Masculinity and Autonomous Vehicles

A Degendered or Resegregated Future System of Automobility?

in Transfers


This article addresses the anthropomorphization and interpellative experience of cars and trucks, in order to meet future mobility challenges. Autonomous vehicles offer an emancipatory opportunity within a wider movement of degendering and regendering motor vehicles. We argue that autonomous vehicles can challenge the foundations of a gendered economy founded on masculinity, speed, pleasure, and embodiment. Rather than thinking in terms of a process of demasculinization, this article anticipates a regendering and resegregation through which certain forms of masculine gendered economies of pleasure will lose ground and others will gain. A core question in this article asks who will be in the driver’s seat of future systems of automobility as the control of the vehicle is gradually being transferred from the driver to digital control systems and intelligent roads.

As car-intensive societies move into an era in urgent need of sustainable mobility, there are many pressing political concerns that need to be addressed, one of which is the gendering and usage of motor vehicles. The appeal of cars in particular and of motor vehicles more generally has historically been related to masculinity through associations with wild, untamable animals (i.e., anthropomorphization), as well as through the car’s associations with power, speed, driving pleasure, and technical precision.1 From the work of, for instance, Enda Duffy, we learn that such anthropomorphization has deep historical roots and has overwhelmingly been a masculine enterprise, although no differences are implied between men and women in their ability to anthropomorphize machines, motor vehicles, and technical gadgets in general.2 Anthropomorphization refers to how humans project human qualities into nonhumans such as animals and artifacts. Some contemporary scholarly work instructs us on how cars should feel, thus suggesting the conjoining of human and machine bodies and the depiction of the car as responsive and seductive.3 Critically considering how such links are not only gendered but also changing is therefore important, and perhaps even more so today when more energy-efficient forms of mobility are called for.

The literature on autonomous cars and vehicles has engaged with concepts such as gender, anthropomorphization, and emotions to discuss what predicts trust in such vehicles and a willingness to use them. It is suggested that the more humanlike the appearance of an unmanned system, the greater the level of trust in that system is.4 For example, Adam Waytz and colleagues showed that drivers were more likely to trust and enjoy an anthropomorphized vehicle that was given a name (Iris), gender, and voice.5 Others suggest that driver models of autonomous cars should be customized to mirror human dynamics based on gender, age, and emotion.6 Studies on sex differences in opinions and willingness to accept and use automated cars usually argue that men are more likely than women to express an interest in automated cars7 and to anticipate pleasure, rather than anxiety, about using automated cars.8 However, these studies, often based on quantitative surveys, rarely discuss the impact that autonomous cars might have on the car as symbol of masculinity, or, for that matter, interdependencies between the automation of driving and masculinity. While contemporary car cultures related to control, risk taking, and emotions are discussed as being lost with cars programmed to follow traffic regulations,9 such typically gendered practices are rarely explicitly related to men and masculinities. One exception is Anna-Lena Berscheid’s work on masculinity in the German media discourse on automated driving.10 She argues that autonomous cars might be considered a “game changer” that puts masculinity in danger, not least when considering control, self-determination, and driving fun as key aspects not only in car driving as a masculine practice but also in constructing cars as symbols of masculinity.11

While previous studies argue that men tend to show higher usage intention than women do for autonomous cars, handing over control of the steering wheel to a computer can also, as Berscheid suggests, be viewed as changing “the gendered roles of cars and their drivers as well as their relationship with each other.”12 The new technology is about to repudiate drivers’ power over their vehicles and reassign it to the car designers and computer and other engineers. As drivers lose their right to decide how to drive, Eric Laurier and Tim Dant suggest “the possibility of personal expression through driving would disappear.” While future drivers hand over their embodied control over vehicles to engineers and the cars’ networked computers, radars, and sensors, cars will not only free up time for them to do other things; cars transform drivers into passengers. Simultaneously, cars are reduced from affording driving pleasure to vehicles that take them where they want to be in a safe and legal way.13 By focusing on the implications such redistribution of agency might have for men and masculinities, our study contributes to this understudied aspect of autonomous vehicles.

With the car and systems of automobility being “redesigned” and “reengineered,” gendered practices are also likely to change—the question is how and in what ways.14 We see two tendencies that will constitute the framework for our discussion: first, the degendering of the close connection between masculinity, cars, speed, and driving; and second, a resegregation of a gendered economy of pleasure in which certain forms of masculinity will gain ground at the expense of others. What new and/or reconfigured masculinities can we imagine being in the “driver’s seat” in future systems of automobility?

An important point of departure for us, in line with Julia Hildebrand and Mimi Sheller in this special section, is a critical inquiry into how social categories such as gender and race are connected to space, mobility, and subjectivity and how they are “embedded in material traces, objects, and spaces of transportation that are increasingly automated.” The question of autonomous vehicles is a major future challenge for the automotive industry as well as the complete system of automobility, and the gendered practices of autonomous vehicles cut to the core of questions about what sustainable mobility possibly can be. Will transportation systems still be overwhelmingly male dominated, or can we anticipate emancipatory openings with regard to gender equality?

