That New Car Smell: Autonomy & Automation

IMAG0025small

That New Car Smell: Autonomy & Automation

Whether or not civilization collapses following the election this November, are we not on the cusp of a new epoch in travel? For in the Valley of the Silicon Kings and Queens and TransRegents, Google, Apple and Tesla have all doubled down on automotive innovation, while in the Far East Uber courts China. Down in weird Austin, Lord British is busy thinking way outside the ballpark with his “pod” transport system, while New Jersey considers outlawing drivers from drinking coffee.

Let’s jump in the time machine:

When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

––Thoreau, Walden (1854), Ch. IV

Surreys rumbled lightly by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter. Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuck—and at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street. The thing would roar by, leaving a long wake of turbulence; then the indignant street would quiet down for a few minutes—till another came.

––Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), Ch. XVIII

Folks, the interurban ain’t coming back, and ride-sharing essentially streamlines new efficiencies on an old system, but why must we continue to tolerate the flood of false hope—perhaps what Thoreau meant by “new Mythology”––of hyper speed locomotion, whether in the guise of California’s bullet train or the Texas Central Railway? (And can we retire the word “boondoggle” for at least the next decade, or better yet, put it out to pasture altogether?)

Once upon a time cultural conservatives, even fictitious ones like Congressman George Amberson, thought cars were a temporary novelty:

[Eugene Morgan] will soon begin to build his factory here for the manufacture of automobiles, which he says is a term he prefers to “horseless carriages.” Your Uncle George told me he would like to invest in this factory, as George thinks there is a future for automobiles; perhaps not for general use, but as an interesting novelty, which people with sufficient means would like to own for their amusement and the sake of variety. (The Magnificent Ambersons, Ch. X)

But will further automation of the automobile be mistaken by cultural progressives as improvement rather than impediment? For as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his contribution to Why Place Matters(2014), the American driver’s license is one of our primary valves for unleashing our self-reliance:

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

Stability can be found amid the chaos of such mapless journeys. As Wendell Pierce, best known from HBO’s The Wire, put it in his memoir about the recovery and renewal of post-Katrina New Orleans The Wind in the Reeds (2015):

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.” (pp. 126, 239)

So even before GPS apps became widespread, there existed possibilities that not all who drove (or wandered) would get lost, and this, Pierce points out, is one reason why, particularly for his father:

You can take the man out of the segregated South, but you can’t take the segregated South out of the man. (p. 51)

Yes, we travel. As Thoreau says, we “make haste past those houses” and accumulate experiences of multiple places, so much so that now we have Shakespeare’s “rich eyes and poor hands.” Nonetheless, we refuse to stand still:

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…. eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature…. westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure…. The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. (Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, May 1862)

We are born to be wild. So let us get our “motors running and head out on the highway.”


Leave a Reply