Driving, thinking and the consequences of the driverless car [Part 1]

By Lynne Pearce

Both in the news and among those academics whose work is concerned with transport futures there appears to be a widespread assumption that driverless cars are both inevitable and desirable.

While there is, as yet, no coherent justification for why this should be the case, I have heard friends, colleagues and media commentators point to such benefits as: taking the (traditional) car out of urban areas; improving traffic flow (given that a good deal of congestion is caused by vehicles randomly accelerating and braking); enabling those who can’t – or can no longer – drive to enjoy the flexibility of personalised transport; not to mention the possibility of being plugged in to one’s mobile technologies while being simultaneously, and effortlessly, transported to a programmed destination.

However, for me, there is a very significant downside to the prospect of driverless driving that no-one else seems to have considered as yet: that is, its consequences for the travelling public’s mental health on account of the singular role cars have played in providing us with a rare opportunity in which to think. As is demonstrated by a rich archive of twentieth-century motoring literature which returns us to the time when this was otherwise, driving facilitates and directs thought in ways that may, at first, seem surprising but which speak both to our psychological well-being and our ability to meditate and philosophise.

This pre-occupation with what we stand to lose, as well as gain, on our seemingly inexorable flight towards a fully-automated automotive future has arisen as the result of the research I undertook for my new book, Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive ConsciousnessWhile recent sociological mobilities research has gone some way to capturing the embodied and affective nature of the driving experience (largely in an attempt to understand why the world is having such a hard job in weaning the public off their cars), only the odd scholar has paused to consider the cognitive pleasures, and psychological benefits, of driving and hence the implications of the loss of the unique thought-space represented by the car should driving becomes fully automated.

One cultural theorist to hint at the special role cars play in providing us with a private space in which to think is Michael Bull who, following Richard Sennett, proposed that the ‘dwelling-place’ (Urry 2007) of the car may be thought of as a latter-day church:  a peaceful, private world to which we can retreat (even, it must be said, in the midst of traffic ) in order to problem-solve, meditate, fuel our fantasies or, indeed, touch base spiritually and/or existentially with what it means to be alive:

Automobiles appear to operate as symbolic ‘sanctuaries’ in which drivers operationalize strategies of ‘centredness’. This sanctuary represents a physical zone of ‘immunity’ between the driver and the world or space beyond. Historically this zone was thought to be imbued with qualities not attributable to the world beyond, as in the spaces of a church . . . Following  Sennett, the automobile might constitute one of the last, albeit problematic, refuges of a retreating public subjectivity.  (Bull 2001:199)

In the course of my research I discovered a great many fictional drivers who used their cars for precisely this purpose (from Mrs Miniver in Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver (1939) to Jim Nashe in Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance (1990)), as well as autobiographical testimonies to the unique thought-space represented by the car.

By far the most evocative academic (and British) example of this is Tim Edensor’s wonderful article from 2003, ‘M6 – Junction 19-16’,  while – in more populist vein – the musician, Neil Young’s, accounts of ‘trippin’ along’ the Californian highways in the 1970s reveal an aspect of American ‘cruising’ that has largely been ignored. Reflecting on the pleasure both he and his father used to get from driving his old Plymouth Deluxe Sedan through the redwoods of the Californian coast, Young observes:

Sitting inside my old cars while I was driving on these roads, it was easy to lose track of who I was and what year it was. After driving for a while and not seeing anyone, it became the year of the car. I was generally not in a hurry, especially back in those days, when time was on my side.

The redwoods are still like church to me, good for the soul, I love driving along surrounded by their grace while the sun streaks through like God-rays. (Young 2014: 161)

Lynne portrait April 2016
Lynne Pearce is Professor of Literary Theory in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University and Director for the Humanities at the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe).She has published widely in the field of literary and cultural theory and women’s writing

Her book Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness publishes in July 2016.

Articles: 162


  1. Interesting article, Lynne. But I disagree with you about the cognitive benefits of driving as somehow a downside of the driverless car. To take your theory to its logical destination, one would expect those people who don’t drive to be somehow cognitively deprived or impaired compared to those who do.
    Your nostalgia for the human-operated car reminds me of a justification for the building of a motorway through my city in the 1970s. The planners thought movement was stimulating and predicted that people would use their leisure time to stand on bridges and watch the resulting traffic.
    I know people who do find their journey in their cars to and from work a good mental ‘breathing space’, an airlock between work and their private life. The advent of the driverless car does not remove that airlock. Of course, the act of driving justifies not doing other things, whereas if we are not driving but in transit we might be answering those emails, talking on the phone, reading papers, writing reports, etc. Our time poverty could increase but then it is down to us as a society to get to grips with that anyway – regardless of whether or not we are in control of the car.
    One assumption around driverless cars is that we will still be wedded to the idea of ownership. I suspect that our relationship to the car will change if our hands are not on the steering wheel and our feet are not on the pedals. If I could call up a driverless car on my phone only when I need it and I can eliminate the costs of ownership, I would gladly do so.

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