As automobility changed mobility patterns and systems of transportation fundamentally in the twentieth century, self-driving cars are imagined as the next major transportation technology revolution in the twenty-first century.15 Much future optimism is invested in this technology, not least in the assumption that it will solve problems associated with the current automobility system. Even though self-driving vehicles are described as a question of “when, not if,” there remain technical, legal, ethical, and sociocultural obstacles to overcome.16 The main benefits of autonomous vehicles are described as increased safety and convenience for users, increased road capacity, reduced congestion, and improved fuel economy. The commonly addressed hindrances for introducing autonomous vehicles are user acceptance, social factors, laws, regulations, and insurance.17 However, our concern here lies more with what Laurier and Dant point to, namely, that the price for autonomous vehicles is that “the emotional satisfaction of mastery and control of the vehicle, along with the ‘quest for excitement’ are pleasures of driving that would be lost.”18

Against this backdrop, our aim is to (a) analyze the changing relation between men, masculinity, and motor vehicles and (b) discuss the emancipatory challenges in the context of autonomous vehicles. First, we focus on the theoretical backdrop to our article, namely, anthropomorphization, machinic interpellation, and masculinity. Second, we discuss different versions of the cultural imaginary of autonomous vehicles and how they may or may not challenge gendered relations. Here we draw on (a) popular debates on autonomous vehicles and (b) research material on autonomous vehicles generated by the project “Developing Disruptive Norm-Critical Innovation at Volvo,” a pilot study conducted by one of the authors that focused on future designs of long-haul trucks and their imagined users.19 By analyzing these examples, we seek to find out how representatives for the car and truck industry imagine their future users and mobility, and what that might imply in terms of regendering and resegregation of masculinities. Third, in our concluding discussion, we return to the question of how autonomous vehicles can be part of a wider degendering of car and motor cultures and/or how masculine gendered relations possibly can be resegregated with the advent of this new technology.

Theoretical Backdrop

Throughout the late industrial age, automobiles have been objects of fascination, objects of desire that have transcended the borders between human and machine.20 Such “automotive emotions” have through the history of automobility been channeled through, and culturally embedded in, different forms of affective economies and emotional geographies.21 As such, car cultures have been deeply entrenched in systems of emotionality and embodiment ever since the introduction of this loved—as well as hated—icon of industrial achievement.22 In order to understand the wide-ranging social and cultural consequences of automobility, as many mobility and automobility scholars have consistently argued, we need to understand and attend to automotive passions and pleasures as conditioned by and entangled in different layers of identity, citizenship, status, risk taking or aversion, and the scalar dynamics of different organizational hierarchies.23 For instance, in the history of automobility and the wide repertoire of feelings connected to car use, we learn that passion, desire, sexuality, and eroticism have long been constitutive ingredients in car cultures.24 But we also learn that automobility and the use of cars early on were transport practices that caused much hatred and even recurring violence against motorists: “A journey by automobile through Holland is dangerous, since most of the rural population hates motorists fanatically … German motorists’ handbooks before World War I routinely advised drivers to carry weapons for their protection.”25

So, in historical and contemporary accounts of automobility, we see that intense emotional expressions have been connected to the use of cars and other forms of vehicles, such as trucks and motorcycles. We also learn that these practices have been conducted within a gendered economy of pleasure and hatred, not least closely connected to the production of masculinity at different stages of life.26 In this context, we focus on the pleasure of machinic interpellation. Such interpellation is something that we encounter in personal narratives as well as histories of large-scale engineering projects.27 This overwhelmingly masculine love affair seems to carry an interpellative force in the production and negotiation of subject-object distinctions, and generally in the material-semiotic assemblages or networks of actors-actants that comprise humans and nonhumans. There are many forms of interpellations that often connect back to an Althusserian understanding of the powers of subjectification.28 However, what we refer to here is a form of interpellation that is connected to the pleasurable embodiment of knowledge, “an intimate connection between the pleasures of the body and those of the technological, the machinic, in which the machine becomes an object of desire.”29

In our own work, we have come across a range of such stories reaching from the Global South to our own Scandinavian context. These stories of interpellative forces involve experiences of one-to-one personal engagement with machines, as well as more mundane and collective experiences of tinkering and engineering in large-scale projects in the automotive industry.30 Speed is here often used to crystallize the interpellative force of a close, intertwined, and pleasurable relation between subject-object, human-machine. Paul McNaughton and John Urry point to the multilayered pleasures of speed as a mystical experience, as competition, and as overcoming natural and machinic forces in interaction with a vehicle.31 This interpellative connection has been presented almost entirely as a male desire, although speed culture as a general phenomenon “has accentuated, and twisted, the sexism and the gender anxieties of modern culture: its intensities and thrills have made for moments when the forces in the great twentieth-century gender conflicts have been starkly outlined.”32 If we extend Duffy’s argument, we can also see that the thrilling excitement of speed is closely connected to other core values in a masculine economy of pleasure such as escapism, risk taking, masculine prowess, and technical dexterity. Such values often form the narrative core of the stories we have gathered in our work on masculinity and motor vehicles in particular, and technology and masculinity in general.33 Furthermore, such experiences are, as Catharina Landström and John Law have pointed out, not only a matter of pleasure and attraction but also a process in which subjects come into being.34 We argue that processes of pleasure, anthropomorphization, and machinic interpellation are at the constitutive core of masculine identity formations in relation to automobility.

Many of these core values, which constitute certain masculine regimes of meaning, are at stake in relation to autonomous vehicles, as the imagined futures of self-driving vehicles possibly challenge the entangled relation between power and pleasure, control and joy.35 In other words, we can anticipate an incipient demasculinization of certain forms of masculinity with regard to automobility. This could be, for instance, trucking, which, in popular culture and ethnographic accounts, has been a paramount configuration of hard-core masculinities. There is, however, a possible enhancement of other masculine gender configurations.36 Hard-core masculinities are here defined as forms of masculinity that have resisted gendered change and reform and that cling to traditional patriarchal core values in social communities that exclude women and nonhegemonic forms of masculinity.37 We argue, as has been argued previously, that it is important to understand all such forms of masculine relations (female relations as well) with machines of all different kinds as a story not only about power, control, and mastering, but also about pleasures and joys in artifacts.38 Although many of the male-dominated technical professions we have studied are separated by status, prestige, and technical specializations (for instance, engineers in car design and motor mechanics), they nonetheless all rely on an interpellative connection to technology that combines pleasure and power, mastering and enjoyment.

