The “premediation”1 of self-driving vehicles as an almost inevitable future is in full swing, with repeated reports and opinion pieces as well as academic research concerned with the potential technical, legal, political, and social transformations.2 The discourse varies from excited anticipation of the suggested transportation revolution to skeptical visions of self-driving vehicles and their vulnerable algorithms.3 Automated cars often appear as either “utopias of mobilities,” potentially distributing and organizing mobilities in new ways, or as dystopias of malfunctioning technology.4 The suggested “new automobile paradigm” significantly affects not only the act of driving but also our “aesthetic, emotional and sensory responses to driving, as well as patterns of built environment, political process, sociability, habitation, family and work.”5 “As a complex amalgam of interlocking machines, social practices and ways of dwelling,”6 the imagination of automated automobility puts into question not only the control of the vehicle but also how the entire system of driving implies, affords, and enhances multiple senses, thoughts, and feelings (e.g., of safety, power, security, citizenship, etc.) on an individual and societal level.7
In US culture in particular, the automobile promoted multiple grand narratives of independence, individualism, and freedom, transforming the United States into a “republic of drivers” in the twentieth century, if mainly for white men.8 While both women and men of all races need to be considered within this notion of “driver” today, the history of the car has been highly gendered and racialized, with divergence in the respective social and cultural access and acceptance of driving for nonmale or nonwhite drivers.9 The system of automobility also deeply shaped racialized and gendered spaces of American cities.10 Now, with the emergence of automated cars, the automobility system is set to become more connected with mobile media (as such devices become the “key” for ordering and unlocking the vehicle’s capacities for navigation, personalization, communication, and signification) and with “smart” infrastructure that will potentially reshape urban space, including its racial and gender formations. Given that systems of automobility and communication technology are already gendered and racialized in particular ways, one can ask how emerging automated technologies both reconfigure and reproduce gendered and raced representations, meanings, and practices of (auto)mobility. Insofar as transitions in automobility engage embodied relations of power that are already deeply performative of car cultures and urban space, one must ask how performances of automated (auto)mobility will either change or reproduce the racial and gendered constructs of space and mobile subjectivity that are embedded in material traces, objects, and spaces of transportation.11
In this article, we will draw on current media images of and discourses around the driverless car to explore several different hypotheses. As advanced media and communication technologies, companies, and users become more deeply integrated with the autonomous car’s design and marketing, we seek to explore how they might further mesh capabilities for communication, social media, and augmented reality into the fabric of the vehicle and the fabric of urban space.12 Rather than a degendering of the driver, we suggest a multiplication of gendered/raced technologies of (auto)mobility focused on the individualized white masculine mobile subject via several forms of hypermediation. By qualitatively analyzing several audiovisual depictions of “self-driving” cars and briefly reflecting on the discursive topics surrounding them, this article intends to illuminate gendered and racialized configurations concerning the projected utopian space for a particularized human body in the imagined robotic car in these dominant visions of autonomous automobility.
Gendered and Raced Automobilities
“Like it or not, in our present culture, our activities are coded as ‘male’ and ‘female’ and will function as such within the prevailing systems of ‘gender-power relations,’” writes Susan Bordo.13 Consequently, it seems important to “uncover the variation in these gender-power relations, the way in which they are maintained and the ways in which they might be undermined.”14 Since the 1970s, mobility research has brought varying degrees of attention to “gendered mobility patterns,” encompassing mundane and extraordinary movement, as well as social, cultural, generational, and economic mobilities.15 Noteworthy are the many ways gender can be understood and explored. A reductionist “binary” approach obscures the multiple dimensions through which gender is constructed, performed, and related.16 Nevertheless, the simplification of “male” and “female” is comparable to numerous other simplistic contrasting pairs describing social, cultural, and spatial phenomena. In this sense, the dialectic of public and private has been assigned to man and woman similar to the binary of flow and fixity, mobility and place.17
With regard to automobility, several scholars have highlighted how the constructed and performed relation of women to the automobile contrasts the respective man-car relations regarding functionality, safety, or design and accessories.18 In its operational ease, cleanliness, and limited range, the early electric car was perceived as particularly suitable for (white) women, compared to the noisy, unreliable, and skill-requiring petrol car as masculine “adventure machine.”19 Insofar as the male-oriented driving culture of the petrol car is being reconfigured by the emergence of electric self-driving vehicles, where all people become “passive” passengers rather than “active” drivers, is there a feminization of the “gender-power relations” of automobility?20 The “masculine” act of driving is assigned to the autonomous car, which leaves the former human driver on the feminized passenger seat.
