Self-driving cars will kill the romance of the road - Not all trips are commutes

" I hate driving,” I say. “I can’t wait for self-driving cars.”

People look at me incredulously every time I say it. I have this debate a couple of times every year.

“No way. I love driving,” they reply. “There’s something so satisfying about it.” They quickly make exceptions — traffic jams, screaming kids in the backseat — but insist they would never give up driving and risk missing moments of freedom, of power, even creativity.

I get it. And I hate to drive.

But for those who don’t, the self-driving car threatens their joy. The thought of inputting a destination and relinquishing control angers them. 

Americans may not have unlimited time for joy rides, aimless country tours in a sports car, but the option to control a machine and roam freely is intoxicating. It’s liberating. It’s sex.

Brooklyn Gang (1959), by Bruce Davidson.

Smoky Car, New Hampshire (1979), by Nan Goldin.

Self-driving cars, and the safety and stress-reduction they promise, threaten to erase those feelings. Google is building a driverless car with no steering wheel or gas pedal. Volvo’s Time Machine features auto-pilot mode and a 25-inch flatscreen. Tesla plans to create a network of fully autonomous cars. In fact, most major car manufacturers are experimenting with some version of driverless technology, whether via self-parking or adaptive cruise control.

1: A driving telematics simulator at the University of Michigan is a step towards autonomous vehicles. (AP/Tony Ding) 2: View from the highway in Bexar County, Texas, 1940. (Russell Lee/FSA/LOC)

These autonomous vehicles are being advertised as productivity-boosters, a way to reclaim the time “wasted” driving. “You can use that time to do something useful. That’s the value.” says Peter Mandel, an IBM software products manager in Silicon Valley who owns a Tesla. The car of the future has been stripped of romance.

Here’s the problem: People never fell in love with the commuting efficiency of cars. They fall in love with the freedom, the pleasure of operating a car, or sometimes just the promise of both. The self-driving vehicle is marketing an entirely different kind of freedom: the elimination of a car experience all together.

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California, 1937. (Dorothea Lange/FSA/LOC)

The first automobiles weren’t vehicles for running errands or motoring to the office. They were status symbols, pleasure carriages, means of family bonding, and later, vehicles for ecstatic escape.

It all started with the Sunday drive. Beginning in the 1830s, Americans who could afford it began to take their horse-drawn carriages out on Sundays after church. They would cruise the boulevards wanting to see and be seen. The Sabbath, a day previously devoted to worship and rest, began to transform. It was the beginning of a huge split in Christian American culture: rest versus leisure, a distinction that jolted Christian tradition and sealed the era of pleasure driving.

As the modern automobile emerged in the late 19th Century, many car owners took their vehicles out only on Sundays, as frequent breakdowns made early cars less reliable than a horse and carriage (which church supporters saw as signs that God disapproved). The weekly treat only increased affection for cars.

The church hated all of it, calling such joyriders “Sabbath-breakers,” and tried to restrict Sunday car use only to church and back. One Baptist weekly advised churchgoers who used cars to “display a placard or pennant to indicate they are going to church.” At first, people who were injured on Sunday excursions could only claim damages if they could prove their travels were necessary or charitable.

But it was too late: People were driving just for the happiness of it. According to Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday, the “excursion to nowhere became a widespread phenomenon.”

Billed as the nation’s oldest operating drive-in movie theater, Shankweiler’s opened in 1934 near Allentown, Pa. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

Inthe 1920s, the cultural concept of recreational drive only grew. Families hopped in their cars and explored, peering out the windows toward no particular destination.

Cars themselves began to change in design, becoming roomier and more cushioned for longer rides. People bought cars for their ease of use: “Pleasure driving must be pleasure, not work. Old cars steer hard,” wrote consumer S. P. McMinn in a 1921 issue of Popular Science. Infrastructure evolved to accommodate pleasure driving, from local parkways to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The 1914 “See America First” ad campaign preyed on patriotism and asked citizens to spend travel dollars in their own country rather than abroad.

As people spent more time driving, American behavior changed, subcultures grew around the car.

Still from Two Lane Blacktop, a 1971 film about muscle car drag racing starring Warren Oats, Dennis Wilson and James Taylor. (Universal Pictures)

Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., created the first drive-in in 1933; from 1954 to 1973, drive-ins accounted for one-fourth of theater profits. It was around this time that anxiety deepened around pleasure drives, this time involving America’s youth. The car allowed young people to escape supervision with a mobile, private space all their own. It could serve as a “parlor or bedroom on wheels.” This “mobile privatization” added a complex new layer to American freedom — and to the erotics of the automobile.

Design changes around this time screamed sensuality: slick chrome rims, three-toned bodies, and sharp fins. The car was associated with “luscious females and sensuous pleasures,” according to The Automobile and American Culture. Power-steering and push-button controls meant anyone could “experience the machine’s powerful thrust.” Muscle cars and sports cars coupled high-performance driving with style. Subcultures blossomed around them — from car modification junkies to pin-up models.

Sanchez Garage, S. Normandie Ave. at 96th St., LA, 1997. (Camilo J. Vergara/LOC)

Townsend Ave. S. of 175th St., S. Bronx, 1992. (Camilo J. Vergara/LOC)

In the 1980s, the US consumer welcomed foreign manufacturers. More compact, aerodynamic designs changed the driving experience, as did the birth of the modern SUV, which carmakers advertised fording streams and speeding across beaches.

More and more, people found joy in vehicle performance, style, and comfort. Turns out, there was even more to car pleasure than the act of driving.

Sunset over the Barstow Freeway, 2012. (Carol M. Highsmith/LOC)

The pleasure center of American car culture has shifted somewhat. Millennials aren’t buying cars like their predecessors, preferring to live in urban centers and rely on car-sharing or public transit options. Phone culture has eclipsed car culture, says The Washington Post. And city design is no longer suitable for these changes in transportation behavior, much less its next wave.

Still, there remains a vocal opposition to change, especially if it means giving up control of their vehicles. According to a 2016 Kelley Blue Book study, 80% of Americans said they should always have the option to drive themselves; 64% expressed a need to be in control of their own car.

A man watches a movie alone in his truck at the Silver Moon Drive-in Theatre in Lakeland, Fla., 2008. (AP/John Raoux)

“My God, driving was fun while it lasted,” wrote the Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff in“Driverless cars: The slow, sad death of joyous motoring,” echoing many people’s fears about the impending demise of driving.

One of the last major automakers to abstain from self-driving technology, Mazda, is banking on this consumer nostalgia. “It’s not just getting from point A to point B,” Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai told Forbes. “Our mission is to provide the essence of driving pleasure.”

It’s exactly this pleasure that improved car technology will sacrifice. It will take generations for people to forget the Sunday drive — the feel of the steering wheel in your hands, the thrill of hugging a curvy road, the solace of just getting away for some alone time.

I don’t drive but I understand what we’re losing. Maybe the future offers a different kind of pleasure, especially for non-drivers like me. Maybe with driverless cars I can finally take a trip without the stress of my hands on a steering wheel, nonetheless peaceful and alone on a country road.

Stephanie Buck