We also see that this two-sided analytical framework is crucial in understanding the complexity of power and power resources in relation to technology and technical systems more generally. The balance between power enforcements by state bodies and motor organizations, and power enactments by individuals such as reckless driving and generally violent and aggressive motoring, is thus to be combined with stories of the embodied range of emotions connected to the interpellating experiences of, for instance, driving a car or a motorcycle.

In a similar vein, we argue that it is impossible to understand large-scale transport engineering projects such as highways and bridges without also considering the interpellative emotions of passion, sociality, and pleasure involved in such projects.39 Central actors in such projects are to an overwhelming degree men of power who often enough harbor a deep-seated passion for technology or in other ways are affectively involved in their mission dressed in a language of instrumentalism. Such projects often encapsulate glorious future predictions. This is also what we observe in the contemporary imaginary of self-driving cars and automated mobility. Indeed, there is, as Katharina Manderschied points out in this special section, an enduring vision of autonomous cars that dates back to the 1920s, and different versions encapsulate more or less grandiose visions of transforming the system of automobility. In the European arena of the 1980s and 1990s, the characteristic spirit of passionate futuristic engineering was, for instance, displayed in the Eureka PROMETHEUS Project (PROgraMme for a European Traffic of Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety, 1987–1995).40 At the time, it was the largest R&D project ever in the field of self-driving cars. A parallel story of passionate large-scale engineering can be found in a Swedish study of the project management of Volvo’s XC90, in which the importance of emotional involvement directs the “master” story, as well as more mundane histories of the project management and the development process of this model. These are stories of hard work, passion, heroic men, and rational thought.41 The range of emotions involved in such projects is naturally multiple, multilayered, and heterogeneous, and growing empirical attention has increasingly been paid to the deep-reaching constitutive implications of such emotional investments with regard to studies of technology and masculinity, transport, mobility, and masculinity.42

However, we also argue that cars and trucks are objects that not only express and reproduce but may also challenge traditional connections between men, masculinity, and motor vehicles. In a project on gender, design, and consumption, Magdalena Petersson McIntyre studied one of Volvo’s concept cars, the Your Concept Car (YCC), designed by women for women drivers. This particular car, just like the autonomous truck discussed in the next section of this article, may be understood as both confirming and provoking redefinitions of technology and gender—and their co-constructions. The fact that the YCC was designed by women and for women may, as the authors suggest, be understood as problematic, since female drivers are thereby constructed as being different from male drivers. However, a car that provokes through its design may also be interpreted as generating a “productive insecurity” that challenges and contributes to changes in the apparently stable and taken-for-granted nature of gender and car design.43

Material and Methods

One possibility for understanding the cultural production of meaning around autonomous vehicles is to study the significance of the imagined. Therefore, we draw on how the imaginary is used in cultural studies to characterize the fantasy images in which a culture mirrors itself, and which thereby come to act as points of reference for its identity production.44 Graham Dawson suggests that the notion of the cultural imaginary may be used to theorize both social relations and an individual understanding of the self. He claims that “masculinities are lived out in the flesh, but fashioned in the imagination.”45 Here, we refer to the “autonomous vehicle imaginary,” which gains importance as a shared frame of reference for the production of meaning—in other words, what autonomous vehicles are about and how their users are imagined and (re)configured.46 Our hope is to map out the contours of a more or less shared imaginary of autonomous vehicles and discuss how this in turn generates particular gendered positions, identifications, and embodied practices associated with autonomous vehicles. The popular debates on autonomous vehicles often contain different levels of speculation and opinions about what this new technology will entail.47 Even though we have picked out some illustrative examples, we also find similar patterns in other scholars’ contributions.48

The empirical material we draw on has been produced through (a) popular debates on automated driving as reflected in the media and a keynote talk on autonomous cars by a Volvo car representative held at Transportforum, the largest transport conference in Scandinavia, and (b) a pilot project on norm-critical design.49 This material has been generated through two workshops held at Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden, as part of a collaborative project aiming to foster disruptive norm-critical innovation at Volvo Group Trucks Technology (Volvo GTT). In 2014, one of the managers at Volvo GTT contacted the gender studies department where one of the authors was employed at the time, and this led to a pilot project (on which the data for this article is based) that was later developed into a research project on norm-critical innovation at the Volvo Group.50

The background to the pilot project is that Volvo, as the designer of future trucks, needs to consider how automation and related systemic changes may come to fundamentally challenge contemporary motor cultures and dominant views on driving, mobility, gender, and bodies. Such changes include social interaction and everyday life in and around trucks, as well as the communities/societal contexts in which trucking in the future is expected to become embedded. Therefore, this pilot project focused on future designs of long-haul trucks and their imagined users.51

The pilot project used workshops to bring together three parties: (1) relevant Volvo staff (key staff involved in product design, engineering, and the management of design processes at Volvo); (2) unexpected stakeholders (gender studies students and activists from norm-critical social movements or NGOs working with norm-critical practices within frameworks defined by, for example, LGBTQ rights, feminism, dis/ability issues, and age); and (3) a research team from Tema Genus at Linköping University and the Gender Studies research team at Örebro University. Two workshops were organized at Volvo where the participants were asked to imagine and discuss trucks beyond the traditional able-bodied model male user and contemporary truck designs. Hence, the empirical material reflects the views of Volvo staff and unexpected stakeholders generated through these workshops.52

Imagining Connected Futures

While the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic of 1968 states that the driver is responsible for controlling the vehicle, this convention was amended in 2016 to allow self-driving cars on public roads.53 The hindrances for realization of this future system are not only legal and technical but also sociocultural: in order for this technology to be successful, consumers will have to like it and be willing to use it.54 Or as Carl Johan Almqvist, the traffic and product safety director for Volvo Trucks, says: “It will take them some time to understand how fantastic this is.”55