Similarly, historians such as Kathleen Franz and Cotten Seiler have detailed specific regional histories of the racial politics of automobility in the United States, highlighting the experience of African Americans.21 The field of transportation equity also documents the inequitable race and class distribution of transport access,22 creating what Tim Cresswell calls the “mobility poor,” who in the United States are predominantly black, Latin American, or racialized immigrant populations.23 Paul Gilroy has analyzed the deep link between racial/cultural performances of automobility and the African American search for freedom, arguing that “automobiles acquired a particular significance in the context of the US racial nomos—a legal and spatial order—that secured segregation and promoted the reproduction of racial hierarchy.”24 For black men in particular, the historical struggle against transport inequity and for full citizenship is articulated with cultural practices of automobility, including those involving the use of media such as the car radio.25 Racial formations therefore remain central to understanding mobility transitions and the underlying racial politics that reproduce mobility injustice. As Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman argue, “streets should not be thought of as merely physical spaces, but as symbolic and social spaces.”26 The production of space through the racial segregation of neighborhoods, private and public spaces, transit corridors, and vehicles are all key arenas of racial domination, racial privilege, and demands for racial justice, politically contested via black women’s famous protests for access to public transit but also via black masculine subaltern car cultures.27 How do visions of automated driving also interact with these raced/gendered formations?
This article seeks to examine how visions of automated driving address these racial and gendered forms of automobility, both explicitly and implicitly. We explore how the gendered and racialized affordances and spaces of the self-driving car as they are currently imagined, projected, and designed continue or reconfigure past and present gendered and racial representations, meanings, and embodied practices of (auto)mobility and car culture. Although mobilities research has shed light on gendered and raced notions of mobility in the past, a similar awareness has been largely missing in recent policy discourses regarding transportation transitions28 and driverless cars in particular.
A prevailing metaphor in the literature surrounding car culture is the automobile as extension of the driver’s body.29 Tim Dant extends this notion and speaks of the “driver-car” as “both an extension of the human body and an extension of technology and society into the human.”30 In other words, the automobile and particularly the act of driving invoke a specific kind of “subjectivity—simply put, the way of being in and perceiving the world around us.”31 Thus, driving—constituted by the car—can be seen as a kind of medium that affects feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. Marshall McLuhan and media ecologists following in his footsteps strongly promote this comprehensive approach to “technology,” arguing for any human-made artifact to be seen as an extension of human faculties impacting motions, notions, and emotions of individuals on a micro level but also affording social and cultural transformations on a macro level.32 Similar to Ernst Kapp’s understanding of tools as organ projections,33 McLuhan views wheels as extending the human feet, the car shell as extending the human skin, and so forth. However, once an organ is extended out too far, a numbness occurs, blurring the relation the human had to the medium. Eventually, the numbed extension is amputated, inhibiting a realization of what the medium used to be, what it has turned into, and what implications the loss of this organ has for the human. While humans shape their extensions, the amputated technology has the potential to shape them and their environment.
As we see even the act of driving being extended to the autonomous vehicle, we are urged to question how the internal and external car ecology, and our place within it, changes. However, this foray into the car-driver hybrid noticeably ignores the gendered and raced meanings of driving, and how these are inscribed on the driving body, on the car, and on the surrounding space of the roadway and city. In his expression “extensions of man” (emphasis added), it is unclear if McLuhan acknowledges the paradigm of the motor car centering on masculinity, not to mention whiteness, as a mobile form of freedom and mastery. In either case, it is crucial to connect a media ecological approach with an awareness of gendered and racial material social relations and symbolic meanings as technologies of media and mobility are envisioned, designed, and introduced. This goes beyond existing approaches to the “car-driver” as hybrid assemblage because it addresses not only the sociotechnical system but also its associated social practices and differentiated forms of subjectification. When technology has shifted the affordances for gendered and raced meanings, environments, and performativities, a media ecological perspective calls for asking how affects, sensitivities, and subjectivities transform.
This inquiry employs such a media ecological approach to the gendered and racialized spaces of the driverless car within the qualitative textual analysis of two concept car previews from traditional automotive manufacturers, Nissan (Japan) and Volvo (Sweden). We consider current autonomous and electric concept car visions and to what extent the moving images address, confirm, reproduce, or reimagine traditional gendered and racial components of automobility. Of special interest is the interior space of the vehicle and its affordances for the human. Despite the suggested transformation of the masculine motor car to the feminine electric car and the “amputation” of the masculine driver toward an all-passenger feminine space, the futures promoted in the concept car films still feature the car as an extension of the empowered man. At the same time, the imagery reiterates the white and Asian male as the early adopter of this technology while moving through urban spaces that have been “sanitized” of racial minorities.
