Driving, thinking and the consequences of the driverless car [Part 2]

By Lynne Pearce

Quite apart from its utility as a means of transport – or, indeed, its significance as a status-symbol –  the twentieth-automobile has provided drivers and passengers with a personalised refuge and thought-space in which to touch base with matters pushed to one side in the frenetic hustle of everyday life. Yet the possibility that car driving might include a benefit so at odds with what it was  – and indeed, still is  –  more typically associated with  — i.e., speed and its accompanying mindlessness –  presumably goes some way to explaining why there are so few of us voicing our concerns about the consequences of going driver-less.

But – I hear you ask – why should the travellers in driverless cars be prevented from thinking?  May not they even be able to think better when the concentration needed for driving the car is removed?  My research, not to mention my many years as a driver, suggests otherwise. For while common sense might tell us that we think best when doing nothing at all, it appears that   demands placed one part of the brain – such as the complex mental/motor skills needed to handle a car safely –  actually serve to liberate other cognitive functions (Groeger 2000). This principle resonates, of course, with the breathing techniques employed in yoga and other forms of meditation to free the mind from its everyday distractions and anxieties: by giving the children of our teeming, reactive brains something to keep them quiet, our deeper, contemplative concerns can be given the attention they deserve.

One literary text to demonstrate this superbly is Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays (1970).  In this novel, set in the California of the late-1960s, the  central protagonist – Maria Wyeth – ‘works’ the L.A. Freeways not so much to free her mind of minor distractions but  rather to solve some very serious personal issues centred on the mental health of both herself and her daughter (who has temporarily been taken into care):

She drove as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar ahead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Holywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly. (Didion 2011: 16)

What is notable here and elsewhere in the text is that the harder Maria is forced to concentrate on her driving, the calmer and clearer her thinking becomes.  Thus, while some commentators have characterised Maria’s freeway-driving as mere mind-numbing escapism, I have focused on its therapeutic, problem-solving facility; in other words, for Maria, the challenge of driving the L.A. freeways serves as a kind of alternative cognitive behavioural therapy.

Speculating on the promise of a driver-less future with Maria’s example to the fore, I feel justified in the concerns voiced at the start of this article. Notwithstanding those dominant discourses which, from the earliest days of motoring, have posited its benefits almost exclusively in terms of utility, speed and status, driving has unquestionably provided people of all social and economic backgrounds with a time/space in which to access, develop and direct meaningful thought in everyday lives where the opportunity for private contemplation is virtually non-existent.

Indeed, when valued in terms of thought-space rather that marque, torque or horse-power, the car is arguably a great class-leveller (Dunn 1998). While the altered states of  consciousness brought about by driving at speed may require a fast and/or expensive car, the mode of automotive consciousness I have characterised as drivetime may be experienced at twenty-miles an hour as well as seventy, and in an old Ford Fiesta as well as in a brand new Range Rover Evoke. Indeed, should be Range Rover be fitted with the latest in-car mobile technology, the Fiesta is probably the better bet. For even as we have slipped into a modernity in which the majority of the people  now choose to think through their computers, fewer and fewer of us have access to the spaces, places and mechanisms that facilitate what I refer to in my book as ‘unmediated thought’. For one, short century driving cars helped us to think such thoughts, even as the computer and its associated technologies is now removing the need for us to do so.

Lynne Pearce is Professor of Literary Theory in the Department of Lynne portrait April 2016
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.

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