Despite the fact that the media report about ordinary Swedes’ mixed emotions about self-driving vehicles, media representations of autonomous car technology use words like “revolution,” “fantastic,” and “excitement.”56 The excitement in this case is associated not with the actual driving but rather with the technology and the changes it is imagined to bring for future societies: “Autonomous driving will turn the car into a commodity, a simple, smart, human-replacing means to an end, and our society is going to be feeling the impact for decades. Exciting times.”57 Excitement over change is here associated with how this technology may rationalize the car from being in the hands of fallible humans to becoming nothing more than a commodity and a means for transport. Anders Eugensson, director of Governmental Affairs at the Volvo Car Corporation, has considered self-driving cars “the most exciting thing I have ever been part of,” and in his keynote speech at Scandinavia’s largest transport conference, he said:

What if you can make that time useful? What if you can say to the car, take over, and I can do other things? If you envision yourself leaving the office six o’clock at night, on your smartphone you request the car coming up to you pick you up, and this drive is going to take you thirty minutes in the traffic, because all the cars are being connected. … Your drive will take only half an hour instead of one hour and a half in the normal traffic before you had these self-driving cars. The car will come up to you pick you up, it will check the driving conditions, it will say, “Well, you will be home in half an hour,” it will go for the self-driving lane, and by the time you are home you been able to connect with your business partners in Singapore, whatever, you check a couple of e-mails, and you order our car to pick you up in the morning. You come home to your family relaxed and able to focus on being with your family. … The main driver for offering this in the future, we think people [will] want to buy cars and spend some extra on the possibility to use the time in the vehicle and be connected.58

This quote not only summarizes some of the imagined affordances ascribed to autonomous vehicles but also interpellates a user who is financially able to make use of, and thereby control, their time in this future system. As the vehicle extends office space into public space, the user is envisioned not only to perform a traditional form of connected business masculinity but, in this example, also to become a more dedicated parent and family member. This autonomous vehicle makes mobile time less un-useful; people may stay connected, not only to business partners but also to family members.
Even though images and other representations of autonomous vehicles often depict typical white business masculinities using exclusive high-tech technology, the cultural imaginary of autonomous vehicles is not exclusionary in terms of imagined users.59 This is a technology that is imagined to bring “unprecedented freedom” to the “disabled, old and blind.”60 Connectedness is not only associated with business masculinities; the providers of this technology also envision how those who may be less connected in the present transport system may benefit:

I have got a personal stake in this: my mother-in-law, she is pushing eighty. And she realizes she can’t be driving much longer, and how is she going to get to play bridge on Tuesdays with her lady friends? She said, “Anders, you have to fix this!” And I can’t say no to my mother-in-law, so I am on a really important mission here. We think this is going to be important for the future as part of offering this for more people who can’t have mobility today.61

Autonomous vehicles are imagined to empower and bring mobility to those who in the current transport system may be facing various forms of transport injustice and exclusion.62 This quote also exemplifies how autonomous auto-mobility may allow men to imagine themselves as helpers and problem solvers for elderly women.

Even though their usefulness may be argued for in many different ways, autonomous cars are also resisted and critiqued, not least from professional drivers’ point of view. As Dant notes in a recent interview, to “go by car” will be easier, “but much more important will be the economic and social impact of the loss of skilled jobs—taxi drivers, bus drivers and lorry drivers for example—as business realizes that a driverless vehicle can be operated at all hours with less risk and less cost.”63 So, in addition to being a technology for those able to embody traditional business masculinities, or promising bringing mobility to the not-so-mobile, this technology is predicted to have consequences for working-class masculinities within the transport sector.64 In the next section, we focus especially on how designers and engineers in the Swedish truck industry imagine their future users and mobility future.

Emancipatory Challenges

As spelled out earlier, trucking is typically portrayed as embedded in a masculine culture and belonging to a hard-core form of masculinity. While truckers in the past might have been imagined as road cowboys living a free life on the open road, the current economic realities of freight transport place harsh constraints on truck drivers. Nonetheless, the image of the road cowboy is still a prevalent theme in popular culture.65 One goal of the Volvo project was to think about ways to develop “trucks for all”: trucks that may be used by a broader range of users than today. While the workshops tended not to focus on such economic constraints of future freight transport noted by Dant, they exemplify how autonomous vehicles can be used to rethink aspects related to the interdependencies between the automation of driving and gender. And by doing so, invisible and unconscious norms likely to guide design processes and thereby privilege certain perspectives, genders, and bodies over others are addressed.66 The focus of the workshops was on going beyond the present model male driver to imagine how, and by whom, future autonomous trucks could be used.

Future trucks were envisaged as connected and linked into truck trains using a multiple-driver function, thereby freeing drivers to do other things. When the workshop participants were asked to imagine what drivers would do with their time while trucks were in self-driving mode, the discussions that followed revolved around truckers exercising, cooking food, reading a book, watching a movie, or meeting other drivers/riders.67 One particular outcome of the workshops was a discussion about new ways of thinking about the cabin as a social space, a space for part of the driver’s social life with friends, pets, even family members, to a greater extent than today.

