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This article was written on 23 May 2017, and is filled under New Ecologies.

Freedom in the Wake of Autonomous Driving

Bildergebnis für Jerry Seinfeld OBamaJay Leno and Vice President Joe Biden go for a joy ride.

President Barack Obama was the first guest in the seventh season of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which aired on December 30, 2015. The highly successful web series usually hosts comedians who go for a joy ride and coffee break with Seinfeld in a vintage car chosen by the host to represent each guest’s persona. Although Obama is not a comedian, according to Jerry he has “just the right amount of jokes to apply for the show.” After an initial jaunt around the White House lawn with Jerry in the driver’s seat, and having coffee at the White House cafeteria, Obama does something he is actually not supposed to do while president: He takes the wheel himself. According to Jerry the 1963 silver blue Corvette Sting Ray suits the president perfectly, as it is stylish, funny but still a symbol of great American engineering. Behind the wheel the president attempts to leave the lawn but is unsuccessful—they are held up at the gate by the Secret Service. Nevertheless the president seems to have enjoyed his little excursion. As he stops the engine and puts the lever into “park,” Jerry patonizingly praises: “There you go, you’re good!” Obama replies playfully: “I know how to drive man, come on!”

Similarly, on October 19, 2016, Vice-President Joe Biden made an appearance on another web series, Jay Leno’s Garage. In the episode Biden drives his own grass green 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. The car was a wedding gift from his father who was a Chevrolet dealer in Delaware, and was later restored by Biden’s sons. Like the president the vice-president is also not allowed to drive on his own while in office, however for this exceptional occasion Biden was permitted to pilot his beloved Stingray in a Secret Service facility outside of Washington DC.

Beginning with a proper burnout Biden exhibits his enthusiasm for the thrill of the road. After a few runs around the Secret Service-track, and talking about his driving experiences (like driving the car to its 160 mph top speed), the episode ends with a little race between Biden’s 67 Stingray and a brand new Corvette, the driver of which is later revealed to be Colin Powell.

Though driving is an ordinary daily task taken for granted by most of us in the Western world, the politician’s privilege to be driven seems in the case of Obama and Biden to be unsatisfying. The former most powerful men who steered the most powerful nation feel restricted when they are not allowed to drive. For almost everyone in the Western world loosing the ability to drive, e.g. because of a DUI, is still perceived to be a severe disability. This may be understandable in the United States where driving is often the only available form of transportation, however it is also true in Europe where even on the countryside public transport is widely available.

In most “advanced” Western societies the inability to drive feels like an amputation of a basic freedom. Especially for the youth of the United States “the car ensures freedom from parents and home. Youth want freedom from the ever-present parental gaze, the yoke of parental control.”[i] Thus if we are going to talk about the impact of autonomous driving we have to talk about the perception of freedom associated with driving.

Nothing has revolutionized the world more in the 20th century than the car. Since the mass motorization of the United States between the two World Wars, of Europe after the Second World War, and of China since the late 1990s, the car has radically increased individual mobility. The combination of higher wages, lower car prices, and the necessities of suburban life (e.g. commuting) made the triumph of the car possible. In fact the car industry remains the “main industrial employer in the world.”[ii] By providing the individual with the ability to independently traverse great distances, the car offers the potential for increased individual freedom. These very real advances in individual freedom, however, do not entirely account for the car’s association with independence. Rather, the car is a vehicle for many American mythologies: rugged individualism, self-reliance, the cowboy, the West. This is evident in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Duell (1971), Blues Brothers (1980), and Thelma & Louise (1991)—to mention only a few—where the car replaces the horse (from the Mustang to the Ford “Mustang”) and the outlaw takes the wheel instead of the reigns. In other words the car does not only merely offer practical convenience but awakens in the driver the lore of the lone ranger and the open road.

