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The freedom of driving

How driverless cars curtail our joy and autonomy to serve Silicon Valley’s voracious surveillance capitalism.

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Approaching the end of this strange and absorbing book Matthew Crawford considers the last scene of the movie Thelma and Louise. Cornered by police cars and a helicopter, the two heroines commit suicide by driving their turquoise Ford Thunderbird convertible into the Grand Canyon. They decide, writes Crawford, to “exit the whole shit-show by driving off a cliff”. Then he adds, “Try that in your Waymo.”

A Waymo is – or, rather, will be – the opposite of that glorious T’Bird. It is a self- driving car powered by Google technology. The Waymo website boasts that its monstrous array of sensors and computers constitute “the world’s most experienced driver”. There is no way this thing would let you drive off a cliff. Your exit from the shit-show has been slammed shut, your freedom has been curtailed. And trivially curtailed in the name of advertising and consumer control, for Google is an advertising company, nothing more, nothing less. It cannot let its targets kill themselves either by accident or design. People must be saved from their free selves in the name of surveil-lance capitalism.

Crawford is a Virginia-based physicist turned political philosopher. But, most of all, he is a petrolhead, a gearhead, who believes in working with his hands and driving – cars and motorbikes – to the limit. Speeding tickets rain down on him like confetti. This is risky in Virginia, where a few mph over the legal speed can land you in jail. In the prelude to this book he mentions four trips to the emergency room in 12 months. He feels, nevertheless, “existentially justified”. “Is risk,” he asks, “somehow bound up with humanising possibilities?” You know his answer is going to be yes indeed.

He loves taking his machines to the edge – “There is a certain tonic in being scared shitless” – and he likes to challenge the law. “This is not mayhem, Officer,” he says to himself about a moment of perilous oversteer, “this is control.”

On the other hand, you might reasonably say it is a good idea to stop Thelmas and Louises killing themselves and to make cars as safe as possible. The world, since 1965, has taken this view. That was the year Ralph Nader, an American attorney, published Unsafe at Any Speed. It’s a title Crawford adapts for his own purposes – “Unsafe at any speed” but also “fun at every speed”. Cars that are bad for your average driver are pure joy for the true petrolhead.

A car was the star of Nader’s book – the Chevrolet Corvair, first released in 1960. It was rear-engined and it had swing-axle rear suspension. It was, said Nader, lethal – as were many of the products of Detroit in the Sixties. The swing axle allowed the Corvair’s wheels to cope better with bumps and potholes, but there was a downside – it could cause the car to overturn. This became even more likely if the car happened to have a rear engine. In fact, later investigations showed the Corvair was not as bad as Nader claimed but, in general, he was right.

Detroit was humbled and cars had to be tamed. Compulsory seat belts, air bags, anti- lock brakes all followed and, for the most part, fatalities began to fall. But then something changed. New proactive safety devices – lane control, automatic braking systems, speed limiters – appeared. Drivers were being incrementally disempowered; we were on a one-way street to the driverless car.

But autonomous cars, Crawford argues, are not primarily a caring, humane project to save lives, rather they are a scam designed to make our lives less interesting, less surprising and more profitable to the Silicon Valley monopolists.

“The most authoritative voices in commerce and technology,” he writes, “express a determination to eliminate contingency from life as much as possible, and replace it with machine-generated certainty.”

The threat to the environment caused by fossil-fuelled cars is only lightly touched upon. Crawford does note, rightly, that many supposedly green policies are, in fact, scams. The car makers’ “cash for clunkers” programme in which old cars were bought and destroyed because, supposedly, they were worse emitters than new ones was a transparent ruse to sell new cars. Well-maintained old cars are fine and new emission control systems fail with age. He also detects hypocrisy in the “informal norms of bourgeois environmentalism”. But I suspect he is not an anti-warmist, it’s just that this book is not about that, it is about a freedom that is being lost to the cynics of surveillance.

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Driverless cars are catnip for the Silicon Valley monopolists. The average commute is dead space because their target is too busy driving to take in advertising or interact with any information-gathering devices. But what if the car becomes one of those devices? Crawford groans. “Do we want to make getting from point A to point B something you do, not in car, but in a device, that is, a portal to overlapping bureaucracies?” What do you do on your commute instead of driving? You stare at your laptop, tablet or phone. Safer possibly, but definitely less free.

This book is a defence of felt life against the intrusions of the technocrats – a running theme in Crawford’s work, from The Case for Working with Your Hands (2010) to The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (2015). But, as I said, it is strange. For a start, almost all the intellectual content is included in the first 50 pages. Most of the rest is the real thing – hot-rodding a VW Beetle, getting lost on a trip in a 1972 Jeepster Commando, folk engineering, demolition derbies, desert racing, how to handle road rage and so on. He admits the tone is uneven, but it is intrinsic to his world view; after all, life is uneven.

These stories demonstrate that he is fully engaged – racing, talking and generally getting to know other gearheads – and is living his convictions. His philosophy is powered by a small-block Chevy V8. In the desert racing passage he self-consciously opposes his approach to that of the great gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson. Thompson made his name in the Seventies with a wild and crazy description of the Mint 400 desert race near Las Vegas. “He seems barely to have noticed the race itself,” sniffs Crawford, “through the haze of drugs he brought with him from Los Angeles.”

The point is that Thompson and the other practitioners of the New Journalism were big city types staring in amused wonder at the cowboys, rednecks, hillbillies and good ol’ boys. Crawford is a good ol’ boy by choice, albeit one who quotes Hobbes, Huizinga, Tocqueville, Oakeshott, Freud, Foucault and quite a few more.

