“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 façade, 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.”
In a recent op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, President Obama remarked that in the seven and a half years he has been in office, the self-driving car has gone from being a “sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.” Automakers and tech companies are racing to put driverless cars on the road within the next five to 20 years. Some already have: Tesla’s new “autopilot” cars have driven 222 million miles, self-driving trucks have cruised the Autobahn, and self-driving Uber taxis are currently picking up passengers in Pittsburgh. In each of these cases, there is still a human driver ready to take the wheel in an emergency. The question, the automakers say, is just how fast, and how fully, the robots will seize control. The answer might surprise us; a recent blue paper released by Morgan Stanley bullishly predicted that by 2025 — barring a flurry of onerous regulations or an outbreak of public hysteria — the United States will have reached “a utopian world in which every car on the road will be autonomous.”
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?
In their new book Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, published in September, Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman find themselves wondering what it will be like to someday explain to a child “how the act of driving used to be equated with adulthood and freedom.” Without a need for driver’s licenses, the age of 16 will cease to be a demarcation between childhood and adulthood, a move that will simultaneously infantilize adults and liberate children (who will be able to “drive” as soon as their parents allow them to go unsupervised). Parents, meanwhile, will be liberated from hours spent playing limo driver for their kids. Professional drivers of all stripes — taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, delivery people — will lose their jobs, and countless industries will be forced to evolve. For example, Lipson and Kurman point out, auto-body shops will be incentivized to become 24-hour businesses, so that when your car needs a tune-up, it can take itself to the shop while you sleep and return before you wake up. In fact, any car or truck traveling a long distance without a human passenger will most likely opt to drive in the middle of the night, because the roads will be less crowded. If someone were to time-travel from the year 2000 to the year 2050 and arrive at the stroke of midnight, the highways would look spooky as hell.
The interior of self-driving cars will gradually evolve as well. Conceptual mock-ups tend to resemble the business-class section of an airplane, with reclining seats and built-in entertainment systems. Some predict that the two front seats will be able to spin around, so that parents can face their kids in the back, as if gathered around a dining-room table. When it isn’t doubling as a family environment, the self-driving car could become a rolling bedroom. It could even expand upon the car’s current role as a no-tell motel. Lipson and Kurman envision a “bed bus” model, “complete with shaded windows for privacy.” Since many riders will be all alone in their cars with nothing to do, the authors also predict that self-driving cars “could offer a comfortable new viewing environment for fans of pornography to immerse themselves in.” Perhaps their ickiest prediction is that, to relieve themselves of the loneliness of riding in a sealed-off little pod, passengers will pay extra for the “Meet People” option the next time they rent a robo-taxi, so they “could be matched up with other passengers of the same age, or with similar patterns of web browsing and Facebook ‘likes.’ ”
Back in 1973, the social theorist André Gorz noted that the logic of the automobile was ruthlessly selfish and bourgeois, because the fewer people who have cars, the emptier the roads are. “Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one,” he writes. The self-driving car is different in this key respect: In fact, analysts predict that the more of them there are on the road, the more efficient they’ll become. By coordinating their movements, automated vehicles will be able to clump together into “platoons,” which will reduce wind drag, like the peloton in a bicycle race, allowing them to reach tremendously high speeds with relative safety. They will avoid selfish driving, which exacerbates traffic jams, and they will be able to learn from one another’s mistakes, a feature called “fleet learning.” And because they will be able to communicate with each other in ways more complex than mere hand signals and honks, they will be able to begin radically refashioning the modern road network. Instead of stopping at intersections, self-driving cars could weave past one another; rush-hour traffic could conceivably swell to fill empty oncoming lanes, with lone cars slicing upstream against the flow of traffic, the way Brazilian army ants do. Our cars, in short, may finally achieve the state of swarm intelligence that has long eluded us but that the animal kingdom has been exploiting for millennia.
Proponents of this technology invariably promise that all of these changes will equate to our having more “free time.” But free to do what, exactly? A survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University found that passengers say they would spend most of their time in a driverless car looking at their mobile devices. In some sense, this future has already arrived: In a 2015 survey, roughly 70 percent of drivers admitted to using their phones to text, read emails, and check social media while driving. In recognition of this behavior, engineers have begun installing screens in the dashboards of luxury sedans, in the backseats of SUVs, and even on so-called head-up displays, which project information on the windshield itself. The overall effect is to give passengers something to look at that isn’t the road and its surroundings, which car culture has cluttered and concretized. (Before screens, what did children remark upon when they were trapped in backseats? Mostly billboards and other cars.) It cannot be long before the windshield is fully colonized by glowing pixels, serving, at least part of the time, as a kind of widescreen TV. Eerier still, the glass surfaces could all be programmed to display a highly stylized version of the car’s surroundings, by applying Instagram-style filters, incorporating augmented reality games, or simply fictionalizing the landscape into something altogether more scenic. If I were asked to condense the whole of the coming decades into one mental picture, I might pick this soon-to-be familiar sight: a man in a motorcar, riding along an asphalt highway while staring blankly at a glowing screen.
