Driving is flourishing

What if driving offered self-enlargement? Crawford, philosopher and mechanic, demonstrates that our ability to move in a car calls upon various resources of our intelligence. In this sense, driving a car allows for “cognitive extension”.

While the autonomous car promises automotive experiences without driving and claims to remedy all the disadvantages of driving, questioning the latter through a philosophical approach takes on its full interest. In his essay, University of Virginia instructor and auto mechanic Matthew Crawford answers the question: “What drives driving as a practice?” » (p. 15). In other words, why do we drive?

Using a philosophical and ego-history approach, he intends to explain the benefits of motorized driving on the individual and society. He first explains the various forms of appropriation of the automobile. Then he explains the contributions of motorized sports to individual development. Then, he defends the idea that the deployment of the automobile system is underpinned by self-governance. Finally, he ends the work by questioning the promises of a future devoted to digital automobile mobility.

Criticism of the autonomous vehicle

For the author, driving is part of human development. First, it questions the so-called desire for autonomous vehicles. Then, it demonstrates that there is psychological and social added value in driving from point A to point B.

Firstly, Crawford points to the fact that autonomous vehicles constitute a desirable horizon. It recalls certain publicized clichés: the decline in congestion, a drop in pollution due to better controlled traffic, time saved from no longer driving to favor other activities and, above all, a drastic reduction in road accidents, because the vast majority are believed to be due to human error.

However, Crawford points out that the desire and pleasure of driving in the United States do not seem as contested as the promoters of autonomous vehicles suggest. Rightly so, studies referring to the pleasure or displeasure of driving are non-existent to our knowledge. Individual freedoms are questioned in the face of the use of algorithms and the potential tracking and advertising to which passengers in the autonomous vehicle will be subject. It is more broadly a question of “the ecology of attention, which constitutes the car, is cannibalized by all-out advertising marketing. According to him, the transition to autonomous vehicles would lead to an atrophy of the intellectual and manual capacities of individuals.

This second point is particularly innovative. As a philosopher, Crawford dissects the act of driving, which constitutes more than a simple geographical movement. Certainly, since the 1990s, the technical and technological progress of automobile manufacturers has distanced us from the environment around us; they cause us to be less attentive to the road. The comfort of the shock absorbers, the reinforced soundproofing, the sanitized interior, the increased weight of the car make it difficult to “resonate” with the world.

Through a scientific “driving school for rats” experiment, Crawford demonstrates that our ability to move in a car while driving calls upon various resources of our intelligence. Through the degree of attention, the technical skill required, attention to the social world around us, the coordination of the senses, driving a car allows the development of individual and collective morality – “cognitive extension” (p. 134). .

The relevance of the smart mobility ?

Crawford traces the history of autonomous vehicles since the rise of tools regulating traffic and parking – cameras and radars. Referring to revenues from automatic fines and the episode of yellow vests breaking speed cameras in 2018-2019, he highlights the frustration of drivers in the face of anonymous and all-powerful digital technology. A study showed that, in the District of Columbia, the presence of speed cameras caused accidents when drivers braked hard to avoid a potential ticket, even though these intersections were relatively accident-prone.

According to the author, drivers seem to be punished more than appropriate, which gives rise to contemporary behavior defying state authority in France and the United States. Taking the example of traffic on German highways without speed limits, Italian streets and American crossroads, the author demonstrates that drivers can drive without technology in a safe and autonomous manner through constantly adjusted anticipation. However, these examples are open to criticism, since the majority of accidents take place in the outskirts and rural areas.

Autonomous vehicles currently being deployed raise several comments. If the addition of remote navigation technologies calls into question the level of concentration, the addition of safety techniques leads to a reduction in vigilance while driving. This is explained by the increase in ignorance of automobile technology and the ease of relying on technical devices.

In addition, the increase in gadgets will increase the price of autonomous vehicles and will therefore deprive part of the population of this mode of transport. Peripheral spaces will pay the price, since they are dependent on motorization. The rise of driverless taxis, which will overshadow public transport, must raise questions about their carbon footprint.

“Defense and illustration of motoring”

Several chapters scattered throughout the work focus on “portraying the different automotive subcultures” (p. 44). To the reader unfamiliar with the works of Matthew Crawford, they seem to act as interludes. It is not so. Certainly, sometimes technical, sometimes specific to American culture, they show the richness of the automotive world.

When it comes to driving a car or an all-terrain motorcycle in a sporting setting, there remains the “art of driving” (p. 8). THE drift, as a motorsport discipline where the driver zigzags on the road at the limit of control of his vehicle, constitutes an art. Crawford talks about an enduro race where many female participants rub shoulders with men without feeling the need to claim that they are women. Finally, it ties in off-road racing SNORE Knotty Pine 250 with Tocquevillian principles, to the extent that this community organizes this race itself.

These various “recreational” practices call upon human qualities such as audacity, surpassing oneself, hyper-concentration or confidence. It is interesting that the author links these human characteristics to motoring, but aren’t they found in other activities, cycling, team and individual sports, artistic activities? Do these motorized activities have real added value that the previous activities mentioned do not have?

Under the expression “popular engineering” are grouped manual work carried out on motor vehicles.

This practice mobilizes “a form of cognitive appropriation (of) automobiles” (p. 25) which modifies the practice of driving and the vehicle. He evokes, in very technical pages, his restoration of a Volkswagen Beetle from 1975, his admiration of old cars which allow him not to be drowned in presentism and to immerse himself in meticulous manual work valued by concrete results.

And pollution?

Crawford also questions the legislation introduced in various countries to prohibit old vehicles from circulating. According to American studies, these are not as polluting as we would have you believe. The path taken was the shortest: forcing the old clunkers to no longer circulate, rather than asking the entire oil industry to be less polluting. These multiple forays into automobile technology constitute an open door to motorization as an object of heritage to be maintained and preserved.

Crawford’s work constitutes a relevant contribution to understanding what the practice of motorized driving (and not just automobile driving) brings us from a philosophical and psychological point of view. It questions the issues surrounding autonomous vehicles in relation to the “age of surveillance capitalism”. We can regret that the author was not aware of the various French works mentioned in reference here, which would have led to more in-depth reflection.

It is certain that the author puts aside the pollution caused by motorization; what we can blame him for. Studies show that autonomous vehicles are not exempt from a staggering carbon footprint: in addition to vehicle pollution, there is pollution produced by data and its conservation in storage centers.

For mobility specialists, the book reminds us that there is much more than just a simple geographical trip when we take our vehicle. It would be welcome for sociologists, ethnologists and neuroscientists to empirically investigate the characteristics used when driving, in order to assess their awareness by drivers.