Furthermore, the analysis of the images is complemented and expanded by drawing on the journalistic and academic discourse around present and future automobility. Here, we aim to show to what extent the autonomous vehicle continues to invoke spatial metaphors as a sanctuary and communicative environment, but also as traffic trap, virtual glass house, and algorithmic target. Surfacing in this second instance are notions of nonhegemonic spaces including both gender and race. These different gendered (pre)mediations lead to a hypermediation of overlapping hegemonic (masculine, white) and nonhegemonic (feminine, nonwhite) spaces and affordances of depicted and debated autonomous automobility.
This analysis thus explores past and present “imagined futures” to unpack “underlying cultural, political, and economic logics that continue to animate dreams of technological and social mastery over everyday life.”34 Richard Grusin’s concept of “premediation” as the imagination of multiple possible futures affecting the present resonates in this approach.35 Exploring such “literature of the future”36 can give important insights into how the development and introduction of self-driving vehicles and their gendered and racial dimensions are advertised, promoted, or transformed.
Gender and Space in Depictions of Autonomous Concept Cars
The concept cars analyzed here are unlike the Mercedes-Benz F 015 “Luxury in Motion” self-driving concept car, geared toward affluent customers, or the Chevrolet FNR concept car, which explicitly addresses traditional masculine car cultures, being described as “like a Hot Wheels car for The Matrix.”37 Similarly, the Google self-driving car project overtly turned toward nonhegemonic depictions of women, children, the elderly, and impaired people as early test riders in its playful video of its prototype. In contrast, the electric driverless cars of Nissan and Volvo are positioned as more complex and subtler in terms of what gender, age, race, and class they intend to attract. Nevertheless, a closer look at their future visions shows distinctive racialized and gendered spaces and affordances that are expressed through driving and communicating technologies, as well as the ways in which these are joined together to interpolate the masculinity of the repositioned “driver.”
The Nissan IDS Concept
At the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2015, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. unveiled its vision for the future of autonomous driving and zero-emission electric vehicles: the Nissan IDS Concept car. Equipped with two different driving modes, Piloted Drive and Manual Drive, the sleek self-driving car presents the first step toward a safer and cleaner driving experience. “Nissan’s forthcoming technologies will revolutionize the relationship between car and driver, and future mobility,” Nissan president and CEO Carlos Ghosn confidently proclaims when introducing the Nissan IDS Concept.38 Connecting advanced vehicle control systems with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, the concept car is one example of how promotions of autonomous driving premediate gendered affordances and racial spaces, examined here through the Nissan IDS Concept preview trailer “Together We Ride.”
The approximately seven-minute clip starts out with a disclaimer announcing that what the viewer is about to see “excites on a whole new level. A little taste of what’s next of what we call Nissan Intelligent Driving.”39 The narrative then begins with synchronized shots between car and man as a sleeping, presumably Japanese, male slowly awakens to automatically opened windowshades and freshly brewed coffee. His schedule is projected onto a glass wall with a profile image of the Nissan IDS seemingly informing him about his duties: “Together We Plan” states a written insertion, a style repeated throughout the clip. The young, bearded protagonist appears to live by himself in a state-of-the-art home with the car serving as chief of staff. The recurring “Together We” titles indicate a partnership between man and machine, in which the vehicle—so far—takes up feminine roles of daily domestic organization and planning displayed by the translucent screens of the “smart” home. The image of a young Asian woman briefly flickers on his schedule projection. A full shot of the car immediately follows, visually suggesting a triangular relationship between the three, with the car insinuated into his interior space and personal relations, not just his mobility.
The Nissan IDS Concept pulls toward the entrance, greeting the young man with a message illuminated on the car’s front: “Good morning, Hiro!” He steps into the spacious vehicle, buckles up, and chooses Manual Drive over Piloted Drive.40 The manual option allows him to drive himself as a steering wheel in the style of a gaming console replaces a flat screen in front of the driver’s seat.41 Hiro drives in a futuristic urban environment, largely empty of people, while sensor activity is assisting him “behind the scenes” by monitoring conditions.42 The human man enjoys an illusion of full control, while the “intelligent” car is still a significant if not more powerful player in the background.
