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‘The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility’ Review: Future Imperfect

A rendering based on concepts in the NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, top right
A rendering based on concepts in the NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, top right Photo: Bloomberg Philanthropies

New York

If we had known just how massively the automobile would transform our world, could we have handled things better? And spared ourselves its unlovely byproducts—the parking garage and the freeway, the tract-housing development and the office park? The premise of “The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility,” at the Cooper Hewitt, is that an even more stupendous transportation revolution now looms, and that before we are swept along by events we should think what this will mean for our streets and cities.

The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Through March 31

Organized by chief curator Cara McCarty and Cynthia E. Smith, the museum’s curator of socially responsible design (there’s a job description that deserves an essay of its own), the exhibition brings together 40 projects that address different aspects of our “new age of connected and transformational mobility.” Some are already in use. Zipline’s battery-powered On-Demand Drone is being used to deliver fresh blood to remote parts of Rwanda. A prototype Hyperloop has already been tested, where cars have been hurtled through enclosed tubes by magnetic levitation at speeds of nearly 300 mph.

The variety is charming. A Starship Delivery Robot looks rather like a picnic cooler for Darth Vader—as well it should, having been originally designed to collect soil samples on alien planets and now reconfigured to lumber along the sidewalk delivering packages. Somewhat more disconcerting is the Canguro Mobility Robot, with a profile like a praying mantis (although we are relieved to learn that it “functions as a loyal robot”).

Zipline Autonomous Drone Delivery System
Zipline Autonomous Drone Delivery System Photo: Zipline

The premise of the exhibition, although never directly stated, is that our personal automobiles will soon be replaced by “circulating fleets of autonomous vehicles.” This would have immediate consequences for our streets, most of which are lined by stationary cars—in effect, linear parking lots. If the space taken up by parking on New York City’s streets were reduced by just 5%, we learn, an amount of acreage equal to Central Park would be freed. Parking garages themselves would become redundant. Gensler, the international architecture firm with an explicitly futurist orientation, shows how to design them for a productive afterlife. Their model proposal envisions a kind of open scaffolding into which, once the cars are gone, pod-like living units can be inserted. (It is a peculiar thought to design something to become more useful after its original purpose becomes obsolete.)

The most interesting projects probe the psychology of the driverless world in which we no longer can gesture graciously “you go ahead” or catch the driver’s nod that says he has seen you. In compensation, a team from MIT offers the Persuasive Electric Vehicle, a whimsically anthropomorphic object designed to be as adorable as a puppy. Its two headlights serve as mobile eyeballs, and once you enter a certain range they begin to follow you; if you pleasantly wave, it blushes bright pink.

The Future of Automobility (concept)
The Future of Automobility (concept) Photo: IDEO

For all these flashes of humor, a distinct sense of prudishness clings to these projects. Their futurism here is rather prim, conveying the sense of industrious designers working dutifully to solve specific social problems. There is certainly nothing of the rapturous abandon of those earlier harbingers of modern transportation, say Hector Guimard’s entrances to the Paris Metro or Otto Wagner’s thrilling pavilions for the Vienna Stadtbahn, buildings that seem to shed their inhibitions before your eyes.

What there is, in profusion, are attractive and marketable objects: “smart” street kiosks, a mass-transit shuttle made cheaply out of carbon fiber by a 3D printer, Solar Roadways that will recharge the cars driving on them. But is it possible that a great array of discrete commercial products, designed in isolation, will act collectively to bring about a better society? It is here where the alarm bells will start ringing.

The Artists’ Incubator (concept)
The Artists’ Incubator (concept) Photo: Miao He and Jiahe Chen

Only once does the exhibition explicitly evoke morality—and in chilling fashion. Out of MIT’s Media Lab comes the Moral Machine, “an online platform that allows people to explore ethical decisions made by autonomous vehicles”—a bloodless description of the process by which vehicles decide whom to hit when they lose control on a crowded city street. Visitors answer a series of 13 questions that choose the vehicle’s reluctant target, based on the size of the crowd and the “perceived social value” of the individuals within it. I am not sure which is more unsettling: to leave morality out of the calculus entirely, or to crowdsource it.

And here is the hole at the center of “The Road Ahead.” All the great visionaries of the city, from the architects of the Renaissance through Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, had a certain vision of the good life; their well-ordered cities were the manifestation of well-ordered societies, where principled urban design would help bring that good life about. But there is little sense in the exhibition of the values and virtues that give a city its higher meaning, beyond the utilitarian functions of roads, water and sewage.

The Float Concept Vehicle
The Float Concept Vehicle Photo: Renault

“The Road Ahead” gives us future’s own showroom, and it sparkles with technological ingenuity and attractive prototypes. But a future predicated on product development alone, with little to offer the human heart, is a cheerless future indeed.

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