We live in a big country – Canada has more than 1 million kilometres of roads – and driving has been something of a birthright for about five generations of Canadians. Like many of my compatriots, I’m an enthusiast for cars, trucks, and motorcycles – anything with an internal combustion motor and wheels. Lamentably, I’m a bad mechanic. I have the dubious distinction of being the only student ever to have failed Auto Mechanics 12 at Centennial High School in Coquitlam, B.C.
But I have a passion for cars. My favourite vehicle was a 1957 Chevy Apache Panel Van, the former property of Ridgeway Plumbing. I bought it for $100. It had an inline-six engine and “three on the tree”, meaning not only did its transmission require manual shifting, there were only three forward gears (not, say, nine as you’ll find today), and the nearly foot-long shifter was mounted to the steering column, the “tree”. The keys were missing, but it was easy to hotwire using alligator clips and the two wires dangling below the dash. I gave it a new paint job using a can of blue C.I.L. house paint and a roller, installed an eight-track cassette player, and laid an orange shag carpet in the back. A friend painted R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural on the sides, along with “Keep On Truckin’.” To my teenaged sensibilities, it was a thing of beauty. I’ve long lost track of it, but as Neil Young sang in his paean to his Pontiac Hearse, “Long may you run.”
Even more than having and appreciating vehicles, though, I love to drive – to go places where I want to go, when I want to go there, along the route and at the pace that I choose, along with planned and unplanned stops, activities and side-trips. I love the feeling of having mastered every move that goes into driving well. There’s something wonderfully vital about a 12-hour solo haul, such as my recent Thai road-trip from Hua Hin – a town three hours south of Bangkok – northward 700 kilometres to the city of Chiang Mai. Watching the sun come up as I approached Bangkok meant that I’d beaten the city’s notorious morning rush hour. It felt good.
We are told, however, that something called “the future” has decreed that the era of driverless cars is upon us and that this will be an enormous boon for humanity. As the actuarial tables of insurance companies attest, we humans aren’t particularly good drivers. According to the advocates of driverless cars, by ceding control of our vehicles to impersonal algorithms, there will be fewer traffic jams, fewer accidents, less parking congestion, fewer highway fatalities, and less harm to the environment. It’s an impressive list and a coup of some consequence. Or perhaps it’s impressive insofar as we are willing to accept the boosterism of the technocratic elites promoting driverless cars.
Matthew Crawford thinks that in ceding human control over our vehicles, something crucial to our wellbeing may be at stake, and we would do well to pause and consider the directions in which we may be headed. His recently published Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road is an extended meditation of what the advent of driverless cars means for our culture.
The 360-page book is unlike anything I’ve read. It’s a combination of philosophy, autobiography, reflections on gender and family, cautions about the too-cozy relationship between big tech and the administrative state, a tribute to the enduring relevance of Alexis de Tocqueville in understanding American life, a celebration of the sheer joy of driving and motorsports, a defense of republican virtue, and something resembling a Chilton’s Manual for hot-rodding a 1975 VW Bug. For the latter, Crawford helpfully provides drawings and technical specifications for boring out the cylinders of the air-cooled VW motor designed in 1938 by Ferdinand Porsche. He also thoughtfully throws in the specifications for the necessarily altered crankshaft.
In brief, Crawford is a proud, knowledgeable and unapologetic gearhead, as well as an engaging and quirky writer. He also happens to have studied physics and holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. He thinks deeply, often and in offbeat ways about individuality and personal freedom and how these might be protected and preserved in our current times. One of his key ideas is that personal freedom requires that we accept – even embrace – a certain amount of risk in the things we do. Crawford thinks there is something singular about driving and our relationship with our vehicles and employs what he calls “philosophical anthropology” to answer the book’s fundamental question: “What is so special about driving?”
The answer, and the book’s central premise, arises from the quotidian fact that we are embodied creatures. That is, we are animals with bodies so that the world reveals itself to us not through theory and propositions, but through our senses and bodily interactions. Ultimately, what is at stake in the debate over driverless cars is the “disposition to find one’s way through the world by the exercise of one’s own powers.” One can instantly see how a technocratic elite that functions mainly on abstractions, often in defiance of physical reality, and is increasingly intolerant of dissent, would spurn if not fear and loathe Crawford’s central ideas. And why those of us struggling to hold onto our own increasingly circumscribed freedoms would find inspiration.