Along similar lines, future trucks were envisioned as a more hybrid technology, as autonomous trucks will be able to challenge boundaries between a vehicle for transport, a caravan truck, and/or an auto camper. The participants generated ideas that challenged and displaced dominant notions regarding work and family relations, as future truck drivers would live differently in their trucks than they do now. With new technology, the participants suggested, a long-haul driver will not necessarily have to be a man—and not even one person. In fact, such a driver could also be composed of several people living together in the truck. The idea that cabins should be designed for a single driver was questioned. From this point of view, the autonomous truck was imagined to facilitate working environments and work assignments that are more flexible compared to contemporary trucks.68

Furthermore, one of the workshops particularly addressed the possibility of designing autonomous trucks facilitating disabled bodies at work in the context of postwar Syria. In this case, the assumption was made that the current civil war is over, and reconstruction is ongoing. The scenario was used as a tool for expanding the focus from gender and sexual identity to include other intersections more urgently, for example, dis/ability issues. The question was if Volvo could build a cab that allows a person with war disabilities to work effectively as a driver. Here the discussions revolved more directly around ways of thinking beyond the model able-bodied male driver, as the task was to discuss what a truck designed for a postwar Syria scenario would possibly look like. This exercise facilitated discussions around access to the truck as one key aspect of inclusive design, as current truck designs make it rather hard to get to the seat with their high steps. The cabin could also be designed so that it can facilitate the specific needs of the driver. The back of the cabin, for example, could be fitted with a toilet rather than the bed that is common in contemporary trucks. The idea behind this suggestion was that it might be hard to access public toilets for disabled drivers, making access to a toilet in the cabin more important than a bed or a kitchenette.69 These ideas are in line with some researchers’ beliefs that vehicles will become larger as they turn more autonomous. Abdul Pinjari and colleagues suggest that when people no longer have to remain seated, they will want to engage in other activities that require more space, for example, more gadgets, restroom facilities, and bedding.70

As noted earlier, only some attention was given to hard economic aspects and constraints associated with contemporary freight transport. The case study simply assumed there would be a driver present, even though discussions on truck drivers losing their jobs did take place during the workshops. However, contrary to the example discussed in the previous section, where the imagined user was traveling in solitude, future truckers (if they exist at all) were rather imagined to use trucks as social spaces, inhabited by (employed?) people who do not necessarily have to comply with contemporary ideas about the male “model driver.”

By using the autonomous vehicle as a tool to think with, ideas about gender, space, place, bodies, and mobile communities could to some extent be rethought. The workshop participants used an autonomous truck as a tool to think with, and managed to temporarily displace not only dominant gender norms but also norms regarding work, social relations, home, and not least what a driver is. Drawing on Sarah Redshaw’s discussion in this issue on how Volvo truck’s advertising offers alternatives to “combustion masculinity” based on bursting and threatening power, these workshops also point to the possibilities of a different form of masculinity from that commonly associated with truck drivers.


In this concluding discussion, we return to the questions of if and how autonomous vehicles can be part of a regendering and degendering of car/truck cultures, something we believe is a necessary move for a more sustainable transport system. Or are we possibly witnessing a gendered resegregation where certain forms of masculinity closely connected to automobility are gaining ground at the expense of others?

With autonomous vehicles, the driver’s responsibility to control the vehicle is beginning to be transferred from the driver to digital control systems and intelligent roads.71 We argue that the gendered implications mean that cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles as traditional means for men to express masculine identities, status, and pleasures, not least performed through ownership, care, or (aggressive and competitive) driving, are gradually being undermined. Furthermore, the increasing capacity of vehicles to drive themselves may also reduce typically gendered problems (for instance, road rage and aggressive driving), often caused by male drivers and tightly related to how masculinity is performed through motor vehicles and risk taking.72 If masculinity and masculinization are constituted in interpellative risk taking, a fully autonomous system of transportation would make it impossible to perform masculinity and risk with motor vehicles.

While we address in this article the pleasures associated with driving motorized vehicles, the advent of autonomous cars and trucks also seems to indicate that it is time to pay more attention to the pleasures of being a passenger. Perhaps pleasures related to automated vehicles may be less associated with driving per se and more with dwelling in the car/truck. As discussed earlier, the convoy system imagined for future truck users turns truck drivers into passengers, thereby enabling them to do other things currently associated with typical passenger pleasures, such as “reading, daydreaming or looking out of the window at the scenery.”73 Being a passenger is possibly opening another symbolic realm where the “passive” and typically feminized subject position can be valorized differently. The symbolic power balance between being in control of the steering wheel and being out of control in the passenger seat is potentially altered. Being the passenger will be the normative position.

Automation potentially makes traveling time more “useful”—as Volvo’s representative noted, or more social, as in the case of Volvo trucks—while relieving the driver from the responsibility of driving.74 The self-driving vehicle also potentially changes the traditional patriarchal seating grid of men in the “driver’s seat” and children and women as passengers. The seating arrangements of autonomous cars may reorganize the placement of bodies, thereby making it possible for passengers to face not the road ahead but each other instead, and doing so may level out power relations between users. Not having to drive can mean having more time for using the vehicle as a social space, as a space of trust and intimacy.75 For example, Laurier and colleagues outline the uniqueness of the car space as the effects of being in motion and the distractions of engagements, including the pause-filled reflective conversations this enables.76

In addition to driving, masculinity is also strongly formed around car ownership in societies all over the world. With the autonomous car, drivers will no longer have to own and care for their cars. Some writers even predict that individual car ownership will “wither and die,” as vehicles may be shared and used only when needed.77 Laurier and Dant argue that driving a car will become less about expressing an identity and more about “inhabiting a space.”78 While this would indicate a process of deanthropomorphization, other studies point to the fact that people assign personalities and acknowledge autonomous vehicles’ humanlike intelligence. As mentioned earlier, Waytz and colleagues argue that their test drivers were more likely to trust and enjoy a vehicle that was anthropomorphized (i.e., given a name, gender, and voice).79 Waytz concludes that their research demonstrates how easy it is for people to shift between “seeing human” in nonhuman objects, “an ability that has become all the more necessary as technology has become more humanlike.”80 One conclusion to be drawn is that the autonomous vehicle might still be anthropomorphized, as are today’s cars, since these cars cannot be reduced to “merely mindless tools.”81 To become interpellated by “driving” and car use, by way of anthropomorphization, can consequently happen outside specific regimes of power and pleasure, outside specific interpellative regimes based on masculinity, speed, risk taking, and calculation, which in itself rather points to processes of gendered resegregation.