Soon Hiro operates the command switch and Piloted Drive sets in. The steering wheel recedes back into the instrument panel, and a flat screen featuring a seemingly agendered and aracial stick figure face, humanizing the car as communicative agent, takes its place. The vehicle takes over driving, simultaneously adjusting Hiro’s schedule to any changes. As the protagonist arrives at his first destination, an older woman with a walking cane steps into another Nissan IDS, suggesting the car’s suitability for senior citizens and the impaired. Although she is sitting in the driver’s seat, she does not—in contrast to Hiro—immediately switch to Manual Drive. While this action is plausible in light of her age and suggested impairment, it presents a subtle instance in which the interior space of the car is gendered in terms of driving the car (male) and not driving the car (female).
This observation is confirmed when the previously displayed young woman enters the narrative, first seen with two non-Asian men—the first suggestion of racial diversity in the video—and departing separately. “Hello, Yume” the Nissan illuminates in its front panel, recognizing Hiro’s female companion. Both get into the car—Hiro in the driver’s seat, Yume in the feminized passenger’s seat (see Figure 1). Hiro represents a “knight in shining armor,” a masculine metaphor that the car medium retrieves from the past, according to McLuhan and McLuhan.43 As the couple enter a scenic mountainous area, the car seems to be taking pictures of the outside and inside of the vehicle. Yume catches Hiro romantically gazing at her in one of the photos. While Hiro appears embarrassed, the animated eyes of the intelligent car blink, possibly innocently, amusedly, or conspiratorially. The triangular relationship between the three actors is manifest along with several gendered components of the scene. As passive passenger, Yume fulfills the female cliché, while Hiro, who is just as passive in this sequence, maintains control in the driver’s seat with the steering wheel a click away. The traditional sense of passivity inherent in being a passenger is thus unevenly distributed between Hiro and Yume. Moreover, the animated “face of the vehicle” is placed in front of the “driver’s seat,” inviting that passenger more directly to engage with it while not steering. Additionally, the car’s communicative affordances, such as image taking, are highlighted when the female protagonist is in the vehicle, confirming gendered notions of communicating being feminine.44
While Hiro’s stereotypical masculinity was briefly threatened in the exposure of his prolonged gaze on Yume, he has the chance to retrieve and display his manhood in a suggested race with three motorcyclists who drive alongside in a challenging way. The previously playful music switches into a rock tune, as Hiro again operates the command switch and “takes back control” of the car. (In contrast to the narrative, the inserted title, “Together We Sense,” implies that Hiro is in fact not the sole pilot of the movement, but that the car is still sensing and assisting when needed.) The young man remains in Manual Drive while skillfully navigating the now urban environment, which is audiovisually enhanced with soaring sound effects. Attracting views from impressed and noticeably “diverse” young pedestrians, the car races through the streets at dusk, while inserted titles suggest a “perfect partnership between man and machine” (emphasis added). The beat of the music picks up as the car drops off the couple at the venue for Hiro’s act “live on stage.” A huge animated projection on a building’s façade and a cheering crowd, including non-Asians, inform the viewer that Hiro is a popular DJ. Here, he represents the hip, distanced masculinity of electronic dance music, suggesting a parallel between spinning turntables and the shift to the piloted automated car, replacing both the traditional motorcyclists and their rock music.45 With a last glance at the vehicle, Hiro learns that it will be “ready when you are” as illuminated in front of the instrument panel.
In terms of gendered and racial space and affordances, Nissan’s vision of future “intelligent mobility” implies the car-(hu)man relationship to equal that of a modern “superstar” with a competent assistant and partner. The Nissan IDS Concept not only smooths out the protagonist’s daily rhythms but also assists his capabilities and increases his desirability with a racially “alike” female but with a racially diverse fan culture. “The car takes part in the ego-formation of the driver as competent, powerful and able (as advertisers have tapped into),”46 while depicting an environment that supports his gendered and racial identity. Despite the autonomous vehicle taking over significant portions of control, the depiction of the concept car suggests a simultaneous empowering of the owner and of Japanese cultural leadership in advanced technology and global DJ culture. Noteworthy is the visualization of the independent male as empowered “driver” personified by Hiro and the seemingly more dependent female as empowered “passenger” in the example of the older woman and Yume, repositioning a particular version of Japanese masculinity.
