The driver in the TV commercial looks able enough. Then he pulls up next to another vehicle, hits a button labeled “park assist,” and sits back passively while his Lexus turns the steering wheel, backs up at precisely the right angle, stops before it hits the curb, and neatly pulls itself into the open spot. The perfect parallel park, brought to you by microchip and Japanese engineering.
This luxury feature is just the latest in a long string of technological leaps forward for the automobile, but somehow the sight of a car literally parking itself makes me wonder if we’ve gone too far.
Admittedly, my misgivings about the changing dynamics of driving are largely emotional. America is a nation in which automobiles have long served as symbols of personal freedom, rugged individualism, and good old machismo. That’s how they’ve been sold to us, anyway. In our mechanized world, a V-8 engine’s horsepower stands in for the real horse a cowboy would once have had to bridle.
Horseless carriages were originally associated with wealthy dandies in goggles and scarves—men too weak to wrestle a wild beast to their transportation needs. But as Ford’s assembly lines began churning out machines by the thousands, Madison Avenue came to the rescue with a new image of the automobile as an extension of the spirit of the American male. Instead of proving his machismo by breaking in a wild stallion, he would get a hulking steel extension of himself to master. Until fairly recently, a man’s man was supposed to know enough about spark plugs and fan belts to pop the hood and get a little grease on his hands now and again.
The slow evolution from muscle car to computerized chauffeur started innocently enough. Simple mechanical conveniences like power steering and the automatic transmission enabled people with a bit less muscle or coordination to force the wheels and engine of an unwieldy hunk of metal to their will. Now anyone can cruise down Main Street like a greaser from American Graffiti.
But integration of the microchip into the automobile has taken things in a new direction. Along with power doors and windows, electronic transmissions, and remote-start ignitions comes a corresponding alienation from the inner workings of our vehicles. Today’s car has essentially no user-serviceable parts inside it; a mechanic’s garage is a clean, computerized facility staffed by specialists in lab coats. We’re no longer really supposed to understand how our cars work but rather to marvel at what they can do by and for themselves. As a result, instead of serving as the car’s master and caretaker, we have become its pampered child.
Consider what driving now entails. Cruise control relieves us of the responsibility for manning the gas pedal, while even newer technologies warn us if we’re about to go off the road. Cars can monitor our eyelids for signs of fatigue and even call for help if we manage to get into trouble despite all this protection. Yes, we may be safer, but driving has shifted from an act of independence—our first taste of potentially reckless teenage freedom—to an activity hovered over by a vigilant electronic mother, scanning the road ahead for danger.
As if to compensate for all this mothering, our car exteriors have grown to incorporate Daddy too. Drivers looking for that lost sense of power buy gargantuan SUVs in which they tower over everyone else. Yet behind the tinted glass of even the most menacing tank is a mobile family room: a self-contained, hermetically sealed set of comfort zones in which each passenger is coddled, warmed, entertained, and even nourished individually. Instead of looking out the window to play “I spy,” kids stare at their own personal DVD monitors, unlikely to notice they’ve actually left the house. Even the driver can ignore the world beyond his windshield and simply follow the calm instructions of the talking GPS-enabled navigation system. No need to learn local landmarks or ever take an unexpected turn. The family may as well be teleported to their destination.
That’s what bothers me most about the evolutionary path of our vehicles—and about many of the other technologies we bring into our lives under the rubric of “convenience.” It’s one thing to use an electric mixer or a gas oven to bake bread; it’s another to throw the ingredients into a computerized box that bakes the bread for you. The latter assumes that the task has no value in itself, so it’s better not to be present for it. It is the same logic that leads people to use cell phones in the street or iPods on the bus, acts that make these spaces even less interactive or friendly than they were before.
Increasingly detached from the tasks and surroundings of our daily lives, we are also less connected to the civic, social, and physical reality on which we depend. This way of using technology looks to me less like a quest for the independence of an adult than like a long, disempowering trek back to the blindness, security, and absolute dependence of the womb.