The introduction of self-driving cars may transfigure American culture in unsettling ways we have not seen in the last half century. Driving skills are generations deep now in the United States. Learned from our fathers, mothers or other adults, we have naturally adopted the memes of our family, friends and other drivers. Our driving style, now mutli-generational, is an integral part of our American upbringing and reflects not only our personality but even more so our culture. Each human active in a driving society fits into a cultural spectrum with their particular style and habits that earns him some degree of admiration or discredit.
Every national culture has its unique driving personality reflecting a basic nature of that society. It defines appropriate road behavior, reflected in the degree of aggression, tolerance and courtesy. Yelling, gesturing and frequent horn blowing are normal in many Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures. While I was riding in a taxi in Vietnam, the driver glanced a cyclist knocking him to the pavement. The reaction of the driver was to laugh while continuing on his way and checking out the cyclist in the rear view mirror. I was appalled.
We constantly evaluate other drivers by comparing our ‘superior’ abilities to their shortcomings. “Jersey driver” was a common criticism of irregular or discourteous drivers in Pennsylvania regardless of the state shown on the car’s license plate. Our individual driving style changes to reflect our state of mind. We hurry by driving fast and running yellow lights or cruise leasurly enjoying the music on the sound system while taking in the scenery. We feel the road, the cross wind blowing, choose when to dim our headlights or use turn signals. Driving, like more obvious social activities, involves us in consequential experience and community.
Every day millions of us command deadly weapons that are as potent as any gun. During our routine commute we generally exercise our conditioned discipline to respect the lives and property of others. We give way to bicycles and pedestrians. We signal our intent or turn or change lanes to avoid killing unknown innocents and ourselves. It is a subconscious reality in our lives, a prime directive we accept that shapes our cultural personality both behind the wheel and in broader social contexts. In the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, a favorite scene of mine has a boyish Christoprher Walken telling Woody about his dark fantasy of driving at night and intentionally steering his car into oncoming headlights. This is a choice he knows he has but one that he has never acted upon. He has an unsettling need to affirm this power and by not acting on this fantasy he acknowledges his desire to continue living in this physical world.
Though routine and almost unknowingly, everyday we make hundreds of decisions through a maze of roads and traffic signals to get to our workplaces and to again return to our homes. Every turn is a choice that we can make or not. Watching the road, avoiding obstacles and potholes, tree limbs or dead animals makes us participants in a larger world. Somewhere in our minds we must know that at any moment we can choose to not make that turn, to break out of the pack and drive toward the horizon to a new place and maybe a new life. Our automobiles serve both as the tumbrel to our daily grind and our cruise ship of escape. It is a tool of dull necessity and a means to discovery and pleasurable distraction.
Driving puts us in a community of shared cultural values, expectations and manners. It was once common for drivers to flash their headlights at oncoming drivers to warn them they were approaching a police radar trap. We likewise would be criticized if we failed to demonstrate the courtesy or skills expected. We acknowledge all cars on the road with the same prerogative, rightfully having equal access. We yield to the first arrival at stop sign intersections, regardless of the race or gender of the driver, age, cost or condition of the vehicle. We understand and accept that these rules are best for us all. Driving has become the practiced egalitarianism intended by our founding fathers. “All cars are created equal.” In Russia the wealthy in their expensive cars will fragrantly hog the road and ignore speed restrictions and traffic signals.
Routinely wielding such high tech weapons of horsepower and mass gives us real authority in our media-driven world that increasingly tends to control our thoughts and actions. If we are shuttled to work in an autonomous machine, we will be less a participant, less an individual in our community and less active in making choices and exercising control in our lives. The feeling of being unacknowledged cogs in the great gears of civilization will be further promoted. Though the stress and drudge of commuting will be automated, we may ultimately feel less significant.
To give up this community, this cultural personality, this routine daily accomplishment, could be disastrous to the American psyche. We will be physically safer on the road. We may feel freer having that time to read, watch videos or imbibe in drink and drugs. Becoming solitary passive passengers will create more isolation and less community than even a bus or train ride provides. This could increase national malaise and feelings of helplessness leading to increased despondency or depression. We may find ourselves requiring yet more self-medication as robotic driving will make us more isolated and psychologically vulnerable.
Owning a gun gives some, no doubt, an exaggerated feeling of empowerment. Might driving a car or pickup truck as well give a similar sense of control? I am not a Luddite. I do not wish to stop technological progress. I only believe we should think about the consequences of such change and how we might culturally adapt to this new environment. Yet I expect we will happily and unwittingly give up this therapeutic sense of community, identity and control and rather believe that a life of unfettered ease best fulfills us.
Yet maybe this all matters little anymore. Maybe the age of the automobile is already ended. Maybe the automobile has already reached the utilitarian regard of a washing machine. Supplanted by the smartphone, maybe our significant community now lives in ‘the cloud’ and our individuality is realized and satisfactorily expressed through digital social media and customized apps. But how egalitarian is cyberspace? What are our responsibilities in that community? How does that on-line etiquette shape our broader culture?