Our notion of cars as “freedom machines” is almost as old as the technology itself. It arose at the turn of the 20th century, although for the first few years, that freedom was primarily reserved for rich white guys. In 1905, almost half the cars in America were in New York and New Jersey. On fine afternoons, the city’s wealthy — the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys — would cruise through the countryside. Rural residents shouted curses as these “devil wagons” roared past, kicking up dust, spooking horses, and occasionally running over children. (“Nothing,” said Woodrow Wilson in 1906, “has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles.”)
After the invention of Ford’s Model-T, these expensive toys evolved into tools of middle-class mobility. Soon, farmers found that the motorcar (and the motorized tractor) had more to offer them than it did urbanites; the press of the time describe how the technology was uniting far-flung rural communities. Car ownership granted new powers of mobility to women and people of color (though it also brought them into contact with new prejudices and dangers). Around the technology grew a distinctly American ethos of individualism and personal freedom. As rehearsal transcripts for Henry Ford II’s highway propaganda film Freedom of the American Road announced, “Our ability to travel around this country in our own cars, anywhere where we want, is a special kind of freedom, a unique freedom people have here in America, not quite like travel anywhere else in the world.”
The ideological marriage of autonomy and automobility was not fully sanctified until the years following World War II, when car sales, which had been artificially suppressed throughout the war, exploded. “For the first time in American history,” notes critic Nora Donnelly, “American teenagers were free to invent their own identities. How loud and fast your car roared became the external emblem of self for the postwar generation of teens.” Car culture, teen culture, and popular music formed a virtuous circle: Teens made love in cars; car radios played pop music featuring lyrics about cars and lovesick teens, in rhythms that alternated between a slow cruise and a racing clip, tender one moment, savage the next.
The great irony of automobiles is that right when they came into their own as icons of freedom, driving began to feel less freeing. The country’s new, deadening infrastructure of suburbs and highways made it very difficult to live comfortably without a car, and also considerably less fun to live with one. Public transportation atrophied, the highways around major cities became choked with cars, and traffic fatalities soared. To countercultural intellectuals like Edward Abbey, Lewis Mumford, and Robert Pirsig, the freedom of the road felt increasingly hollow. The critic Raymond Williams aptly described the paradox of the highway: Each driver, sealed within the “windowed shell” of his car, with his own music and his own air-conditioned air, experiences sensations of “movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes.” And yet, when seen from afar, the cars are a faceless mass, dutifully following lines laid down by the government. The final scene of 1973’s American Graffiti — surely cinema’s purest rendering of car-culture nostalgia — poignantly captures this paradox: As Richard Dreyfuss’s character flies away for college in an airplane (humankind’s only true freedom machine, spatially speaking), he looks down, out of his window, at his friends in a white Chevy Impala, racing along a straight concrete road toward their variously dull and doomed futures.
In recent years, our once sweaty infatuation with the car has cooled, grown clammy. Some researchers are now suggesting that we’ve reached “peak car” — the point at which traffic growth on a per capita basis stops. Studies show that among people roughly my age — I’m 32 — fewer and fewer are getting driver’s licenses and spending time in cars. Meanwhile, we are more amenable to the notion of using an automated car than older Americans. A recent survey found that among the kids a generation behind mine, only a third believe that “a car represents freedom,” and just 6 percent believe that a car is “a reflection of who they are.”
In my life, I have seen the full arc of this cultural shift. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I got my driver’s license when I was 16. My parents gave me their hauling-stuff-around car, a beat-up 1991 Toyota 4Runner, fire-engine red, its fenders jagged with rust and its doors all full of dings, like zit-pitted cheeks. It had mushy brakes, laggy acceleration, bad fuel economy, and a colossal turning radius. At high speeds, it shook like a washing machine; on tight turns, it rocked like a boat. My mom (an unreformed Texan) had wired a set of bullhorns to its front grill. Among my classmates’ cute Wranglers and Jettas, it appeared downright demonic.
Ballard believed that cars were the medieval armor of the 20th century, projections of idealized selves, fantastical faces we wore into battle and courtship. For a scrawny, closeted gay kid like me, driving a freaky car like that felt like wearing a hounskull — a spiky psychical helmet, albeit one three sizes too big. Upon seizing control of the car, I immediately set about covering the bumper in stickers and wrapping the steering wheel in leather. Next, I installed a new stereo system with an obnoxiously powerful subwoofer. Some nights, when the music on the stereo matched my mood just right, driving became an act of meditative bliss.
