Article - Summer 2019

The End of Driving

Yes, autonomous autos will make roads safer and more efficient, but what wonders will be lost?

By Steve Lagerfeld | June 3, 2019

I recently drove a Tesla for the first time, or rather it drove me. The Model 3 was beautifully appointed, embraced the road like a lover, and boasted the kind of instant acceleration that car aficionados like to call head-snapping. It was a terrific experience right up until the moment I switched on Autopilot and the car’s computer took command, eerily changing lanes and keeping pace in traffic. The car even parked itself. I marveled at the Tesla’s otherworldly powers, but I couldn’t help feeling sad. The Model 3 and its electric kin can’t reliably steer themselves without a human copilot, but that limitation won’t last forever. When it’s gone, driving and all the wonderful things that go with it will be roadkill. Elon Musk’s remarkable driving machine will someday help bury driving itself.

The end of driving is a tragic necessity, like removing ice cream from your diet. More than 37,000 Americans (and more than a million people worldwide) were killed in traffic accidents in 2017, and the vehicles weren’t often to blame. It was the drivers—drunk, stupid, inept, or just unlucky. More than half the deaths involved only one vehicle. The coming of autonomous cars won’t eliminate traffic deaths, but it will save many lives. Traffic will be unsnarled and calmed, harmful emissions will decline, and former drivers will be free to text and play Candy Crush all the way to the office. Inevitably, it will become illegal for humans to take the wheel—which will probably have joined the engine crank and the human appendix in the museum of vestigial things. Along with the steering wheel will go the internal combustion engine, its burblings and exultations so big a part of the sensory experience of driving.

I’m sure I’ll appreciate all this when, too old to drive, I can summon a robotic Ford to take me to the grocery store (if such a thing is still around). Until then I’ll be in mourning. Cars will continue to exist, but when driving ends in the foreseeable future, we will all become passengers, passively conveyed down the roads and byways of our lives. We’ll leave behind a form of adventure and freedom and, more than that, a haven of privacy, intimacy, and creativity. And we will lose a way of encountering others that teaches us how to be more civilized.

Driving may be in bad odor for environmental reasons, and post-millennials may not be as eager to get their licenses as their elders were, but most people enjoy driving and some even—gasp!—like commuting. A third of those polled by Gallup last spring said they enjoy being behind the wheel “a great deal,” and another 44 percent said they enjoy it “a moderate amount.” Only 21 percent said they didn’t like it much or at all. A few people even told other pollsters they wished their commutes were longer.

Something interesting is going on inside all those cars, and most of it is in our minds. Car time is often private time, leaving you alone with your thoughts in your own self-contained capsule—or perhaps with the absence of any thoughts. It is a refuge. In its research into where people feel most at home, IKEA found that nearly half of Americans surveyed retreat to their cars for privacy—only the bedroom and bathroom were more popular choices. A writer in The Washington Post observed recently that many people find the rare solitude of their cars ideal for a good cry. Among the experts she trotted out was one who reported that solo drivers tend to tune in to the kind of music—downbeat or laden with personal significance—that they avoid when other people are around.

Maybe the self-driving future will continue to offer us this kind of sanctuary, and we can already get a certain amount of it simply by sitting in a parked car in the dark, as the teenage me sometimes did. But everything changes when you put that car in motion and yourself behind the wheel.

Driving occupies one part of the mind while leaving the other parts to wander. It engages its piece of the mind in a stream of barely conscious calculations and adjustments, as the road changes and other cars come and go. With any luck, you gain a feeling of harmony with your surroundings, an easy command of your speed and direction. One hand comes off the wheel, and your mind can take any road it wishes. This kind of pleasure might be incomprehensible to people who take the wheel with feelings ranging from vague apprehension to terror, but people who love to drive will recognize it as something like meditation, a condition of simultaneously heightened awareness and relaxation.

A friend of mine who drives in endurance races as a hobby explains the appeal as total immersion, the inability to think of anything else when he’s behind the wheel. His wife says that he and the other drivers on his team always emerge from their turns in the car with a blissful smile on their face. For most of us, however, driving leaves enough of the mind free to flit about.

Rolling down the road at even a modest clip makes the senses come alive. Stir in wind and scenery whipping by, and you’ve got the makings of exhilaration.

Driving can transport you in more ways than one. Some people get their best ideas in the shower, but I get mine behind the wheel, and I am not alone. Willie Nelson once said, “When I’m driving the highway by myself is when I write best.” Earlier this year, when former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke was mulling over a bid for the presidency, he did the obvious thing and climbed into his pickup for a solo road trip through the Southwest. I’m with Beto, at least on this. I can distinctly remember where I got the inspiration for the book I’m now working on—cruising by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove near Washington, D.C., on my way to work. Yes, even driving in traffic can be inspirational. Elon Musk got two of his big ideas—the Boring Company, his high-tech tunneling enterprise, and the hyperloop, which promises supersonic ground transportation through underground tubes—while creeping along LA freeways.

