When Will Cars Go Extinct?

A technology historian talks to Emily Badger about the decline of the car–and why most of us can’t conceive of it.


Last week on The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger had a fascinating piece on “socio-technological transitions,” a term that refers to long-term shifts in technology. In it, she talks to Maurie Cohen, an academic who studies how societies transition from one technology to the next. Cohen explains that these paradigm shifts happen so slowly, over so many decades, that it’s hard for us to recognize the transition while it’s happening. He also suggests that “we’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning”:


‘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.’

According to Cohen and Badger, this process is already occurring, thanks to rising gas prices, cultural shifts, and “insurgent niches” of car-share programs and environmental advocacy groups. It’s a fascinating read, simply because it requires us to recalibrate the time scale upon which we think about technology. Rather than year to year, it’s century to century–something humans of the moment aren’t particularly adept at:

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.

In a way, the pace at which new technology emerges these days is exactly what’s inhibiting our ability to think holistically about long-term trends. If you’re constantly focused on the next product launch, it becomes difficult to recognize patterns in the larger scheme of things. In other words, we’re missing the forest for the gadgets.

The full story is definitely worth a read–check it out here.

[IMAGE: Arrow via Shutterstock]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.