So, rather than thinking in terms of a process of degendering, it seems more appropriate to anticipate a development of resegregation where certain forms of masculine gendered economies of pleasure will lose ground and others will become more dominant. We might think of this as the dominant form of masculinity of working-class men in the transport system giving way to the professional, calculating rationality of technical specialists associated with the “ruling-class men” within large-scale engineering organizations and social institutions.82 One predicted social impact may be the loss of skilled jobs in the transport sector, likely affecting working-class men.83 Another impact may be the impossibility for many of these men to “live out” emotions for what constitutes a meaningful masculinity. Thinking about how driving skills confer social status on the (professional) driver, Dant may be right when he argues that “as the socio-technical culture changes in western societies with less ‘freedom’ to drive due to road congestion, speed restrictions, and the increasing capacity of the car to drive itself, we will have to look to other social and material arrangements to acquire status and pleasure.”84

Having said this, the workshops discussed earlier also made apparent technology’s complex role in (re)shaping gender, and vice versa. The project expanded these perspectives to include critiques of dominant ideas about dis/abilities, gender norms, and work-life balances that may also circumvent the contemporary model male driver. While trucks are systematically associated with masculinity, the workshops also questioned other intersections such as class, age, and able-bodiedness, as well as what a truck is, by expanding not only the possibilities, but also the inclusiveness, of future autonomous trucks.85

As an opening to the larger questions of future challenges with regard to masculinity, gender politics, car cultures, and sustainable transport systems, it seems clear that autonomous vehicles expand possibilities beyond the gender paradigms marked by industrial modernity. The idea that the future of automobility will be more sustainable through a degendering via autonomous vehicles, which is the common thread throughout our material, is indeed promising, although the material we rest our claims on is, of course, limited. Nonetheless, we believe that what we have described in this article can be regarded as indicative of a wider “movement” of degendering or at least re-segregating the old masculine love affair with automobile technology, an affair that has been based on the gendered economy of speed, pleasure, and embodiment, and that has been constitutive for certain forms of masculinity in the age of industrialism.


We would like to express our gratitude to the three anonymous reviewers of this article. Their comments have been invaluable to the improvement of this text. Balkmar’s contribution to this article has been made possible through VINNOVA (Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems) and their support of the interactive research project “Trucks for All: Developing Norm-Critical Innovation at Volvo” (2016–2018).


Brian Ladd, AUTOPHOBIA: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 2; Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 53, 56; Dag Balkmar, On Men and Cars: An Ethnographic Study of Gendered, Risky and Dangerous Relations (Linköping: Linköping University, 2012), 92, 152; Ulf Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology: A Malaysian Ethnography (Aldershot: Ash-gate, 2003), 58.


Duffy, The Speed Handbook, 56.


Catharina Landström, “A Gendered Economy of Pleasure: Representations of Cars and Humans in Motoring Magazines,” Science Studies 19, no. 2 (2006): 31–53, esp. 40; Mimi Sheller, “Automotive Emotions,” Theory, Culture and Society 21, nos. 4–5, (2004): 221–242, esp. 225; Olle Hagman, “Driving Pleasure: A Key Concept in Swedish Car Culture,” Mobilities 5, no. 1 (2010): 25–39, esp. 28. Richard Benson, Iain MacRury, and Peter Marsh, “The Secret Life of Cars and What They Reveal about Us,” a report by BMW (London: Not Actual Size, 2007), 1–89.


Jae-Gil Lee, Ki Joon Kim, Sangwon Lee, and Dong-Hee Shin, “Can Autonomous Vehicles Be Safe and Trustworthy? Effects of Appearance and Autonomy of Unmanned Driving Systems,” International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction 31, no. 10 (2015): 682–691.


Adam Waytz, Joy Heafner, and Nicholas Epley, “The Mind in the Machine: Anthropomorphism Increases Trust in an Autonomous Vehicle,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 52 (2014): 113–117, esp. 116; Adam Waytz, “Seeing Human,” Slate, 13 May 2014,


Li Lin, Yanhegn Liu, Jian Wang, Weiwen Deng, and Heekuck Oh, “Human Dynamics Based on Driver Model for Autonomous Car,” IET Intelligent Transport Systems 10, no. 8 (2015): 545–554.


Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, A Survey of Public Opinion about Autonomous and Self-Driving Vehicles in the US, the UK, and Australia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 1–35; William Payre, Julien Cestac, and Patricia Delhomme, “Intention to Use a Fully Automated Car: Attitudes and a priori Acceptability,” Transport Research Part B: Traffic Psychology and Behavior 27 (2014): 252–263; Christina Rödel, Susanne Stadler, Alexander Meschtscherjakov, and Manfred Tscheligi, “Towards Autonomous Cars: The Effect of Autonomy Levels on Acceptance and User Experience,” in AutomotiveUI ’14: Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications (Seattle: ACM Digital Library, 2014): 1–8; see also Amy Danise, “Women Say No Thanks to Driverless Cars, Survey Finds; Men Say Tell Me More,” NerdWallet, 9 June 2015,


Christoph Hohenberger, Matthias Spörrle, and Isabell M. Welpe, “How and Why Do Men and Women Differ in Their Willingness to Use Automated Cars?,” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 94 (2016): 374–385.


Eric Laurier and Tim Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving: Towards the Driverless Car,” in Mobilities: New Perspectives on Transport and Society, ed. Margaret Grieco and John Urry (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 223–244; Robert Moor, “What Happens to American Myth When Your Take the Driver Out of It? The Self-Driving Car and the Future of the Self,” New York, 17 October 2016,


Anna-Lena Berscheid, “Masculinity in Danger? The Autonomous Car as Game Changer,” paper presented at the Cars In/Of Culture: Mobility, Materiality, Representation Conference, Oxford, 13–15 September 2016,; Anna-Lena Berscheid, “Masculinity in Danger? Autonomous Cars as Cultural Challenge,”, 15 April 2016,


Berscheid, “Masculinity in Danger?,” 7.


