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Technology for a Future Car Culture

A Car Is for Life, Not Just Transport – Observations on the Driverless Car.

Paul Nieuwenhuis
Contributor: Paul Nieuwenhuis
Posted: 12/11/2013

"The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, incomplete." (Marshall McLuhan)

Many observers – including many in the car industry – treat the car as a transport mode, or at least they often present their arguments as if they do. In reality, transport is only part of the car system. The car is at least as much a cultural artefact; it is as personal as clothing or jewellery, a key part of a person’s image and part of the way they present themselves to the world. In addition, it is a plaything, a toy for people who enjoy driving, either as a way of moving through a landscape or townscape, or for enthusiasts who enjoy interacting with the car as machine, as an extension of the self, who enjoy the feel of acceleration, of cornering grip, ‘balancing the car on the throttle’. The car is therefore not just a transport mode; it is inherently different from public transport and only in a few respects similar to other personal modes such as bicycles, motorbikes, scooters, e-bikes, etc. For these reasons, even in locations where car use is restricted by congestion, or where ownership is restricted by regulation or space, many people still aspire to car ownership, or even own a car. Many cars also do not even fulfil that transport role as their primary function. People might own a fun car such as a small sports car, a kit car, classic or even something like a Ferrari purely for the driving experience, not for shopping, or commuting. Few visions of the future of the car include this wider functionality, with some observers even suggesting that such uses of the car will in future be forced off road into dedicated theme parks. I have yet to see them provide compelling reasons for this. Such arguments are often linked with ideas of self-driving cars.

In many respects, we humans now evolve with our technology as an integral element in that evolution. The car may well have become a key element in this process. In this way we have already been relieved of many of the more onerous driving functions such as map reading, where satellite navigation systems now help out, while other technologies warn us about lane departure, vehicles in our blind spot, and other hazards. The logical end point of such technological enhancements in the mind of many is the self-driving car. This, it is argued, removes the main cause of accidents: ‘the nut behind the wheel’. Leaving aside any legal implications of who would be responsible for the driving function, closely linked to who would be liable when these technologies go wrong – which they inevitably will – the key question we have to ask ourselves is: is this still ‘driving’? Driving implies, after all, a driver, a human agent.

By extension, should the self-driving car indeed happen, can we still speak of a car, or a car system? It often seems that we receive many technologies because technologists can deliver them, rather than because we need or want them. The thing is, a car is not merely a technological device; all these psychological and cultural factors are an integral part of the car as we understand it today. Therefore, any attempt to change the car system, such that it becomes a mere transport system, seem based on only a partial understanding of what the car means and is. And for these reasons, it is most probably doomed. There may well be in many cases better ways to provide personal transport than the car as we know it, but any future personal motorized mobility system will have to comprise most if not all of those additional social, psychological and cultural ‘functionalities’ for it to be recognized as ‘a car’. Some of those functionalities – notably the urban transport function – can also be covered by public transport, lower impact vehicles such as bicycles, and the increasingly popular electric bike. Such modes may increasingly invade some of the car’s current territory, particularly when the car is defined as primarily a transport mode.

It is interesting in this context that we have no problem relating to cars as animate. For example, few people fail to accept that key characters in films like Transformers turn from giant robots into cars, planes and trucks while in Pixar’s animation Cars, cars take on all roles. In Transformers and other films, ordinary household appliances become animate, while animate computers have become a mainstream device, especially in science fiction. This shows that conceptually we have no problem accepting machines, our machines, as animate at some level and worthy of personal and emotional interaction. This goes well beyond their basic functionality as machines.

The relationship of people with cars is very complex and Australian sociologist Sarah Redshaw, for example, explores the way in which cars interact with people at a socio-cultural level. Her primary interest is road safety, or more precisely driver safety as she explores how certain cars and certain cultural approaches to roads and the driving environment encourage some drivers to drive in particular ways. She highlights the automobility culture of young men in Australia, whereby not only their aggressive driving style, but the type of car they drive or aspire to drive play a crucial role. She argues that the car has shaped and is shaped by social action and interaction. This goes well beyond the car as pure driving or enjoyment ‘tool’ for the human toolmaker and tool user. The definition of what constitutes a tool and its functionality thus becomes much more complex, carrying with it a range of social and cultural values and meanings.

Over its history, the car has not only evolved in its basic mechanical functionality, but also in its social and cultural functionality, in the way it carries and conveys meaning and in the way it has transferred meaning to its environment. It is important also in this context to consider car and driver together as a single meaningful construct, or entity and even extending this into the driving environment. Redshaw, explores the meaning of Australia’s Great Ocean Road, an iconic driving road along the southernmost coast of the state of Victoria. Here too, a complex of car and driver meanings come together with this challenging driving road. A confident and skilled driver in a powerful car, interacting with this perfect driving road, thus makes for a near perfect construct of automobility; at least in the eyes of some. Expressing ourselves – both socially and individually – through our cars is part of our culture. Is it just me, or do the advocates of self-driving, or ‘driverless’ cars miss all these aspects of automobility, promoting instead a sterile view of the car as a mere transport mode? If so, we may as well get out now.

Paul Nieuwenhuis
Contributor: Paul Nieuwenhuis
Posted: 12/11/2013