October 4, 2023   9 mins

What happened when Matthew Crawford, a lifelong advocate of the joys of driving and author of Why We Drive, took a ride in one of San Francisco’s driverless cars? He sounded the alarm.

Last month, he joined Freddie Sayers in Oakland to talk about the global war on motorists, the beauty of tinkering, and Silicon Valley’s threat to human freedom. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Freddie Sayers: A few years ago, you published a book called Why We Drive — and in many ways, you were ahead of the times, because drivers all over the world are now pretty angry. In London, there appears to be a full-on “war on motorists”: with a new 20mph speed limit, and an Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez). This motorist fury has spread to the Netherlands, to Spain, and to the truckers in Canada. It feels like drivers are forming some sort of coalition.

Matthew Crawford: You could also mention the gilets jaunes in France. And there have been protests about the German autobahn. The Germans have a saying that translates as “free driving for free citizens”. Then you also had this big fight between the London taxi drivers and Uber. It does seem like people’s attitudes towards driving have become a bit prickly, as though the political authorities somehow lack legitimacy. A lot of populist energy has become focused on the automobile.

FS: Quite often this is framed as a class thing. Drivers are presented as people who probably have all sorts of unsavoury political views and therefore if life becomes more inconvenient for them, it’s probably a shift in the right direction. But your book goes deeper than that: you suggest that the action of driving is existentially important.

MC: I like to start with the skateboard, or the bicycle: simple implements that extend and transform our native bodily powers. A bicycle becomes almost like a prosthetic, an extension of your body, fully integrated into your bodily habitation of the world. And I think something similar could be said of cars, especially relatively primitive and lighter vehicles, where there’s a lot of feedback from the road. A kind of directness of control. That’s why a lot of people get quite attached to the experience of driving. Nietzsche said, “joy is the feeling of your power increasing”, and I think that you can understand that not as a scary doctrine about power-seeking, but just as an insight into how some technologies seem to extend us out into the world in ways that are deeply pleasurable.


FS: So we’re not talking about political power increasing? It’s more of a sense of being alive?

MC: The absence of remote control is really a key part of that. The idea of driverless cars — the sense of being passively carried around — triggers a kind of revulsion about being a passenger. There are all kinds of dystopian movies where driverless cars feature and one of my favourites is WALL-E, where you have these grotesquely fat humanoid beings being ferried around in their hovering cars, slurping from their cupholders, and watching their screens with some sort of entertainment piped in from afar — their faces beaming with a sort of opiate pleasure. They seem to be slackened and completely safe, and somehow less than human. I think that’s a heightened or exaggerated picture of what disturbs us about this.

FS: And, dare I say it, unmanly? The passenger character staring at the screen is the opposite of a strong person using a machine.

MC: Yes, or even genderless. A sort of gender blob. I guess there is a kind of masculine ideal of self-reliance, certainly in America — and just moving about the world by the exercise of your own powers appeals to that. So even using GPS, which I admittedly use all the time, forces you to turn your brain off, and there’s a kind of passivity and dependence to that. And I think the push for driverless cars is an instance of this wider pattern. For the sake of convenience, and in the name of safety, we’re lured further into passivity and dependence.

FS: There’s a line that you write about beyond which technology stops enhancing life: instead of making you more powerful, it starts to make you more dependent. Where do you draw this line in the case of cars?

MC: I think intelligibility is a crucial thing. Can you, by inspection at least, imagine how the thing works? Does it invite your intervention? Does it invite the effort to understand it? Or is it completely opaque like the shimmering obelisk at the beginning of the film 2001 that the humanoids are all entranced by? There’s a deep intellectual pleasure in being a master of your own stuff, in taking things apart and trying to understand them. Tinkering is a kind of quasi-philosophic impulse.

The other feature that really rubs a lot of people the wrong way is this idea of remote control. It’s not so much that it’s digital. Conceivably, you could become an expert coder in the various software systems that run the car. But I think what people don’t want is a sense that they’re somehow geared into this bureaucratic machine that stands behind the technology.