Ibid., 1.


Laurier and Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving,” 239, 240 (this and the previous quotation).


Kingsley Dennis and John Urry, After the Car (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 2.


Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), vii.

16, “Autonomous Truck Convoys: The Question Is When, Not If,” (accessed 16 January 2016); Waytz, “Seeing Human”; Janne Andersson, “Forskare: Riskfylld väg till självkörande bilar,” Ny Teknik, 8 December 2015,


Rory Buckeridge, “Autonomous Cars and Man’s Future: The Road Ahead,” Factor, 29 June 2015,; Felicia Bohm and Klara Häger, “Introduction of Autonomous Vehicles in the Swedish Traffic System: Effects and Changes Due to the New Self-Driving Car Technology” (MA thesis, Uppsala University, 2015), 5; KPMG, Self-Driving Cars: The Next Revolution (Amstelveen: KPMG LLP, 2012), ; Laurier and Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving,” 239; Gunnar Lind, Per Strömgren, and Fredrik Davidsson, Effekter av självstyrande bilar: Litteraturstudie och probleminventering (Stockholm: Movea Trafikkonsult AB, 2014),; Abdul R. Pinjari, Bertho Augustin, and Nikhil Menon, Highway Capacity Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles: An Assessment (Tampa: Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, 2013),


Laurier and Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving,” 240.


The pilot study was conducted together with project leader Nina Lykke. We would like to thank Nina Lykke for inspiring discussions on autonomous vehicles and future lives on the road.


Balkmar, On Men and Cars, 92, 152; Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 98, 123.


Sheller, “Automotive Emotions,” 223–225; see also Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), 21; Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 5.


Ladd, AUTOPHOBIA, 54–55.


Sheller, “Automotive Emotions,” 226; Sarah Redshaw, In the Company of Cars: Driving as a Social and Cultural Practice (Aldershot: Ashgate Pub, 2008), 82, 103.


Scharff, Taking the Wheel, 225; Sara Jain, “Violent Submission: Gendered Auto-mobility,” Cultural Critique 61, no. 1 (2005): 187–214.


Ladd, AUTOPHOBIA, 24, 25.


Sasha Disko, Men, Motorcycles and Modernity: Motorization During the Weimar Republic (New York: New York University Press, 2008); Georgine Clarsen, “The ‘Dainty Female Toe’ and the ‘Brawny Male Arm’: Conceptions of Bodies and Power in Automobile Technology,” Australian Feminist Studies 15, no. 32 (2000): 153–163; Landström, “A Gendered Economy of Pleasure,” 40; Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 97.


John Law, “Machinic Pleasures and Interpellations,” in Machines, Agency and Desire, ed. Brita Brenna, John Law, and Ingunn Moser (Oslo: Oslo University, Center for teknologi och mennesklige verdier, 1998), 25; Annica Bragd, Knowing Management: An Ethnographic Study of Tinkering with a New Car (Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, 2002), 38; Ulf Mellström, Engineering Lives: Technology, Time and Space in a Male-Centred World (Linköping: Linköping University, 1995), 45; Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 78.


Louis Althusser, On Ideology (London: Verso, 2008). Our use of interpellation is less concerned with the structural, ideological, and political dimensions of becoming a subject but rather how we as subjects are conditioned by affective regimes in personal encounters with humans and nonhumans. This is of course deeply political as well, but we would like to stress that interpellation is a metaphor that also is productive in relation to technology and machines.


Law, “Machinic Pleasures and Interpellations,” 25.


Balkmar, On Men and Cars, 216–221; Dag Balkmar and Tanja Joelsson, “Den bioniske mannen på autoerotiska äventyr: Mäns risktagande i trafikrummet” [The bionic man on autoerotic adventures: Men’s risk taking in traffic space], NORMA 5, no. 1 (2010): 28–44, esp. 34; Mellström, Engineering Lives, 45; Ulf Mellström, “Technology and Masculinity: Men and Their Machines,” in Moulding Masculinities, ed. Søren Ervø and Thomas Johansson (Oxon: Ashgate, 1999), 118–135, here 127; Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 78.


Paul Macnaughton and John Urry, Contested Natures (London: Sage, 1998), 18, 162.


Duffy, The Speed Handbook, 53, 56.


Balkmar and Joelsson, “Den bioniske mannen på autoerotiska äventyr,” 34; Mellström, Engineering Lives, 45; Mellström, “Technology and Masculinity,” 27; Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 78; Ulf Mellström, “Machines and Masculine Subjectivity: Technology as an Integral Part of Men’s Life Experiences,” in “Masculinities and Technologies,” ed. Maria Lohan and Wendy Faulkner, special issue, Men and Masculinities 6, no. 4 (2004): 368–382, esp. 380.


Landström, “A Gendered Economy of Pleasure,” 35; Law, “Machinic Pleasures and Interpellations,” 25.


Laurier and Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving,” 240; Berscheid, “Masculinities in Danger?,” 5.


Michael Agar, Independents Declared: The Dilemmas of Independent Trucking (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), 7; Eddy Nehls, Vägval: Lastbilsförare i fjärrtrafik—perspektiv på yrkeskultur och genus (Umeå: Umeå University, 2003), 92.


Ulf Mellström, From a Hegemonic Politics of Masculinity to an Ontological Politics of Intimacy and Vulnerability? Ways of Imagining through Karen Barad’s Work,” in “Quantum Possibilities: The Work of Karen Barad,” ed. Karin Sellberg and Peta Hinton, special issue, Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, no. 30 (2016): 810–816, esp. 812.


Balkmar, On Men and Cars, 27; Balkmar and Joelsson, “Den bioniske mannen på autoerotiska äventyr,” 19; Mellström, Engineering Lives, 45; Mellström, “Technology and Masculinity,” 27; Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 78.


