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In 2015, Elon Musk famously said that there will come a time when it is illegal to drive a car on public roads. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”

 

 

For driving enthusiasts, this might be a harrowing thought. But way back in 2016, Vox polled Americans on attitudes toward self-driving vehicles. Among the questions it asked was this: “If self-driving cars are shown to be safer than cars driven by humans, would you support or oppose a ban on humans driving cars?”

 

Many younger respondents said they would support such a ban, with nearly half of those aged 18–29 favoring the idea. Though 60 percent of those aged 55 and older oppose or strongly oppose it.

 

While older drivers might associate automobiles with freedom, independence, and even adventure, younger people often link them to congestion, pollution, noise, and accidents — not to mention expense. Advocates of driverless technology imagine emission-free, empty streets used by shared electric vehicles that enable parking garages and service stations to be used for much-needed housing and open space.

 

This isn’t the first time a ban on conventional transportation has been proposed. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement to ban horses from city streets. Why? For the same reasons people are frustrated with today’s motorized vehicles — congestion, pollution from vehicles’, er, emissions, and health.

 

 

A Horse-Centric Economy

When we think of mobility by horse, we tend to picture a lone rider on a rural trail. In reality, by 1900, the U.S. economy was dependent on horses, an article in Microsoft’s Today in Tech, pointed out. Horses provided every type of public and private mobility — from pulling streetcars to delivering goods, to ferrying commuters to and from work. The number of teamsters (drivers of draft horses) in the country rose from some 120,000 in 1870 to 368,000 by 1890. Between 1890 and 1900 the ranks of teamsters jumped 311 percent in New York, 350 percent in Philadelphia, and 675 percent in Chicago.

You can still find echoes of our horse-centric culture in our language. Truck drivers are still known as teamsters (as is the union that represents them), we measure engine strength by horsepower, and the word “cab” harkens back to the cabin of a covered horse-drawn carriage, to name a few.

 

By 1908, New York’s 120,000 horses produced a staggering 60,000 gallons of urine and 2.5 million pounds of manure every day, much of it left on city streets. When horses fell and broke a leg as they often did by slipping on cobblestone streets, they were typically euthanized on the spot and left to rot in place.” Flies from horse manure spread deadly diseases, by one estimate killing 20,000 New Yorkers in 1908. A 1901 article in Scientific American stated, “the exit of the horse would “benefit the public health to an almost incalculable degree.”

 

Europe faced similar problems. In what came to be known as The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, The Times predicted that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”

 

 

Clean, Dustless, Odorless Streets

Progressive citizens longed for a horseless world with “streets, clean, dustless and odorless” that “would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life,” according to Greater Gotham, a book on New York’s history.

 

Sound familiar? That is not unlike the blissful vision proposed by promoters of autonomous mobility. Here are a few predicted benefits of autonomous vehicles published in Business Insider:

 

  • • Carbon emissions will be dramatically reduced.
  • • Traffic will disappear.
  • • Everybody will have more free time.
  • • Productivity will increase.
  • • Mobility for all people will dramatically improve.

 

Another factor leading to the demise of mobility by horse was the arrival of new rules for the roads as motorized vehicles began to appear in cities. Lanes, signs, traffic cops, and auto-only parking areas began to make city streets inhospitable to horse traffic. Prior to this, “Not only were the streets in those days completely disgusting and filthy, but there were horses and bicycles, and it was just completely chaotic,” according to the New York Times.

 

Will human-driven vehicles one day be banned from public roads? It remains to be seen. One issue will be how autonomous vehicles can work with (or around) their human-driven counterparts. New rules and changes in infrastructure (lack of parking, few or no public fuel stations, etc.) could render auto use impractical, if not illegal.

 

 

Unintended Consequences?

Autos, of course, solved the horse crisis of the 19th century, only to generate the problems we are trying to solve now with shared electric autonomous vehicles — congestion, pollution, and health. Today’s pollution threatens not just urban quality of life but the entire planet. It is doubtful that anyone envisioned the environmental and social impacts that autos would produce. Another question to ponder is what might be the unintended consequences of a world in which shared electric autonomous vehicles are adopted at a similar scale — lest we find ourselves in an even worse situation 50 years from now.

 

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