FS: There’s also a practical sense that people want to have a car that works on its own, independent of any external network being operational.

MC: Right, and that cannot be disabled remotely. The trucker protests in Canada were mercilessly crushed by seizing the bank accounts of people who contributed money to the movement. Shortly after, the Canadians took steps to mandate that all trucks be remotely shut-off-able. So you can see that there’s a political taste for preventing any such occurrence again. This is one of those instances where I think a lot of Western leaders look to China enviously as a control society. And given the metastasising systems of surveillance and control in our own society, the car stands out as a last reserve of some kind of capacity to stand alone.

FS: More worryingly, electric and driverless cars can in theory be turned off or driven into each other by central command; in a wartime or crisis scenario, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that this could be dangerous.

MC: At least in the US, we don’t have nearly the electrical grid that you would need to charge all these cars, according to the vision being laid forth. And of course, building that infrastructure isn’t glamorous, politically. The whole green energy mandate is this massive diversion of investment to party-aligned actors that will tend towards energy poverty, which will hurt the working and middle classes. And all this is part of a larger phenomenon of the party-state capturing transportation and energy policy.

FS: Do you think this anxiety is particularly strong in America?

MC: Yeah, when shit gets real, you’re going to want to hit the road and get the hell out of Dodge, right?

FS: This leads us to the question of what we should do about it, given that these technologies are already everywhere. What would a practical rebellion look like? How can we resist without simply being Luddite or reactionary?

MC: The first thing to notice is the feeling of futility that people have about putting up any kind of resistance. In San Francisco, you have street guerrillas putting cones on driverless cars to paralyse them. And you have quite a few cases of driverless cars impeding emergency vehicles because they stall out and need to be rebooted. Despite this, earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved to have driverless vehicles on the streets of San Francisco in large numbers.

It turns out that one of the four City commissioners is the former general counsel for Cruise: the equivalent of General Motors for self-driving cars. Hovering in the background here is this sense of a “corporatocracy”, where the will of citizens really doesn’t come into play. And, in fact, when Pew polls people about their attitudes toward driverless cars, the majority of them are not interested. They’re suspicious of it; they’d prefer to drive themselves. So this is not in response to consumer demand: you might say it’s a kind of for-profit social engineering.

FS: Perhaps also that faith in technology is central to an elite idea of progress? If you are on the wrong side of it, you are seen as a bad person. 

MC: It’s an expensive solution to a non-problem. Humans are actually pretty good at driving. This is merely another case of a transfer of wealth: Silicon Valley trying to grab profits from Detroit; Waymo versus Ford. So, yes, there’s always a narrative of progress.

FS: What do you say to the counter argument: that while some people might enjoy driving, many people don’t. Driverless and convenient electric cars should open up hours in which we can be more creative, fulfilled, and productive?

MC: Sure, I feel the force of those arguments. I’m sure there are occasions where I would totally want the option of a driverless car. One of the difficulties is when autonomous cars share the road with human drivers: that has turned out to be a far harder engineering challenge than was anticipated a few years ago. We’ve arrived at the point now where in San Francisco, at night, when traffic is light, they’re allowing driverless cars. But there’s still a lot of breezy talk about outlawing human drivers in order to make the road more hospitable to driverless cars.

FS: You can imagine that being a serious proposal in a small number of years.

MC: What would you have then? You’d have the infrastructure of a city made hospitable to automation, including driverless cars; you’d have an urban operating system that’s essentially designed and installed by some cartel of tech firms — and you can be pretty sure they would not be amenable to democratic processes. Nor would the code be accessible to inspection. This is all very proprietary: it has to be because that’s what makes the “smart city” the next trillion-dollar frontier.

FS: And if you are considered transgressive by that private company, you won’t be able to get around. 