It is not too much to say that driving, at its best, expands consciousness. If it seems trite to speak of becoming one with the car, we can resort to the concept of Umwelt (environment), which the founders of semiotics used to explain how differently different creatures perceive their surroundings. Pit vipers, for example, are equipped with infrared sense organs (pits) that allow them to “see” nearby mice and other warm-blooded prey. Their world is different from ours. Bloodhounds inhale a world full of smells far more various than we detect. And drivers perceive the world in a different way than other humans: their Umwelt is enlarged. Speed is an essential part of it. It’s not natural for humans to travel more than a few miles per hour, so rolling down the road at even a modest clip makes the senses come alive. Stir in wind and scenery whipping by, and you’ve got the makings of exhilaration. But the deepest source of the driver’s Umwelt is the expansion of his sensory domain. I cannot literally feel the car’s fenders and bumpers, but like a deer with antlers, I am aware of them as extensions of myself. I can’t feel the wheels, either, but through them I can feel the road that we are on together. Every little turn I give to the steering wheel engages the pinion gear, the rack, and then the tie rods and steering arm that turn the wheels—and comes back to me as the steady pop-pop of seams in the concrete, the granularity of rough asphalt, or the melting smoothness of a freshly paved highway.

Driving is a form of empowerment. Step on the gas, the car responds. Turn the wheel, the car turns. Step on the brakes, it slows. There aren’t many connections in life that have such satisfying directness and simplicity. Beyond that is mastery, as you grow comfortable commanding the car and confident in your ability to navigate highways and treacherous city streets.

In the autonomous driving future, cars will be more like taxis. There will be no reason to own your own car, with all its expense and inconveniences, if you can use an app to quickly summon a cheap driverless one. But the romance of driving begins with the cars themselves, from ancient Beetles to hyper-powered BMWs, and there is something special about owning one. A car can seize your heart, grip your imagination, or simply win your affection. That’s why so many people have pet names for their cars. My own object of affection is the Silver Bullet, a 2002 Acura RSX—a Type-S, which means that it has a more powerful engine, stiffer suspension, and better seats than the base model. After 17 years, the romance remains fresh. When I slip into the Silver Bullet’s molded bucket seat, depress the clutch, and slide into gear, the universe feels like a sweeter and more harmonious place. It doesn’t matter where I’m going.

Good riddance, some will say, to a spontaneous choreography that leads to so many expletives, fender benders, and worse.

The Silver Bullet has a six-speed stick shift with gears that mesh in liquid synchrony, palpable reassurance that the sublime is not beyond our reach. Few people realize that while a manual transmission makes acceleration more fun, it has almost equally gratifying qualities when slowing down. My car takes curves like its tires are made out of some kind of magical rolling glue. Its only flaw is poor low-end torque, which means that it is slow to pick up speed from a dead stop, leaving me to stare in frustration at the taillights of many a puny Kia when traffic signals turn green.

But that’s okay. A perfect love is neither possible nor truly desirable. Our loved ones teach us how to deal with vexation.

It also helps to know that once I hit third gear, I could blow the doors off those upstarts if I felt like it.

Love of cars is generally seen as a male trait, which is a pity. Cars supply things all of us should want—freedom, power, fun, and opportunity. It is no accident that one of the first great female empowerment films, Thelma & Louise (1991), ends with the two heroines, resolved to “keep going” after seizing all the male prerogatives of the buddy film, soaring off the edge of the Grand Canyon in their glorious turquoise 1966 Ford Thunderbird as the cops close in.

I know more than a few women who love their cars and driving, even if they don’t drive off cliffs. Janel, who pilots a venerable Honda Accord, says she would never drive a car that didn’t have a stick shift because she loves the sense of control it provides. She plays trance music to enhance her spells of drive-time meditation. Christie cashed in an unneeded life insurance policy to splurge on a sapphire-blue Porsche 911, which she takes out on the highway to clear her mind. (She delights in recalling the contractor who came to her house and gazed in admiration at the car. “That your husband’s?” he asked. “No,” she replied. “That’s what I traded him in for.”)

It’s a source of great satisfaction to me that one of my daughters grew into a car lover; her red 2005 Corolla S has made tracks from coast to coast more than once and to many places in between. She calls it Carmen.

She and I have had some of our best father-daughter moments while tooling around in cars. For all the solo rewards of driving, some of its most precious benefits flow from the sociability that driving promotes and even requires. Anybody who has watched Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee or the “Carpool Karaoke” segments from The Late Late Show will know what I mean. “Carpool” host James Corden invites a pop star out for a spin, and with the pudgy, irrepressible Englishman behind the wheel, they set off on a journey of song (Corden harmonizes so phenomenally well that even Adele’s eyes go wide in amazement) and intimate conversation. As they wheel through the streets of London, Adele, with her strong working-class London accent, confesses, “I’ve got drunk three nights recently. Yeah, ’cause Christmas,” and proceeds to relate some of the embarrassing results. Britney Spears reveals that she would like to have three more children and that she has used the alias Anita Dick to check into hotels.