For, over the past 20-odd years, philosophers and cognitive scientists have come to understand that our actions and conduct are indeed predicated on “embodied cognition.” That is, our basic motor functions and mobility are ultimately the basis for even our higher intellectual capacities. Which suggests, in turn, that technology or processes promising to relieve us of seemingly onerous physical chores are actually threats not only to our freedom, but our ability to engage with and learn from the world around us:
“To the extent that we are disburdening ourselves, via technology, of being mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion, we would seem to be embarking on quite a significant social experiment. [It] should be undertaken in full awareness that our mobility as self-directed, embodied beings is fundamental to our nature…and to the distinctly human experience of identity.”
Crawford labels Why We Drive political “if we take that term in its broadest sense.” He thinks that the boosters of driverless cars are “unimpressed with pleasure as an ideal and suspicious of individual judgment.” In other words, they are promoting a vision that sits ill with our political traditions. Crawford argues that we need to recover and reclaim the joy and excitement of driving by exploiting the sensory-motor capacities we have developed through human evolution. Driving is, in a word, fun.
With driverless cars, we are about to change our status from drivers, individuals who exercise agency and find joy in perception, steering, navigation and decision-making – our very own daily form of captaincy – to passengers who are subject to a new system of algorithmic control with no room for human agency. We are in danger of becoming a new class of administrative subjects who will be managed by an “all-colonizing” technocratic elite. Crawford raises the perplexing question of why the world’s largest advertising agency, Google, should be making such a massive investment in driverless cars. The answer is disturbing:
“By colonizing your commute, the patterns of your movement through the world will be made available to those who wish to know you more intimately – for the sake of developing a deep, proprietary science of steering your behaviour. Self-driving cars must be understood as one more escalation in the war to claim and monetize every moment of life that might otherwise offer a bit of private headspace.”
That proposition will come as quite a leap if not utterly implausible to many, confirmation of long-held suspicions to some. For Crawford, the connection is plain and is essentially a matter of life and death, for driving is one of the remaining domains involving human skill, freedom, and individual responsibility. The experience of using a car or motorcycle acts as a “kind of prosthetic which amplifies our embodied capacities.”
Robocars threaten the human spirit, in part by eliminating contingency and danger from human life, substituting in its place the certainties of a machine-generated culture and the fiats of the administrative state. Many millions, convinced of the innate superiority of digital technology over the human mind (or at least over other human minds), will find those very features comforting and attractive.
Yet when left to our own devices, it’s quite extraordinary how we manage to acquire driving skills and negotiate driving conditions, particularly in urban settings. When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, a city of about 1 million, I was petrified by its traffic chaos. Families of four would weave about on a small scooter, while taxis, Tuk-tuks, and Red Trucks would stop anywhere to pick up fares. Cars would lane-split to take advantage of an opening. To save time, vehicles would dart the wrong way down one-way streets. Motorcycles and scooters appeared from nowhere and followed their own rules.
Eventually I screwed up the courage to drive and quickly learned that far from the chaotic jungle of my first impressions, the traffic in Chiang Mai ebbs and flows like a choreographed dance. Or perhaps like improvisational jazz, where the challenge is for the player to become fluent in the rhythms and riffs and improvise accordingly. Negotiating ancient, narrow streets in the Old City kept me hyper-alert. My motto became, “Expect anyone to do anything at any time.” The dictum serves me well, as one constantly meets with unexpected contingencies. Near-misses are routine.
I also embarked on what became a series of cross-country sojourns (Thailand stretches 1,900 km from north to south), often heading for the beaches in the country’s south. I discovered that Thai drivers are preternaturally patient with their fellow-motorists. Road rage is virtually unknown and, amazingly, one rarely hears a horn honked in anger. Driving there teaches the virtues of patience, tolerance, and forgiveness. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist culture.
The experience exemplified for me one of Crawford’s animating themes, namely that driving is not only about individual freedom but a form of organic civic life, a realm of interaction that demands cooperation and coordination predicated on “embodied cognition.” A sort of social intelligence is at work on highways and city streets, one in which drivers seek collectively to smooth the flow of traffic. In contrast to algorithmic rule-following, Crawford writes, “Driving a car in the uncontrolled environment of the street…is done best if we can rely instead on the ‘fast, frugal’ pathways of embodied cognition.” He elaborates:
“What human beings are doing when they solve problems together is very different from rule-following. What we do is continually update our predictions of the world, including others’ behavior, and modify our own behavior so as to make it more easily predictable by others. This is a cognitive strategy bequeathed to us by evolution… In such a scene, we are exercising endowments that are fundamental to the kind of creatures we happen to be.”
