Although it long-seemed like a fantasy, cities and city governments across the country are now starting to reckon with the fact that autonomous vehicles will soon be the next reality. Given that the CEO of ride-sharing company Uber recently announced his plans to have self-driving cars in service by the summer of 2019 and that Elon Musk ambitiously aims to launch cross-country road trips in driverless cars sometime in 2018, there are many hard and fast social, legal, and economic challenges that cities are confronting as they prepare for the arrival of the next big technological transformation. What concerns in regard to social justice, security, equity, budget, public space, and infrastructure are now at play?
In order to better understand how autonomous vehicles will shift the transportation landscape, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) partnered with the Berggruen Institute to host a private workshop with experts on Thursday, April 5 at the USC Kerckhoff House. The workshop, “Technological Rupture and Los Angeles”, brought together 30 guests from academia, city government, the technology industry, and the private sector for two afternoon panels, discussion, and a light reception. The first panel featured USC History Professor William Deverell, UCSB Professor of Global Studies Paul Amar, UCSB Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies Jennifer Holt, and Director of the Aerospace History Project Peter Westwick. The second panel, which looked at how the city of Los Angeles is rethinking its urban infrastructure and the coming of driverless cars, included: Christopher Hawthorne, the incoming Chief Design Officer of City of Los Angeles; Vince Bertoni, the Planning Director for the City of Los Angeles; and Seleta Reynolds, the General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
Introductions from Craig Calhoun, from the Berggruen Institute, and Geoffrey Cowan, Director of CCLP, kicked off the salon. While Calhoun spoke about how driverless cars fit into the Institute’s broader interest in mega societal shifts, Cowan wove a story about the lessons gleaned from the transition from silent to talkie films.
The first panel then sought to explore how historical transformations, from innovations in aviation to advancements at ports, disrupted the social, economic, and political status quo. Shiva Balaghi, from the Berggruen Institute, set the scene with a short lecture on her research into Los Angeles as an industrial city and the growing connections between Silicon Valley and La La Land. Each panelist provided a brief summary of their research, to help situate the growing artificial intelligence and machine learning behind driverless cars on a timeline of technological change.
If there is one thing the presentations had in common, it was the idea that technological rupture does not take place in discrete moments; instead rupture progresses over a long, drawn-out courtship. Bill Deverell, for instance, argued that “railroad technology and railroad networks utterly transformed the United States throughout the 19th century”. He provided insight into pre-algorithmic times, when companies navigated complicated, extensive trolley and freight lines. According to Deverell, inventions that the public takes for granted today, from crossing arms to warning lights, were partially pioneered in Los Angeles, setting the stage for post-war industrial take-off. Deverell brought his research up-to-date, describing how today’s railroad story is that of containerization and struggling public metro systems, providing a perfect segway for Professor Peter Westwick to launch into his work on modern transformations in aerospace.
“It was not by accident that one of the first aerospace gatherings took place in Los Angeles,” said Westwick as he time-traveled from the advent of commercial flight in the 1920s through the innovations of the Cold War era. Aerospace funding from the U.S. government brought flood of contract money to LA, just as the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports have turned Los Angeles into a truly global city. Professor Paul Amar, whose self-confessed goal is to encourage society to understand the true potential of technocratic planning, took the workshop on a one-minute tour of booming port cities like Cairo and Rio de Janeiro. Amar showed how mega-projects and the re-emergence of certain strong ports has started to challenge the traditional international order, as well encourage more green sustainable infrastructure. In the last presentation of the first panel, Professor Jennifer Holt spoke about transformations in how society engages with media, such as the shift to mobile screens or the increasing presence of streaming platforms. Holt dropped some awe-striking statistics that reflect how much the traditional media landscape (especially of dominance by cable companies) has changed. For instance, there are now more Netflix subscribers than cable subscribers in the United States, “creating new means of connecting viewing,” according to Holt. Holt’s research on how technology giants, like Facebook and Google, have increasingly stood in for the public sphere itself, set the stage for thought-provoking post-panel discussion.
The conversation with workshop participants raised previously un-asked questions about social justice, environmental pollution, and unmentioned technological innovations. For instance, participant Phil Recht, Partner in charge of Mayer Brown’s Los Angeles office and leader of the firm’s California Government Relations & Public Law practice, brought up the work by California companies to develop personal airplanes, evidence that Los Angeles is always pushing the boundaries of the tech industry. Forbes technology reporter Alan Ohnsman used the Q&A portion to expand on the latest revolutions in the aerospace industry, like SpaceX drones. At the center of the dialogue were questions about if and how governments can regulate companies pushing the envelope on technological (and legal and ethical) norms.
After a short adjournment, the workshop resumed for the second panel. The panelist trio, comprised of Hawthorne, Bertoni, and Reynolds, opened up about how Los Angeles is designing a city blueprint for autonomous urbanism. Reynolds jumped right in, describing to the workshop one of the biggest dilemmas of autonomous urbanism, “It is not just about earthbound autonomous vehicles, but it is also about airbound autonomous vehicles.” Air control for flying cars was only the first puzzle that the panelists ticked off during their conversation; Bertoni admitted that he thinks often about how garages can be usefully converted when cars no longer need a building in which to live. Bertoni raised another important point, one about public education. For example, Bertoni argued that city planners are already thinking creatively about unused or alternative spaces, but since a lot of proposals in the planning department are subject to public review, many great ideas do not move forward.
Chief Design Officer Hawthorne is also grappling with “taking those mono cultures, like the [Los Angeles] river or the freeway, and asking them to do more than one thing.” Reynolds joined in, saying she is constantly excited about ways to reimagine the power of the street as a public space, especially because of autonomous vehicles. In Reynolds’ mind, with the advent of driverless cars, the Department of Transportation could turn streets into play spaces, bike lanes, or community centers at the flick of a switch. Bertoni countered by saying, “[First], we need to make a few fundamental decisions, like who owns what? [We need to define] ownership of streets, ownership of air, ownership of parking spaces.”
One of the most thought-provoking conversations of the panel was the debate about private innovation vs. public sector involvement. Reynolds sees her role as re-directing private sector services to service-poor areas of Los Angeles; she wants to make sure that autonomous vehicles and other mobility companies will take their efforts to places with low-income families. Hawthorne, when speaking about the battle between Bird scooters and the Santa Monica city government, captured the conflict in one sentence: “We face some deficits because as public companies we face limitations that private companies do not.”
Among other issues the workshop tackled were how to make autonomous vehicles more socially collaborative and less socially isolating, how to redesign the city’s layout, and how to rethink the city’s income model once parking and citations do not bring in as much funding. The workshop pushed all panelists and participants to think long and hard about how to turn transportation from a barrier to opportunity into a part of the city’s connective tissue. As the workshop highlighted, more work needs to be done to better understand what autonomous vehicles will do to notions of collective space and how the vehicles will become new entertainment centers. The workshop, which ended with a light reception, is the first step in the Berggruen Institute-CCLP project to dissect the next great transformation coming to Los Angeles.