None of this would have happened if Corden and his guests were sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car—or in a self-driving one. The act of driving promotes easy talk. The driver is a catalyst. His state of heightened awareness creates an energy that must be either turned inward or directed outward to the person sitting next to him, or to others who may be onboard. The atmosphere is intimate. They are in a cozy, low-ceilinged compartment while the world is whizzing by. Driver and passenger are sitting side by side, as if perched on bar stools, but the talk can be even less inhibited because the driver has to keep his eyes on the road, so neither must fear the reaction in the eyes of the other. Conversation is one result, song is another. How many families that sing together in the car would do the same thing around the dinner table?

My wife and I like road trips, and we always take along a portable satellite radio to fill the long hours, but we rarely wind up using it. A few miles from home, thrown together without distractions and leaving the humdrum of domesticity behind, new sights coming into view, we suddenly discover one topic after another that’s ripe for discussion—future vacations, forgotten friends and family members, a book one of us has read. Some of my most memorable conversations have occurred in the front seat of cars. In college, I once spent upward of four hours in a Pontiac discussing the existence of God with a woman I hardly knew. I still feel bad about it. It was my fault—I was in the driver’s seat.

The fabled family road trip is another way driving brings people together. Spending long hours in close communion is not always a delight for parents and children, but people together in a car headed for happy destinations are inevitably bound together in lasting ways. The car is a nest. Today, kids can disappear into their phones the moment the family SUV pulls away from the curb, but as long as there is a human in the driver’s seat who needs to be diverted and entertained and can demand attention, driving will remain a sociable experience. The driverless future, in which every passenger will be free to plug in and tune out (or fall asleep), will atomize yet another small domain of human existence.

The sociability of driving is not limited to what happens inside the car. On a recent morning, I got up early and drove along the route I once took to my office every weekday morning. It wasn’t that I missed the job or, like some John Cheever character, couldn’t help repeating an empty ritual. I wanted to experience again a miracle I had been part of many times during those commuting years. The route follows a broad and heavily traveled two-lane road that spills onto the parkway to Washington, and near the bottom it is joined by a big feeder street that comes in from the left, clogged with drivers seeking to join the city-bound stream. The problem for them is that there’s no light or stop sign to help them. They have to wait for a break in the constant stream of city-bound drivers intent on getting to work. That’s where the miracle occurs. One of those drivers, traveling perhaps 20 or 30 miles per hour, will stop and allow one or two of the supplicants to join the stream. The next driver will likely do the same thing, and so on for quite a while until one boorish idiot breaks the pattern and drives through the intersection without stopping. Inevitably, several more drivers will follow that example, but then, just as surely, a driver who shares a sense of the fellowship of all commuters will stop and the process will begin all over again.

This kind of spontaneous choreography occurs on all kinds of roads, thanks to drivers who follow a raft of unwritten rules. Flash your lights to let a passing driver know that he has room to slide in front of you. Leave enough space for entering drivers to merge onto the highway (and if you are the merger, don’t slow down once I let you in!). Every city has its own unwritten code of behavior. Because I cut my teeth as a city driver on the streets of Manhattan, where the norms are as obvious as a Times Square billboard, I’m constantly struck by the unpredictable behavior of drivers, especially cabdrivers, in Washington, where I now live. In New York, it’s best to assume maximum but skilled aggression by other drivers, and you will be fine if you understand that. The streets of Washington, on the other hand, are anarchic. You never know what other drivers are going to do. Maybe it’s because so many of the city’s residents come from someplace else and lack a shared code of the road. Confused tourists are a plague, but the cabdrivers are worse, inexplicably chugging along at half the speed limit, changing lanes with the alacrity of an oil tanker, and otherwise generally embarrassing their trade. I was not surprised to discover plenty of statistical support for my jaundiced comparison. In Allstate’s annual “America’s Best Drivers Report,” for example, the capital’s motorists rank nearly last compared with their counterparts in other cities, an abysmal 198 out of 200, while New York’s supposed reckless maniacs ranked a respectable 107.

Good riddance, some will say, to a spontaneous choreography that leads to so many expletives, fender benders, and worse. Bring on the self-driving cars! The relentless rationalizers of society will rejoice at the triumph of efficiency. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, once said, “It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. … It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.” The arrival of autonomous vehicles strikes me as similar in its social consequence to that of other technologies, such as email and texting, which have brought many benefits but also degraded the texture of person-to-person interactions—often annoying interactions, but ones that teach us how to read others and get along with them and, at their best, produce that little glow of fellow feeling.

Going out in public could become a very different kind of experience in an age of self-driven cars. In most scenarios, the vehicles will be equipped with high-definition, 360-degree cameras. The car will become what Benedict Evans, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, calls “a moving panopticon.” Other drivers, pedestrians, and people chatting on a street corner may be immortalized in video subject to later review. Then there’s the location-tracking data, which automakers will be eager to collect and sell to other businesses. It’s not just businesses that might be interested. If you are a teenager, you will have no place to hide. Your car, once a vehicle of escape and adventure, will now be a snitch.

This is the future that is barreling down upon us. It may not be as bad as some of the direr possibilities suggest, but the deep pleasures and rewards of dancing on the asphalt seem bound for extinction. Something wild is vanishing.

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