MC: You can imagine terms of service that have all kinds of stipulations. And you can view this development as part of a long arc of high modernist urban planning that goes way back. Yet this aspiration to remake the city often creates model cities that nobody wants to live in because the human element is somehow squashed. The ethnographer Jane Jacobs wrote a beautiful book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she shows how a street works at a fine grain level as a social place. She describes how neighbourhoods get vacated by these planning schemes that are hatched from on high and render the city vacuous. I think we should revisit some of these critiques of modernist urban planning, by way of trying to get a handle on what the tech firms are up to with the smart city and driverless car.

FS: I think perhaps we accepted too readily this idea that not having to drive would be liberating. And this points to a larger question about technology: is convenience always better? If you’re liberated from the more fundamental, supposedly mundane aspects of living — feeding yourself, moving around, sorting your car out — is your life necessarily going to improve? 

MC: If you go far enough down that road, the whole world begins to look like one big assisted-living facility. There’s a psychologist named Kelly Lambert, who’s done some interesting stuff on what she calls effort-driven rewards. She works with rats, but the idea is that we’ve evolved to secure our own basic physical existence, and when you make everything effortless, people become anxious and depressed. And of course, a lot of that leisure time will be filled with entertainments that plug us into the hive mind. Americans in particular don’t really know how to do true leisure — a Sabbath, a time of repose. We tend to fill up everything.

FS: Do you advocate trying to resist the relentless technological advance by living more simply? Some people are trying to feed their spirit by “unplugging” and trying to be more connected to the earth, more connected to nature?

MC: Well, this is the perennial question, isn’t it? That sort of romantic back-to-the-land or back-to-nature revolt against not just technology but technocracy — the entwining of these systems. People do want to escape it; to re-humanise themselves. I guess for some people, it’s back to the land — land, of course, is scarce and expensive — for some people, I think it’s tinkering and trying to get a handle on their own material existence and become self-reliant in various ways. We have people homeschooling, just trying to unplug from what feels like a voracious borg that feeds on individual agency.

FS: Is there a good version of that and a scary version, do you think? For some people it seems that their answer is to burn it all down, to destroy the “borg”, which starts to sound violent?

MC: I’m thinking of Fight Club, is that what you’re thinking of?

FS: More that if there are enough people who feel alienated by technology — and by this supposedly sophisticated way of living — they are going to come with pitchforks and try to destroy it. Do you think we should worry about that?

MC: I don’t see much prospect of the pitchforks coming out — we’re too well entertained. A whole other type of technology is going to enthral us. Through a combination of virtual reality and AI, I imagine we’ll be sucked into worlds that are not real. What I mean by that is that they are constructed worlds: constructed for profit, and engineered from afar. They will probably offer us some simulacrum of agency: I’m sure there’s a menu of different options for action within them. Maybe they respond to us; they will flatter us with a sense of mastery, perhaps. But the thing about real reality is that it surprises us. It is inexhaustibly rich; it can’t be represented to completion. It contains mystery. I say that both as a former physics guy, and as someone with intuitions that there’s a created order that has a benevolence to it, and some elements that aren’t fully graspable and masterable by us, and that I think of as a source of renewal. When you put yourself in nature or even in the built environment, the human environment, there’s always scope for serendipity and surprise, and renewing your sense of wonder in the world.

FS: How do we defend that? What are the micro rebellions that we can try to unplug? You talk about tinkering with your car. What should someone in a city do? 

MC: Every time we meet face-to-face as we’re doing right now, we’re engaged in the permanent human possibility, encountering one another in a real way. And I think that will always be available to us. We often get a little too doomerish about the borg, especially when the ordinary pleasures of existence and of sociality remain available to us. We have to throw ourselves into that with courage and hope.

FS: Maybe this is finally a political fight that’s worth engaging in. Perhaps motorists should defend their right to drive whatever cars they want — and maybe, they’ll win. 

MC: Yeah, Sign me up. We hereby inaugurate the freedom to drive movement.

Matthew B Crawford writes the substack Archedelia