Finding our place amid disruptive technologies

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Growing up in Colorado Springs in the 1950s I was, like all of my male friends, a car guy. We worked, dreamed and schemed, anticipating three life-changing milestones: turning 16, getting a driver’s license and buying a car.

A car meant freedom from nosy parents, from begging rides with friends, from taking buses, from having your life shaped and constrained by others. The open road symbolized opportunity, beckoning us to adventurous and original lives. Our cars weren’t just transportation devices, but extensions of ourselves. Our dreams weren’t revolutionary; in fact, they were perfectly congruent with the American mainstream.

Colorado Springs was an insular little city in 1957, and most of us wanted to go somewhere else — to Denver, Dallas, New York and most of all to L.A. We wanted to shake the dust of this crummy little burg off our shoes and split for the coast — and we needed cars.

And thanks to the remarkable synchrony between Detroit automakers, Washington lawmakers and state politicians, America’s private and public transportation infrastructure was perfectly adapted to our needs.

Detroit churned out millions of fast, comfortable and seductive cars, while the federal government funded the interstate highway system. No more twisting, congested two-lane blacktop! We’d zoom happily down sunny freeways to carefree, happy lives.

The 1957 Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer) yearbook featured an introductory photo of Interstate 25, looking northward. It’s early afternoon, and only two cars are visible. Beneath the image is a quote from Walt Whitman’s “The Open Road.”

“Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road

Healthy, free, the world before me

The long brown path before me

Leading wherever I choose.”

We took our long asphalt paths, and they brought us to unexpected destinations. Just as streetcars radically altered the form and extent of cities in the late 19th century, freeways and passenger cars recreated the country, with unexpected results.

As we grew into adulthood, freedom became bondage. Our glamorous cars became mobile prisons, trapping us into hour-long commutes and burdensome ownership costs. Public transportation options essentially disappeared, core cities decayed and we ended up trapped in cookie-cutter suburbs. Most of us left Colorado Springs for good, some of us stayed and still others (like me!) slunk back home after a couple of decades away.

It has been a great place to live and a great place for a car guy. I’ve owned a succession of SUVs for daily driving, as well as a couple of vintage cars. But the car culture seems to be dying — none of our six kids and 20 grandchildren believe that cars are intrinsically cool, or that owning a car sets you free. They’re just expensive appliances.

That cultural shift may bring autonomous self-driving vehicles to the streets much sooner than we imagine. Such a shift might reduce the number of vehicles on the street, eliminate traffic tickets, wipe out whole employment sectors (e.g., truck drivers) and otherwise reshape the economy. Its local impacts are uncertain, but it seems likely that the marriage of automobile manufacturing and autonomous transportation systems will not create enough jobs to replace those that are displaced.

Just as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon created and dominated vast markets that didn’t exist 25 years ago, self-driving vehicle technologies will likely be controlled by one or two giant firms — and they probably won’t be headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Yet in previous iterations of disruptive transportation innovations, we were at least bit players.

Colorado Springs was a byproduct of William Palmer’s growing railroad empire and its rapid growth was further enabled by W.S. Stratton’s expansion of the city’s street railroad system.

During the 1920s, before the automobile industry consolidated into a handful of giant companies, a small truck manufacturer briefly flourished in Old Colorado City. Around the same time, the Alexander Aircraft Company, founded and owned by two Colorado Springs entrepreneurs, built 923 airplanes between 1925-32 in its North Nevada Avenue facility. In 1928-29, Alexander was the largest aircraft manufacturer in world, but by 1932 the Great Depression had forced the company into bankruptcy.

Like it or not, autonomous vehicles and associated technologies are coming, and it behooves us to be players, not bystanders. Too late for me, though — I’ll just sit at home and mourn my long-vanished cool ride. It was a bright red 1956 MGA roadster. Why did I ever sell it? 

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