BERLIN - Everybody should have a car like KITT -- the black 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that David Hasselhoff, in the TV series Knight Rider, fought crime with.
Hasselhoff’s character couldn’t believe what happened the first time he drove the car. As he was driving 140 miles an hour on the highway, a truck appeared out of the blue. And then, somehow, his car swerved to avoid a collision, all on its own. On top of being smart, KITT could also talk.
Pretty soon, there will be KITT-like cars out there for real.
Smart cars may have been pure fiction in the 1980s, but now it’s just a question of time before self-driving cars come onto the market. "The technical requirements are pretty much all sorted out already. The ‘auto’ is going to become what the word actually means – self, as in, it drives itself," says Mathieu Meyer, Global Head of Automotive for KPMG.
And these "autos" in the new sense of the word are going to jolt more than just the car industry: they will change the way we live and the way our cities look. They will also change economies. They are going to turn the world as we know it now on its head.
Car manufacturers are still keeping a low profile on this subject, however. At the Paris Auto Show this week, they’ll be presenting models of the kinds of cars we’re used to, just better looking, safer, and cheaper to run.
The main focus for the sector these past five years has been switching to alternative fueling systems. Driving this are governments in the three largest markets -- the U.S., China and the EU -- that keep tightening the rules out of environmental concerns. Another focus of this year’s Auto Show will doubtlessly also be how the sector can best emerge from the crisis.
The time may not be right to pursue the subject of the self-driving car right now, but the fact is that it will become a reality faster than cars that can run long distances without fossil fuels. "Fully automatic driving will be possible in 15 years," said Dr. Elmar Degenhart, CEO of Continental AG, a leading manufacturer of automotive parts, at a recent meeting in Berlin.
Researchers working on artificial intelligence at Berlin’s Freie Universität believe that it may happen even sooner, a notion supported by a recent KPMG study.
After polling executives at car and high-tech companies, KPMG compiled a scenario for the introduction of self-driving cars, starting with North America where traffic authorities are expected to have developed binding rules for the vehicles by 2014 or 2015.
The first cars capable of communicating with traffic infrastructure and other vehicles, could come onto the market in 2018 or 2019. The study anticipates that there would be enough such cars on the road by 2025 to help the technology break through.
The scenario is by no means unrealistic. Google, for example, has for over two years been operating a test fleet that by now has driven thousands of miles. Since May, the company has had an official license in Nevada to conduct test drives in normal traffic -- as long as a driver sits in the car, ready to take over control of the vehicle if necessary. California has now also given self-driving cars the green light: recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing test-drives with self-driving cars.
In Germany, Berlin and TÜV inspection authorities gave the OK last year and since then a VW Passat run by Freie Universität researchers has clocked untold kilometers in Berlin traffic – with a few glitches, but always with a human driver on hand to right the situation.
Hefty price tag
One thing that is less likely however is that the prices of the technology needed for self-driving cars will be low enough for mass production by 2015. Just the laser scanner – which scans the car's surroundings uninterruptedly for possible obstacles -- on the roof of a Google car costs some $70,000.
While some may perceive that as a significant roadblock, the success of new technologies depends on vision -- not perceived hindrances. If we cast ourselves into the near future, we know that “drivers” will not be using a steering wheel anymore but programming the car computer. Accidents due to errors or inattentiveness by drivers and other road users will hardly ever happen because the computer will drive the vehicle as reliably as planes on autopilot. This may well mean that cars can be made out of other materials -- lighter, cheaper -- than those used now.
That would leave the way open for a whole new interior design and use of space, and reduce energy consumption so that the issue of gas or electricity would lose some of the urgency it has today. Drivers would also approach a car trip the way they now look at a train or plane trip – as travel time they can use to do other things.
There are still plenty of issues to consider though, not the least of which privacy: "The question of just how autonomous a car is depends on the amount of data it can access. That means that car owners will have to impart quite a bit of information. More about us will be known," says Mathieu Meyer.
The KPMG self-driving car study lists "key players" as Google, Apple, Microsoft, TomTom and Siemens.
It remains to be seen which manufacturers will, as Daimler already has, leap on the bandwagon. But the big unknown is the market. Do car buyers want this? David Hasselhoff’s take on the KITT was: "I hate it. I like to make my own decisions."
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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