low in large areas of the world and when the acceleration of glacier melting will cause increasingly frequent flooding in seaside cities, the collective mentality will change in an accelerated way.
The real civil war of our time is about personal data, and it is asymmetrical: individual citizens do not have the tools to handle it
How do you imagine cars in 50 years? Small cabins equipped with an armchair, TV and an internet connection?
Cars will have their use in the future, but they will no longer dominate unchallenged over the whole mobility system as during much of the 20th century. In rural areas cars will still be essential, perhaps still owned (and not shared). But it will be more and more connected and smart and capable of semi-autonomous behaviors. Full autonomy will be limited to motorways and highly regulated routes. The city center will belong to pedestrians, cyclists and micro-vehicles, flanked by public transport.
Once upon a time we imagined cars that could fly.
The problem with flying cars is not technical: it is practical. At present there are about 1.2 billion cars and 40,000 commercial aircraft worldwide. Suppose 1 percent of those cars starts flying... a world in which the number of aircraft has multiplied at least 300 times does not seem desirable to me.
On the one hand we have super-fast, punctual and efficient trains, on the other small regional trains which are often dirty and late. Is there a democratic problem in the evolution of rail transportation?
Transportation is the mirror of the society in which we live, so the divergence you speak of has been strengthened more and more in recent decades due to political choices. Speed, efficiency and comfort are privileges that can be democratized or not, it just depends on the political will.
Mobility is increasingly moving towards network connectivity. This, however, implies a data and privacy problem of which there seems to be very little awareness today.
The real civil war of our time is the ongoing battle over the possession and management of personal data. It is an asymmetrical war in which individual citizens largely possess neither the culture nor the instrument necessary to manage and understand the data they produce. The usual clauses and security conditions that we all sign without reading have proved useless, we need legal but innovative solutions, that is, not blindly inspired by privacy standards which are already obsolete.
Some of the biggest problems regarding driverless cars are about philosophy, rather than science.
Yes, there is already a heated debate about the ethics of new technologies, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, where sociopolitical consequences of naive application of technocentric technology solutions is likely to be heavy. I am convinced that we must not only criticize and correct new technologies “from the outside” but also “from within”, that is, train our technicians with a strong ethical-philosophical sense. The same is true, in the opposite sense, for our philosophers who, alongside the development of forms of pure reason, must increasingly get their hands dirty with the application of know-how, technical or not.