Those moments of visceral pleasure were rare, however. Most of the time, I didn’t feel much of anything. This is largely by design. Our century-long quest to create ever more comfortable cars has anesthetized the driving experience. The interior of a modern automobile is bugless, bump-free, lukewarm. The only scents are mechanical and synthetic, save for the occasional, poltergeistal appearance of animal shit, skunk spray, or rotting carcasses. Daily driving renders the automotive experience less Kerouackian than Houellebecqian: “peaceful and joyless, completely neutral.” Arriving home from school or my after-school job, I was often stunned to find myself in the driver’s seat, as if awakening from a drunken blackout and discovering that I did not remember a single moment that preceded it. This experience of mental autopilot is so common that psychologists have given it a name: driving without awareness, or DWA. Many readers currently blanch at the news that the roads will one day be filled with cars hurtling brainlessly along at high speed. But those people fail to realize one thing: They already are.
As I grew older, my distaste for the macho pretensions of car culture crystallized into something like horror. Cars may no longer be solely for playboys tearing through the countryside inspiring Trotskyism, but the technology remains unjust. Driving correlates with obesity rates, which, separate studies have shown, correlate with poverty rates. Heavy street traffic lowers real-estate values, and the people who live on those streets tend to spend less time outside and have worse relationships with neighbors. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death worldwide for people ages 15 to 29. Emissions have a disproportionate effect on the health of communities of color, and nearly 90 percent of air-pollution deaths occur in poorer countries. A quarter of America’s greenhouse gases are released by our transportation, imposing a future climate cost that will be paid mostly by the nation’s, and the world’s, least fortunate. Meanwhile, 80 percent of car capacity goes unused, which means that most cars on the road, which can seat at least five people, carry only one.
When I graduated from college and moved to New York, I left my car back home in my dad’s garage. In the city, I relished the unburdened feeling of moving through a well-engineered public-transportation system. Stepping out of the subway, I felt unshackled: no more searching for parking; no more insurance payments; no more car repairs; no more worrying if I’d forgotten to lock the doors. I had forsaken the freedom of driving for a new freedom, which others all around me were finding too: I was finally free from cars.
In the fall of 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet premier to tour the United States. Curious to have a look at the kingdom of capitalism, in all its glories and grotesqueries, he flew from the East Coast to the West and back again, where he patted a pig (he deemed it “too fat”), ate hot dogs (“Excellent”), visited a naval shipyard (“Good targets”), and watched Shirley MacLaine dance the cancan (“A mild form of pornography”). Near the end of his visit in San Francisco, he rode to the airport with the city’s mayor and encountered a gnarled traffic jam, which stretched on for five miles. Khrushchev noticed that most of the cars held only one passenger; he called such an arrangement “a terrible extravagance.” The mayor couldn’t help but agree.
Shortly after returning to the Soviet Union, Khrushchev announced to the citizens of Vladivostok that Russia would avoid this terrible blunder. “We want to establish a system for the use of automobiles that will differ from the one in capitalist countries, where people reason on the principle: ‘The car may be lousy, but it’s my own.’ ” He vowed to forge a more “rational” system composed of “public taxi pools.”
Khrushchev’s vision never came to fruition in Russia. It devolved first into a plan for something resembling the world’s most inconvenient car-rental service, then collapsed altogether, as officials and then the proletariat demanded to be able to acquire their own automobiles. Today, in a twist that would have made Khrushchev weep, Moscow has become home to some of the world’s worst gridlock. Odder still, his collectivist dream is thriving in the Bay Area, the site of that original traffic jam, now home to the corporate headquarters of Tesla, Uber, and Lyft.
This year, the presidents of all three companies made public declarations announcing the imminent arrival of a driverless future. Elon Musk, the CEO of the electric-car company Tesla, announced in July his “master plan” to have self-driving cars that owners could rent out to other people when they weren’t using them — a kind of Autobnb. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick predicted that every Uber car will be self-driving in a few decades. John Zimmer, of Lyft, had a much more radical declaration to make: “By 2025, private car ownership will all but end in major U.S. cities.” Americans, Zimmer predicted, would soon relinquish their private cars altogether and begin summoning robo-taxis with their phones, which would be drastically cheaper than owning a car. As a result, traffic would lessen, parking spaces could be converted to other, more productive purposes, and people could use exactly the driverless car that suited their current task — a pickup for hauling lumber, a van for hauling kids, a single-seat pod for hauling oneself to work. Zimmer calls this the Third Transportation Revolution. As a self-professed car guy, he is fully aware of the vehicle’s history. He was careful to couch his argument in terms of freedom — but in a clever rhetorical twist, his service promises to resolve the dialectic between the old-fashioned automotive freedom and the newfangled freedom from cars.