His argument against the cult of safety is twofold. First, he thinks it imprisons us and compromises the human experience of free mobility. Second, he believes many safety measures are not what they seem.

The theft of human experience is a “moral reduction”. It deploys a form of automated utilitarianism, a superhuman calculus that delivers machine-readable moral demands, the sort of things that are now being fed into the development of driverless cars – do you avoid hitting the baby and knock over a few old people instead? Like all forms of utilitarianism this involves a removal of human agency since all judgements are mathematised, leaving nothing for the would-be moral individual to do except obey.

We are denied “our original, animal genius for learning about the world by acting directly on it” and “at the end of this trajectory… the world becomes a techno-zoo for defeated people”. Crawford sees resistance movements like the gilet jaunes, who destroyed 60 per cent of the radar speed traps in France, as first responders to this crude machine-made moralism.

But his real heroes seem to be London’s black cabbies who, he notes with awe, pursue with monk-like devotion the “Knowledge” of the 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. The Knowledge is embodied within the drivers, it is not served up by the US military satellite system we know as GPS. That is, of course, what is used by one of Crawford’s – and the cabbies’ – prime villains, Uber.

Uber loses billions by subsidising its fares and flooding the streets with empty cars, a business model “made possible by diverting attention from the massive fare subsidies (supplied by investors) responsible for its growth”. The long-term goal, he thinks, is to attain market dominance, then ditch the drivers and replace all those Priuses with driverless cars.

But there is hope for the humans and the gearheads. It lies in the misalignment between the technocratic imagination and lived experience. Technocrats are “easily tempted into a moral-intellectual space that floats free of the empirical, and has more in common with the non-falsifiable commitments of religious faith”, he says. They dream of “smart cities” which, they say, are “the next trillion-dollar frontier for Big Tech” but which would, in fact, be modern panopticons, dystopias of surveillance and consumption. This, we are told, is the future, but nobody with a soul can possibly want it.

Crawford has even more fun in his catalogue of ways in which safety measures don’t work. This seems to be especially true of the various add-ons to cars on the way to driverlessness. One effect of these is to lull drivers into a false sense of security while stripping them of the driving skills they would need when the gizmos go wrong – which, as any Boeing 737 Max pilot will tell you, they often do.

On the way to driverlessness we find ourselves with “a dysfunctional hybrid of human control that makes little use of the exquisite connections between mind and body, plus a crude interface of symbols”. On top of that, touch screen “infotainment” controls are actually very dangerous – they take your eyes off the road for a surprisingly long time. And I shudder to think how many have died or been maimed by people operating mobile phones while driving.

Other safety measures turn out to be straightforward scams. Automated traffic enforcement systems in US cities like Chicago and Washington, DC are sold as safety systems when, in fact, they are profit centres for local government and the companies selling them. In Chicago one transport official, John Bills, pocketed up to $2,000 for every new traffic camera he installed. He made about $2m before ending up in Joliet, the prison you may remember from The Blues Brothers – a good real car movie.

Warming to these themes, Crawford spreads his wings way beyond cars. That “security theatre” you have to act in at airports? Forget it. Neither the transparent tube in which you are doused with microwaves nor the wipe down with a little towel which is then inserted into a black box to detect explosive residue actually work. The military doesn’t bother with them, preferring much more reliable and much less expensive dogs to detect explosives. Furthermore, independent auditors who tried to sneak weapons on to planes found that 90 per cent of them got through undetected.

At this point you may be growing a little wary of this book. Where is this guy coming from? Is he a redneck-loving Republican with his insistence on the centrality of the individual when set against the state? Or is he a leftish monopoly-buster waging war on the tyrannies of Silicon Valley?

Crawford is neither of those. He simply loves real cars. Indeed, he loves them so much that he even loves traffic. His passage on road rage is plain funny. He quotes one study of drivers in Los Angeles that found that being pissed off is “an infinitely recurring experience”. Road rage is “analytical work” involving anger at “Prius drivers who want you to know they ‘buy local’. Meth-head rednecks in jacked-up pickups. Blow-dried douchebags in BMWs. Vindictive fat people in Pontiac Aztecs…” and so on.

This love of cars spills over into his philosophy and his politics, which are neither of the right nor the left and certainly not of the centre. But he is a conservative in the mould of his hero, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, “One of the most beautifully austere thinkers of the 20th century.” From him he derives an “affection for the present”, cherishing what actually exists rather than mourning the past or aspiring to the future. And nothing has more actually existed for the past 130 years than the car.

The internal combustion-powered car is, for the moment, the loveable present. The car-killers are gathering; they now even claim that the pandemic will be another nail in the coffin of automobilism. Crawford also senses it has not long to go and fears that, in the end, the technocrats will have their way. He imagines a driverless future in which the great old “dumb” cars – “vintage Ferraris with six smelly Italian carburettors and a set of ignition points living inside a grimy centrifugal-advance distributor” – have been bought up by the bosses of Google to provide themselves with “the undisturbed head space they need to do their deep thinking while commuting”. No Waymos for them – they’re for losers, the safe but enslaved underclass of surveillance capitalism, the shit-show from which there is no exit. 

Bryan Appleyard writes for the Sunday Times

Why We Drive: On Freedom, Risk and Taking Back Control
Matthew Crawford
Bodley Head, 368pp, £20

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football