Sheer driving pleasure: The desexualization of the automobile


The advent of the driverless car — chauffeured by Artificial Intelligence — may be one of the most tangible manifestations of our increasing surrender to technology

When the speedometer on the dashboard points 240 km an hour, the landscape swirls by. Vehicles in the lanes seem to stand still. Locations like the Autobahn in Germany—there are no official speed limits. While driving through fast lanes, the navigation system announces in a female voice that “in 24km there is slow traffic over a stretch of 8km”. The slow traffic has become non­moving traffic and there is no alternative route. One might have to have to sit it out. On a radio station that only plays pop music from the 1980s. “Jump” sings Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth while all the traffic has come to a standstill. It is a somewhat surreal experience—the speed suddenly tamed by a traffic jam.

One can find great experienced drivers but in a couple of years they may no longer be behind the wheel. An autopilot will be. All major automotive companies are working on driverless cars and large technology companies are trying their hands on it as well. Nowadays, even a car mirror is not a simple thing but a highly engineered piece of equipment in which the number of digital components is increasing. Driverless cars will mark a high point in the technologification of cars, turning them from mechanical horse carriages into supercomputers on wheels. But is driverlessness really progress?

It seems an almost heretical question. Once passing the age of 30, questioning the usefulness of new technology can make us feel “old” — or be accused of it. Perhaps driverless cars will chase all hazardous and bad drivers off the roads. (How tranquil New York, Paris or Mumbai would be!) But it may also nudge regulators into robbing the ability to drive ourselves from those who enjoy it and are reasonably good at it.

If we think about it, robots and automation have eliminated jobs in industry after industry around the world — eventhough they have been replaced by new ones. But with driverless cars, people would voluntarily pay for technology that renders them unemployed as drivers of their own vehicles. BMW’s great slogan “sheer driving pleasure” may have to be changed into something like “sheer driverless pleasure”. Where is this heading?

Cars have always been status symbols: as much a thing to help you go somewhere as to help others see where you stand. But that status flowed largely from commanding that expensive piece of technology, being at the helm of it. Mastering a car meant that we amplified our own power and expanded our freedom. We could go wherever we pleased.

Driverlessness would, therefore, also mean powerlessness; impotence through technology, almost. Scores of movies have been made in which people used cars to impress those they loved or fancied. But it seems hard to imagine anyone getting succeding in that by flaunting a driverless car. Although it sounds intriguing, however, the de­sexualization of the car per se might be a reason for sorrow. Yet the advent of the driverless car may be one of the most tangible manifestations of our increasing surrender to technology.

A car used to be one of the most pointed expansions of our physical freedom and psychological power, perhaps second only to the sheer victory of a young child taking its first steps. Handing that power back to a computer seems a watershed moment. But perhaps only to those who have grown up in the period in which we were in the driver’s seat. One would not be surprised if our children will have little trouble adopting such technology. The entire car industry may have to be repositioned to reflect the transformation of its meaning if driverless cars will turn out to fill a true customer demand and if the legal roadblocks are cleared.

Obviously, there are huge advantages of driverless cars also. Traffic accidents, fuel consumption — even for electric vehicles — and emissions may drop. The traffic in Metroloples around the world would become a breeze if all cars were driverless. Imagine letting our autopilot drive us home while we nap in the back after a long meeting.

Would it be possible, to let our autopilot drive the kids to school on Monday morning, so one can stay in bed just a few minutes longer? Or picture a young couple flirting on the back seat while the autopilot drives them home after a party. Come to think of it, they might call that progress. Sheer driving pleasure.