ILLUSTRATION: Godard’s Ro-bot Week-end • ink and digital • 3×5″
As I recount how I hacked my ignition coil gasket to fix my check engine light, my friend Allan tells me his nieces and nephews don’t want cars. They argue: Why pay for a car? Or gas? Or parking? Or ignition coils. Give me a walkable city or give me Uber! And anyway, the company they work for has a private bus to their neighborhood. My check engine light goes on again.
As I go to the auto parts to buy yet another quart of overpriced European oil, my friend Lafe tells me he’s selling his car. He doesn’t want it, but short of someone (e.g., his girlfriend) posting it for him on Craigslist, handling potential buyers, and then depositing the money in his bank account, my guess is that it’ll stick around for a while longer. It’s been eighteen months since he first described his second attempt since 2008 to go carless, but his plan isn’t a bad one.
In addition to Uber and private buses, there are still cabs and public transportation, not to mention Zipcar and Lyft and Sidecar and, you know, walking. And by not driving, you can then read on your phone breathless analyses of how your taking of Uber is changing the world. Pretty fantastic, right? As the 1980s predicted, cars are now transforming into robots too. Once we have robotic self-driving cars, we’ll all be riding in Google cars analogous to Google’s servers. Generic, cheap, easy-to-replace, with a high utilization rate, and a low carbon footprint. The exact opposite of my car.
While I do love my car and carrying around extra ignition coils and overpriced oil, I still haven’t bothered to Google how a transmission works. So I’m not going to bore you with an old man speech about the death of automobile culture. Also well covered these days is concern of how we’d program an ethical response into a self-driving car. Most of us who don’t work at Google would probably agree not to outsource a deontological/teleological debate about the value of human life to a Google product manager or a server farm. In ethical debate, the cloudiness of human intent matters in a way that it can’t in code.
Automobiles aren’t my issue here today; driving is. I’m always more interested in how a change in technology changes our long-term behavior. How, as James Boyle said, ideology runs to technology and then back again. And whether this technology will give us any clearer picture of what it means to be human or will it just fog it all up like my windshield when the compressor won’t kick in unless I rev it above 7,000 RPM (stupid car).
Like Robotech or Voltron, every day millions of Americans buckle into machines that can cause death and destruction. However, for the most part, when bad things happen, we call them accidents. Accidents happen. That’s fine. But what rarely happens is someone purposefully driving up onto the sidewalk to run someone over or cannonballing in the wrong direction on a freeway. We worry about hitting squirrels, for goodness sake. At least I do. Despite road rage, shitty drivers, a degradations of manners, and a general ignorance of physics, billions of moments pass each day without incident. Sure, folks in San Francisco may not know how a right-of-way works at a stop sign, but are they really that much worse than the rest of the nation? (Yes.)
I have no doubt that driving represents the most significant daily voluntary compliance with laws and social mores in the US. We all participate, yet we still get to show our personalities, resolve differences, and achieve our goals, with little outside influence. We create infrastructure, oversight, and the rest gets worked out amongst ourselves—from a headlight flash to a wave to even a few choice phrases in anger. We’re all in it together, and we trust that others will behave with the right balance of individualism and altruism, competition and cooperation. Driving is story we tell ourselves about ourselves!
Moreover, most of us cut our teeth in our teens, as we’re training to be adults. With a vehicle, we’re responsible for getting ourselves and others somewhere safely, for taking care of an expensive object, for our independence. Big corporations may produce cars and the gasoline that powers them, but they don’t own the vehicles we drive. Nor do they control or track where and how they go (unless you let them). Almost anyone can buy a crappy car or scooter, and learning basic maintenance doesn’t require an engineering degree.
In a future where some of us are driven around only by Uber or by robotic Hoke Colburns, what will replace driving as a communal act of participatory democracy? Where else will we be able to express our self-reliance? (And don’t tell me coding or Burning Man. That’s not enough.) What sort of rent-seeking hellbeast will we create when we give up independent ownership of vehicles? Having been mistaken and far too positive about the influence of the Internet the first time around, I’m always concerned with this question: do we lose just as much as we gain from our future robotic driving friends?
We don’t even have robot driving friends yet, and you may have already seen a change. If you’ve driven in San Francisco recently, has anyone cut you off and then slammed on their brakes in front of a popular brunch establishment? Have you seen a lot of double parking by non-taxi vehicles? Have you seen people driving even more poorly than usual? That they seem preoccupied with four phones in the window? Or have an aggressiveness typically displayed by a “my first BMW” driver or, you know, a taxi?
Or have your friends been a little bit more self-absorbed lately? Are their manners a little less noticeable? Does anyone you know feel a little bit more entitled than usual, getting in and out of a black SUV at dinner? Certainly you’ve felt the aggressive class tension that comes when the people who work in an area are no longer able to live there—something that just seems to feel worse and worse in the Bay Area. And maybe not. Maybe that’s just in my head.
The truth is that we know what the world looks like when we all live in close proximity with every convenience available on-demand. We know what it looks like when competition among drivers—nay, people—always trumps cooperation, when everyone is out for themselves, and to paraphrase Yossarian from Catch-22, you’d be a fool to act any other way.
We know that world. Welcome to New York.
Also: a postscript apology to my seven readers. My new project Foundering has kicked my ass. Once it launched, I thought, “Oh, this will be fine. I can do three comics per week and write one blog post and work two interim CFO gigs while finding new consulting projects to pay off my crippling credit card debt plus do other creative stuff. Absolutely yes.” But the real answer was a resounding no. I’m going to try to find a way to balance all of these projects, so the comic will probably go to twice a week. I’m not super happy with this post even, but I have to write something.