The first time I got behind the wheel of a car, my father bravely sat in the passenger seat. I was fifteen with a learner’s permit, and I was nervous and hesitant. In one of our first driving lessons, my father directed me to Forestway Drive, a two-lane road with no traffic signals and no passing that wound through a forest preserve near our house. The speed limit was forty-five, but I barely approached thirty on my first attempt. Instead, I crept through the woods with a line of eager cars on my tail.
Over time, Forestway Drive became my personal measuring stick for my abilities as a driver. On each trip, I inched closer to the speed limit. Soon, I was zig-zagging my way through the forest with ease. After I got my driver’s license, I began to take the longer Forestway route whenever I traveled in its direction. I especially liked to drive that road at night, simply for the thrill of hugging those wooded curves in the moonlit darkness, for the pleasure of succeeding at something that had once seemed so difficult.
When I was in high school in the early 2000s, driving remained an act of skill and power and an expression of personal freedom—even for minivans! Take this 2000 Chrysler advertisement featuring similar footage to what you might see in a commercial for a sports car:
A fleet of vans cruises along a snaking tree-lined road, whipping around curves and accelerating in perfect unison. The voice-over describes the vans as “luxurious” and repeats the model name “Voyager” twice in succession. These minivans aren’t just for soccer moms; they’re meant for voyages, for taking adventures and doing so in style.
Four years later, Chrysler shifted its Pacifica model name from a minivan to a sportier crossover vehicle. Yet unlike those 2000 minivans, this more aesthetically appealing automobile was advertised for its comfort more than its performance. This 2007 Pacifica commercial opens up much like its 2000 predecessor, with taglines emphasizing “performance” and “style”:
But the ad quickly shifts tone to focus on “security” and “safety.” It continues to “technology,” which refers to a DVD player and satellite radio rather than improved driving performance. Images of the car’s extraneous features replace the fast, powerful, initial driving shot. The final driving scene is the tamest of all, portraying the Pacifica traveling at a moderate speed along a quiet suburban street. The transition from driving a car to riding in one had begun.
This year, comedian Jim Gaffigan offered several tongue-in-cheek boasts about his “Dad brand” in a series of Pacifica commercials. Take for example this self-parking ad:
“I do things myself,” Gaffigan says, as his Pacifica parallel parks itself. “I don’t pass things off, I don’t let anyone or anything do something that I should do myself.”
The advertisement effectively uses Gaffigan’s humor to highlight the self-parking feature of the Pacifica. But who is the butt of Gaffigan’s irony? All of us who claim to be independent, skillful and proactive? Chrysler pinpoints the hypocrisy of modern car commercials that conflate human driving performance with the technological capabilities of contemporary automobiles. But in promoting the Pacifica’s self-parking feature, Chrysler’s apparent solution is that we should either embrace Gaffigan’s hypocrisy or fully adopt the hands-free, effort-free lifestyle.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I rarely had the need to parallel park a car. It wasn’t until I got to college that I became woefully aware of this shortcoming, especially in comparison to my friend who was raised in the city. While a self-parking car could have saved me a lot of hassle, I always felt that parallel parking was a skill that wasn’t hard enough or dangerous enough to preclude the effort needed to learn it.
We now face the prospect of self-driving cars filling American roads within a few years. Google unleashed its automated vehicles on the streets around its northern California headquarters last year. Uber recently rolled out a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh with the hope of soon expanding to other markets. In late September, a group of tech industry veterans proposed banning human-driven automobiles on a 150-mile stretch of interstate between Seattle and Vancouver. The same article claims congested urban settings, college campuses and airports could outlaw human drivers within five years.
I am amazed by the rapid acceleration of automated automobile technology leading to the recent explosion of viable self-driving cars. And I have no doubt that a road without human drivers will be safer for all commuters. Distracted, drowsy and intoxicated drivers could soon become hazards of the past. Traffic might move more freely, and commuters could at least use their travel time productively. Yet part of me that will miss zipping through the quiet darkness of Forestway Drive in this new driverless world.
I do not consider myself a technophobe and do not want to come across as one. However, the shift from the skill of driving toward automation underlines a concern common to any rapid advance in technology. It bears repeating that we are (at least for now) masters of our technologies. We can use them how and as much or little as we please. In that vein, we should ask ourselves whether we choose self-parking or self-driving cars for safety and convenience, or because we don’t want to bother cultivating the requisite skill to park or drive ourselves. Where driving was once considered an enjoyable pastime and a symbol of humankind’s ability to bend technology to its own devices, we now risk seeing this skill become an antiquated luxury in our continual pursuit of comfort, safety and efficiency.
Contrary to Gaffigan’s words, we no longer do many things ourselves. We do pass tasks off, we do let machines perform actions we should do ourselves. Let’s ask ourselves whether we do so for the sake of public safety or to allow us to use our time more productively or better cultivate meaningful relationships, or simply because we have become too lazy, scared or enamored with personal comfort to act on our own. We should weigh technologies, not only on how they affect our lives in a purely utilitarian calculus but on whether or not they erode the very spirit of adventure, creativity and human agency that made them possible in the first place.