Of course we all know there is little reality to this story of independence. The driver needs infrastructure that is mainly provided by the state. Since mass motorization, driving is more or less strictly regulated. And lastly the car itself is tightly bound to our ability to perform in a capitalistic system. Owning and producing a car demands financial success.[iii]

However, we are currently on the edge of an automotive revolution. We are approaching the century of autonomous cars. How would this change the relation of driving and freedom? To answer the question we first have to think a bit more about how autonomous driving will most likely be accomplished. Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman distinguish in their 2016 book Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead two sorts of approaches towards autonomous driving: The first approach which is being adopted is characterized by “a series of gradual and linear stages in which the car’s ‘driver assist’ software temporarily takes over the driving, but quickly gives control of the car back to the human driver should a sticky situation occur.”[iv] The second approach is that of full autonomy. Full autonomy means that even in an emergency situation the car remains entirely in command. Nevertheless full autonomy is very much dependent on federal law requirements: “If federal officials pass laws that mandate a ‘human in the loop’ approach, the winner will be car companies, who will retain control over the automotive industry.” Although if the “law permits, or—for safety reasons—even requires full autonomy for driverless cars, then software companies” like Google will succeed.[v] At this point we only know it will be an open race between the traditional car companies and the tech industry. In any case, both approaches will lead—gradually or instantaneously—to the withdrawal of the driver’s influence. I will here provide two proposals considering how the driver’s reduced role might impact the car’s associations with freedom.

First: One could argue that with the advent of autonomous driving the significance of cars in general will decrease. Transportation through self-driving cars might be just as exhilarating as a bus ride. The loss of steering control could result in a loss of perceived freedom. No longer able to manually steer the car the driver may feel less connected to one particular car, as it is now less a direct expression of the driver’s will and therefore may feel a decreased impetus to own. Reduced to its practicality the car becomes merely an instrument of the daily commute. We can already see this happening in current developments: The fast growing car-sharing companies like Car2Go and DriveNow. Especially interesting is the fact that car-sharing organizations are often owned by traditional car manufacturers (e.g. BMW partially owns DriveNow, Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) partially owns Car2Go). It seems as if even the car industry itself is not sure whether car-ownership is sustainable.

Second: The car’s connotation of freedom might undergo a transformation. Autonomus cars might give you the freedom to do totally different things than driving while being driven. To stress the transformation in the linkage with freedom I will follow MIT Professor David A. Mindell’s argument he made in his 2015 book Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy. His basic argument is that “the idea that machines take over human jobs” is a myth. “This myth,” Mindell explains, “is a twentieth-century version of what [Mindell calls] the iron horse phenomenon. Railroads were initially imagined to replace horses, but trains proved to be very poor horses. Railroads came into their own when people learned to do entirely new things with them.”[i] Though the railroad revolution and the upcoming revolution of autonomous cars have little in common, and though his argument that autonomous machines are not a threat to jobs is contradicted by many fellow researches (e.g. by Martin Ford in his 2015 bestseller Rise of the Robots), still one can draw a line on the formal level of the argument: The autonomous car will not replace the manual car, but we will learn “to do entirely new things with [it].” For instance, with our mind and hands no longer occupied in the task of driving we would be free to work, to read, to play games, to do any number of things; imaging driving down the highway and seeing in the car next to you a person playing the trumpet.

Yet this future can already be glimpsed today. Important people like the president and the vice president are free to do almost anything in their large armored limousines while being driven: work, sleep, and launch nuclear missiles. But as we have seen this freedom is not satisfying. The president and vice president relish the expression of their own autonomy which manually driving uniquely amplifies.

 

Images:

Barack Obama is the latest star to appear in Jerry Seinfeld’s show Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/tv-news/barack-obama-is-the-latest-star-to-appear-in-jerry-seinfelds-show-comedians-in-cars-getting-coffee-34334003.html (posted on 4 Jan 2016) (05/23/17)

Jerry Seinfeld and Barack Obama: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-17/seinfeld-and-obama/8185968 (posted on 16 Jan 2017) (05/23/17)

Joe Biden and Colin Powell drag race their ’67 and 2015 Corvettes: http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/10/joe-biden-and-colin-powell-drag-race-67-corvettes.html (posted on 10 Nov 2016) (06/23/17)

 

[i] David A. Mindell: Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy. Viking, New York 2015, p. 9.

[i] Amy Best: Fast Cars, Cool Rides: The Accelerating World of Youth and Their Cars. NYU Press, New York 2006, p. 138.

[ii] Ian Roberts: “Car Wars.” The Guardian (online), January 17, 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jan/18/iraq.usa (03.16.2017)

[iii] “Paradoxically, the car is both a symbol of freedom, progress, and prosperity and a harbinger of the perils of rapid industrialization and the wreckage foisted on humanity by corporate capitalism.” Best, Fast Cars, p. 5.

[iv] Hod Lipson, Melba Kurman: Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, London 2016, p. 55.

[v] Lipson, Kurman, Driverless, p. 63.

[vi] David A. Mindell: Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy. Viking, New York 2015, p. 9.

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