What exactly is that freedom worth? In answering that question, we as a society will schism in curious ways. For those of us who see driving as a kind of imprisonment — which, spatially speaking, it quite literally is — an extra hour to work or play (or eat, or read, or meditate, or fix our hair and do our makeup) will be cherished. But for those who see driving as a physical expression of freedom — which, spatially speaking, it also quite literally is — the end of driving will feel like confinement.
The question will become even more complicated once it becomes entangled in the sticky web of partisan politics, which it inevitably will be — another sign of just how loaded the car is as a pack mule of American symbolism. Will the left resist driverless cars because they threaten to disrupt union jobs and transfer trillions of dollars to a few new privately held companies? Or will the right resist them because they impede individual liberty and undermine “traditional American values”? Already grumbles can be heard from both sides, but should efforts one day be made to make driving illegal — by those arguing, as Elon Musk recently did, that we “can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine” — this debate will no doubt reach a riotous pitch. Some on the right are already equating steering wheels to guns, making it plain that they will not give them up gladly. As political battles so often do, this rhetoric contains a gendered subtext: The nanny state wants to take away our cars, but real men won’t ever give them up. A satirical essay in the National Review last year gleefully imagines a movie reel in which some “gubmint man” has to go to Elk Groin, Montana, to “tell the lads down at the garage that they can’t drive their trucks anymore.” Upon arrival, the agent cheerfully announces: “Let me give you a web address with information about the new laws, fellas, and you can see how it’s just win-win for everybody.” The “lads,” it goes without saying, are not swayed. But isn’t it win-win? Studies show that deaths are highest among young men living in rural areas and red states; Montana has the third-highest automotive-death rate in the nation; Wyoming tops the list.
It may seem ironic that the folks who have the most to gain from driverless cars will be precisely the ones to resist them. But in fact it makes perfect sense. The reason why rural people die so often in cars is because they spend so much of their lives in them. When you live out in the country, the car — especially the pickup truck — is something you rely on, something whose workings you know inside and out, something you, in some very real, non-metaphorical way, love.
For this reason, many rural citizens’ sentiment for cars is closer to their relationship with horses than their relationship with trains. A hundred years ago, people predicted that, in the automotive era, horses would become practically extinct. But this did not come to pass; Americans still own some 5 million horses, which they keep for both work and pleasure. Even in a predominantly driverless future, many people in rural areas will likely still own cars that they drive themselves, albeit at opposite extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum — some vintage-style cars will function as show ponies, others as workhorses. These cars will in turn become more equine: The trucks will become more muscular, and the sports cars will become sportier, giving drivers more intense sensations of speed and danger. That has always been a part of the automobile’s appeal: It keeps us tantalizingly close to death while still keeping us alive — at least, most of the time. For some people (with cars as it is with guns and drugs and unprotected sex and extreme sports and sugary drinks), freedom means the freedom to gamble with their lives. As Ballard pointedly put it, “When one is driving a car, there exists, on a second-by-second basis, the absolute freedom to involve oneself in the most dramatic event of one’s life, barring birth, which is one’s death.”
Personally, I reject the notion that the freedom to die a fiery death (and endanger the lives of others in the process) is a valid reason to defend driving. What concerns me more is the constellation of lesser freedoms and subtler joys driving provides, which we will scarcely miss until they are gone. Because driverless cars are programmed to never break (or even bend) traffic laws, they will never go more than ten miles over the speed limit, even when you’re rushing to the hospital and your daughter’s face is turning blue. You will never take a turn a little too hard, causing that little droopy feeling in your gut. You will never do doughnuts, never peel out, never gun your engine. The shared experience of American adolescence — much of it spent in cars, acquiring a nuanced understanding of when, and how, it is okay to break certain rules — will simply vanish. In exchange, we will be given a few more minutes each day to stare at screens. Lives will be saved, but life will become duller. This is simply a continuation of the shift that took place when we switched from horses to cars: greater safety, greater convenience, but also greater atomization, a deeper numbness. The logical end point of this trajectory is the nightmare Ballard warned us about: “a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.”
But perhaps this forecast is too gloomy. Perhaps driverless cars can be hacked and taught to do things contrary to their makers’ intent. (If Ballard’s cyberpunk descendants have taught us anything, it’s that technology never plays out as neatly as predicted.) Perhaps teens will crawl out the window at high speed and Teen Wolf their cars’ roofs. Perhaps, as the science-fiction writer Roger Zelazny envisaged, people will take their cars on a “blindspin,” typing in random coordinates and then allowing the car to surprise them, like automotive flâneurs. Perhaps the cars will be programmed to give pedestrians and bicyclists more space, and streets will finally become less menacing to the frail human body. Or perhaps, following a great tidal shift in our values, the sprawling suburbs will wither and cars will be relegated to a minor role, as people decide they would rather walk and ride bikes through human-scale towns and dense, effervescent, welcoming-and-yet-weird-as-fuck cities. Who can say for certain? The future is unfathomably strange, and always has been.
*This article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.