Mellström, Masculinity, Power and Technology, 123.


Oskar Juhlin, Prometheus at the Wheel: Representations of Road Transport Informatics (Linköping: Linköping University, 1997), 37, 48.


Bragd, Knowing Management, 38.


Redshaw, In the Company of Cars, 82; Pablo Schyfter, “The Bootstrapped Arte-fact: A Collectivist Account of Technology Ontology, Functions, and Normativity,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A 40, no. 1 (2009): 102–111, esp. 109; Balkmar, On Men and Cars, 216; Tanja Joelsson, Space and Sensibility: Young Men’s Risk-Taking with Motor Vehicles (Linköping: Department of Thematic Studies, Linköping University, 2013), 182.


Magdalena Petersson McIntyre, Bara den inte blir rosa: Genus, design och konsumtion i ett svenskt industriprojekt (Gothenburg: Mara, 2010), 27.


Mette Bryld and Nina Lykke, Cosmodolphins: Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred (London: Zed, 2000), 8.


Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire, and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge, 1994), 1.


Berscheid, “Masculinities in Danger?,” 2.


Bohm and Häger, “Introduction of Autonomous Vehicles,” 5.


Manderscheid, this issue; Lipson and Kurman, Driverless, 10; Berscheid, “Masculinity in Danger?,” 1–9.


Dag Balkmar and Nina Lykke, Developing Disruptive Normcritical Innovation at Volvo: Final Report (Linköping: Tema Genus, Linköping University, 2015).


“Trucks for All: Developing Norm-Critical Innovation at Volvo,” financed by VINNOVA (Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems), 2016–2018.


Balkmar and Lykke, Developing Disruptive Normcritical Innovation.


Ibid., 8–10.


“UN Amends Vienna Convention on Road Traffic to Allow Driverless Cars,” Safe Car News, 21 May 2014,


Kirsten Korosec, “Meet the Future Buyers of Self-Driving Cars,” Fortune, 22 April 2016,


Mark Piesing, “Autonomous Vehicles: How Safe Are Trucks without Human Drivers?,” Independent, 9 January 2014,


“Mixade känslor för självkörande bilar,” Aftonbladet, 24 January 2016,; Ny Teknik, “En av tre positiv till självkörande bilar,” Ny Teknik, 25 January 2016,; Buckeridge, “Autonomous Cars and Man’s Future”; KPMG, Self-Driving Cars; Piesing, “Autonomous Vehicles.” All translations in this article are our own unless otherwise indicated.


Buckeridge, “Autonomous Cars and Man’s Future.”


Anders Eugensson, “Transportforum 2015, Inledningen del 2: Autonom körning/autonomous driving,” video, 1:19:38, 21 January 2015,


Manderscheid, this issue.


Buckeridge, “Autonomous Cars and Man’s Future.”


Eugensson, “Transportforum 2015, Inledningen del 2.”


Adriano Alessandrini, Andrea Campagna, Paolo Delle Site, Franscesco Filippi, and Luca Percia, “Automated Vehicles and the Rethinking of Mobility and Cities,” Transportation Research Procedia 5 (2015): 145–160; Berscheid, “Masculinity in Danger?,” 2.


Buckeridge, “Autonomous Cars and Man’s Future.”


Lipson and Kurman, Driverless, viii.


Shane Hamilton, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 189; Agar, Independents Declared, 7; Nehls, Vägval: lastbilsförare i fjärrtrafik, 92.


Petersson McIntyre, Bara den inte blir rosa, 16, 27.


Balkmar and Lykke, Developing Disruptive Normcritical Innovation, 21.


Ibid., 20–22.




Pinjari et al., Highway Capacity Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles, 6–7.


Tim Dant, “The Driver and the Passenger,” in Mobilities Handbook, ed. Peter Adey, David Bissell, Kevin Hannam, Peter Merriman, and Mimi Sheller (London: Rout-ledge, 2014), 367–375, esp. 368.


Bjurström, “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” 237; Berscheid, “Masculinity in Danger?,” 3; Redshaw, In the Company of Cars, 82, 103.


Dant, “The Driver and the Passenger,” 370.


Laurier and Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving,” 239.


Harry Ferguson, “Driven to Care: The Car, Automobility and Social Work,” Mobilities 4, no. 2 (2009): 275–293, esp. 277.


Eric Laurier, Hayden Lorimer, Barry Brown, Owain Jones, Oskar Juhlin, Allyson Noble, Mark Perry, et al., “Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the Ordinary Organization of Car Travel,” Mobilities 3, no. 1 (2008): 1–23, esp. 7.


Buckeridge, “Autonomous Cars and Man’s Future.”


Laurier and Dant, “What Else We Do While Driving,” 223.


Waytz et al., “The Mind in the Machine,” 116.


Waytz, “Seeing Human.”


Waytz et al., “The Mind in the Machine,” 116.


Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology (Cambridge: Polity, 1991), 141–142.


Lipson and Kurman, Driverless, viii; Vivek Wadhwa, The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2017), x.


Dant, “The Driver and the Passenger,” 374.


Balkmar and Lykke, Developing Disruptive Normcritical Innovation, 24–25.

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Contributor Notes

Dag Balkmar is a researcher at the Centre for Feminist Social Studies at Örebro University, Sweden. He has published within the areas of masculinity studies, gender and technology, gender and mobility, and risk and violence. He is project leader of “Trucks for All: Developing Norm-Critical Innovation at Volvo,” funded by VINNOVA (Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems). E-mail:

Ulf Mellström is Professor of Gender Studies at Karlstad University, Sweden. He has published extensively within the areas of masculinity studies, gender and technology, gender and risk, engineering studies, globalization, and higher education. He is editor in chief of NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies. E-mail:


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