Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Is the Self-Driving Car UnAmerican?

“If I were asked to condense the whole of the present century into one mental picture,” the novelist J. G. Ballard wrote in 1971, “I would pick a familiar everyday sight: a man in a motor car, driving along a concrete highway to some unknown destination. Almost every aspect of modern life is there, both for good and for ill — our sense of speed, drama, and aggression, the worlds of advertising and consumer goods, engineering and mass-manufacture, and the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signaled landscape.” In other words: Life is a highway. And the highway, Ballard believed, was a bloody, beautiful mess.

At the time, Ballard was still a relatively obscure science-fiction writer whose novels portrayed a future beset by profound ecological crises (drought, flood, hurricane winds) and psychotic outbursts of violence. His work notably lacked the kinds of gleaming gadgetry that decorated most sci-fi. But by the turn of the 1970s, he had begun developing an obsession with one technology in particular: the old-fashioned automobile. Cars had deep, mythic resonances for him. He had grown up a coddled kid in colonial Shanghai, where a chauffeur drove him to school in a big American-made Packard. When he was 11, during the Second World War, the Japanese invaded Shanghai and the car was confiscated, reducing the family to riding bicycles. A few years later, his world shrank once again when he was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where he remained for over two years. He emerged with a visceral horror of barbed wire and a love for “mastodonic” American automobiles (and American fighter jets, which he called “the Cadillacs of air combat”).

For Ballard, the car posed a beguiling paradox. How could it be such an erotic object, at once muscular and voluptuous, virginal and “fast,” while also being one of history’s deadliest inventions? Was its popularity simply a triumph of open-road optimism — a blind trust that the crash would only ever happen to someone else? Ballard thought not. His hunch was that, on some level, drivers are turned on by the danger, and perhaps even harbor a desire to be involved in a spectacular crash. A few years later, this notion would unfurl, like a corpse flower, into Crash, his incendiary novel about a group of people who fetishize demolished cars and mangled bodies.

Over the course of a century, Ballard wrote, the “perverse technology” of the automobile had colonized our mental landscape and transformed the physical one. But he sensed that the car’s toxic side effects — the traffic, the carnage, the pollution, the suburban sprawl — would soon lead to its demise. At some point in the middle of the 21st century, he wrote, human drivers would be replaced with “direct electronic control,” and it would become illegal to pilot a car. The sensuous machines would be neutered, spayed: stripped of their brake pedals, their accelerators, their steering wheels. ­Driving, and with it, car culture as we know it, would end. With the exception of select “motoring parks,” where it would persist as a nostalgic curiosity, the act of actually steering a motor vehicle would become an anachronism.

The finer details of his prediction now appear quaint. For example, he believed that the steering wheel would be replaced by a rotary dial and an address book, allowing riders to “dial in” their destination. The car would then be controlled via radio waves emitted by metal strips in the road. “Say you were in Toronto and you dial New York, and a voice might reply saying, ‘Sorry, New York is full. How about Philadelphia, or how about Saskatoon?’ ” (Back then, the notion was not as far-fetched as it sounds; American engineers worked to invent a “smart highway” from the 1930s all the way until the 1990s.) Ballard failed to foresee that it would be cars, not highways, that would one day become radically smarter, their controls seized not by Big Brother but by tech bros. In 2014, in a move that would have horrified Ballard, Google unveiled its first fully self-driving car, which has been shorn of its steering wheel and given an aggressively cute fa├žade, like a lobotomized Herbie The Love Bug.

In Ballard’s grim reckoning, the end of driving would be just one step in our long march toward the “benign dystopia” of rampant consumerism and the surveillance state, in which people willingly give up control of their lives in exchange for technological comforts. The car, flawed as it was, functioned as a bulwark against “the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society.” “The car as we know it now is on the way out,” Ballard wrote. “To a large extent I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea — freedom. (...)

The potential benefits of such a world are far-reaching. Self-driving cars could grant the freedom of mobility to an increasingly elderly and infirm population (not to mention children and pets and inanimate objects) for whom driving is not an option. Since human error accounts for more than 90 percent of car accidents, each year driverless cars have the potential to save millions of lives. Fewer accidents means fewer traffic jams, and less traffic means less pollution. A new ecosystem of driverless futurists has sprouted up to calculate the technology’s effects on urbanism (the end of parking!), work-life balance (the end of dead time!), the environment (the end of smog!), public health (the end of drunken driving!), and manufacturing (the end of the automobile workforce as we know it!).

But these are just slivers of the vast changes that will take place — culturally, politically, economically, and experientially — in the world of the driverless car. Stop for a moment to consider the magnitude of this transformation: Our republic of drivers is poised to become a nation of passengers.

The experience of driving a car has been the mythopoeic heart of America for half a century. How will its absence be felt? We are still probably too close to it to know for sure. Will we mourn the loss of control? Will it subtly warp our sense of personal freedom — of having our destiny in our hands? Will it diminish our daily proximity to death? Will it scramble our (too often) gendered, racialized notions of who gets to drive which kinds of cars? Will middle-aged men still splurge on outlandishly fast (or, at least, fast-looking) self-driving vehicles? Will young men still buy cheap ones and then blow their paychecks tricking them out? If we are no longer forced to steer our way through a traffic jam, will it become less existentially frustrating, or more? What will become of the cinematic car chase? What about the hackneyed country song where driving is a metaphor for life? Will race-car drivers one day seem as remotely seraphic to us as stunt pilots? Will we all one day assume the entitled air of the habitually chauffeured?

by Robert Moor, NY Mag/Select/All | Read more:
Image:Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection (Wayne's World).