In this context, Crawford approvingly cites de Tocqueville, who pointed out that collective self-government is fostered by citizens engaging in shared, practical activities, the disappearance of which invariably erodes the bonds of civil society. In Crawford’s hands, the advent of autonomous cars becomes a “meditation on the meaning of self-government.” In the end, social intelligence – the collective practical activities of which de Tocqueville wrote – depends on embodied humans. It simply doesn’t lend itself to machine-executable logic. Nor, one expects, can humanity’s social intelligence improve when the settings in which it is crafted and applied are taken away.
The debate about the driverless vehicle, then, is about more than merely its costs, complexity, convenience or whether it can be made truly safe. It represents another battle in the ongoing war between technocratic security (or at least the promise thereof) and human freedom. A recurring theme in the book is the attempt by politicians and automakers to make cars safe and immune to human error. Dmitri Dolgov, head of Google’s Self-driving Car Project, claims that human drivers need to be “less idiotic.” In the public mind, automation is joined to the moral imperative of safety, neither of which admits any limit to its expansion. “Safetyism” is a closed-loop, designed to reduce human idiocy and increase human security by legitimizing ever-more automation.
Crawford has written before about safetyism, and how in pursuing the Holy Grail of “safety” a bullet-proof halo of public-spiritedness can be used to disguise what in fact are political and aesthetic preferences. He challenges the regime of infinite safety by raising the troubling question of whether computers and human intelligence can be made to work together.
Automobiles are incontrovertibly safer today due to innumerable innovations from seatbelts to anti-lock braking systems. But the historical shift in the auto industry’s focus from mechanical advances that simply work better and no longer fail catastrophically (like, say, rack-and-pinion steering) to electronic systems whose sensors and autonomous functioning shove aside human judgment has had the perverse effect of altering our “risk budget” and can actually make us drive less carefully.
The E.U. has, for example, decreed that by 2023 all vehicles must be equipped with audible signals that alert the driver to various dangers, such as lane departures and speed warnings. The danger is that some drivers may substitute the secondary task of listening to alarm bells for the primary task of paying attention to the road. This problem is called the “primary-secondary task inversion” and is a familiar problem for pilots in highly automated airplanes. Yet this is a bigger problem in a car than in an airplane. While pilots might have minutes to make corrections, a driver often has only a fraction of a second to “get back in the loop, assess the situation, and respond appropriately.” There’s voluminous anecdotal evidence from drivers that this deterioration is well underway, along with increasing distraction from touch-screen-based control systems that, by definition, must be viewed rather than simply felt like old-school knobs and levers.
Nevertheless, the design ethic of our age dictates that mechanical and physical realities must pass through increasing numbers of electronic filters before they reach the driver, a development that has attenuated the natural bonds between action and perception. Crawford draws on an analogy from hockey: “An expert hockey player’s attention isn’t directed to his stick, it is directed through his stick to the puck…”
In like fashion, a real “driver’s car” performs a similar sort of disappearing act, becoming a transparent conduit between the driver and the road. As motorsport fans know, human drivers can be very impressive when equipped with the tools to preserve the bonds between perception and action. However, Crawford laments, “What we have currently is a dysfunctional hybrid that makes little use of the exquisite connections between mind and body.”
The severing of action and perception in automotive design represents a larger truth about contemporary society: “In ever more areas of life, algorithms are coming to substitute for judgment exercised by identifiable human beings who can be held to account.” This is a sinister aspect of automated decision-making, one which places authority beyond scrutiny. The author cites the District of Columbia’s red-light photo-radar cameras. They were installed at intersections with the greatest flow and the shortest yellow lights, rather than those with the most accidents. The vast majority of ticketed commuters were from Maryland and Virginia, hence not D.C. voters. For D.C. politicians, notes Crawford, it was “essentially free money…insulated from political blowback.”
And of course, the case of D.C. is hardly unique. Crawford writes:
“We seem to be entering a new dispensation. Qualities once prized, such as spiritedness and a capacity for independent judgment, are starting to appear dysfunctional. If they are to operate smoothly, our machines require deference. Perhaps what is required is an adaptation of the human spirit, to make it more smoothly compatible with a world that is to be run by a bureaucracy of machines.”
In this age of algorithms, driving recommends itself as one way to fight this enervation of the human spirit. We are animals with bodies, and to drive is to exercise our skill at being free, to display our competence, to accelerate for the sheer joy of it, and to negate the technocrats who strive to make our lives idiot-proof and safe. Crawford convincingly and eloquently argues in this delightfully original and entertaining book that driving is a skill worth preserving.
For my part, I intend to remain captain, navigator, helmsman and event planner of my personal bubble of freedom for as long as driven cars remain available and my health allows. Our country and our continent hold many of the world’s finest drives. Use your freedom while you still have it.
Patrick Keeney is Associate Editor of C2C Journal.