Despite multiple directions the visualization of the autonomous automobile space could take, Nissan draws on existing paradigmatic conceptions of male and female, and Asian and non-Asian, in this premediation of self-driving vehicles. Moreover, it remains a personally owned and highly personalized experience of technology; there is no hint of a “shared mobility” culture. By suggesting the vehicle’s position as domestic manager, scheduler, chauffeur, communicative medium, and matchmaker, the depiction allays any anxieties over the driver’s loss of masculinity. It reinvents existing gendered notions of automobility by narratively and audiovisually stressing a postmodern masculinity. The hints of a slightly diverse Japanese urbanism, in which racial minorities are associated with nighttime music scenes, also safely assimilates global influences while other Japanese cultural cues remain undisturbed.
The Volvo Concept 26
In contrast to Nissan, Volvo is focusing on an interior design concept available for sale today initially omitting concerns with futuristic exterior design and technology.47 Named Concept 26 because drivers in the United States may regain an average of twenty-six minutes per commute when letting the vehicle drive, the concept, unveiled at the Los Angeles Motor Show in November2015, focuses on innovative seat design and transformative “driving” modes: Drive, Create, and Relax. While Nissan presents a short narrative in “Together We Ride,” Volvo combines its futuristic depiction of autonomous automobility with interview snippets from project representatives in corporate documentary-style format secured by authoritative male voices.
The Volvo Concept 26 preview starts with the words “Cars have always been a symbol of freedom,” a quote then attributed to Thomas Ingenlath, senior vice president of design, who further suggests that “autonomous driving will soon broaden the experience of how people spend their time in the car.”48 “Vehicles are driven by people. Everything we do at Volvo has always been taking care of people and of our products,” says Doug Frasher, advanced concepts director at Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center. His reassuring and even paternalistic words are accompanied by a vintage clip of a couple driving in a car, the man in the driver’s seat and the woman in the passenger’s seat. Next, two young girls sit in the back seat of a present-day vehicle laughing and playing, as Frasher admits that “in today’s world, everybody is stressed for time.” In this brief sequence, the clip already brings up established gendered notions of driving, and Frasher’s voiceover suggests the continuation of traditional driving aspects by emphasizing that Volvo’s goal “has always been” the same. Thus it generalizes “traditional” ideas about driving as freedom, pressured time, and taking care of family.49
When Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz, general manager of Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center, mentions how “broken” aspects of contemporary driving need to be “fixed,” the clip features a five-lane congested traffic situation in California. A medium shot of a male driver seemingly distressed in this congestion follows, supporting the previously featured vintage footage of the man as driver. Instead of focusing on the technology, Tylman-Mikiewicz explains that Volvo puts “people” at the center of each question. This somewhat “soft” approach centering people over technology in the introduction and familiarization of customers to autonomous automobility hints at a feminized strategy. Moreover, Volvo’s concentration on the interior design of the vehicle similarly invokes associations of the semiprivate feminine domestic space placed at the core of the emerging automobile culture. However, this interpretation stands in contrast to the continuing visual emphasis on stereotypical gender distributions in the depiction and narration of Volvo’s autonomous driving future.
When the two aforementioned white male interviewees keep stressing the importance of control “for humans in general” and, consequently, Volvo, the images exclusively portray a white man (again further masculinized with a beard) assumedly being “in control” inside the Concept 26. “Driving” and “delegating driving” are the two rhetorically active and thus stereotypically male mobile modes, further assuring control and mastery of the vehicle. Similarly, the more specific modes of Drive, Create, and Relax all avoid passive connotations. As the driver—sitting in front of the steering wheel—delegates the car to turn into Relax mode, the steering wheel and ergonomic seat retract, allowing extra space for the male body. (There is no mention of ergonomic seats being designed for different-sized people). Legs crossed in a relaxed position of ease, the man is depicted reading a book, while the two narrators continue to confirm the maintenance of human control over the car (see Figure 2).
The driver seems to have “delegated” the Create mode when a twenty-five-inch flat screen monitor slowly flips up from the passenger side dashboard. “Show me my unwatched episodes” reads the screen, with a flicker of a female image on one of the media options, suggesting the user of the car is about to consume media. Interestingly, these increasingly relevant communication affordances of the self-driving car are assigned and placed in front of the feminized passenger seat. Traditional comprehensions of passivity but also consumption and communication as gendered toward the female are thus upheld.
As Tylman-Mikiewicz speaks of the “amazing things” the “human brain” can do while engaged, we see images of a different white male driver (with beard) occupied with focusing on the road while, in the following shot, a white female passenger is resting with eyes closed in the back seat. This image of the sleeping woman is awkwardly juxtaposed with Tylman-Mikiewicz’s comment about the brain being “not that great when we get bored.” While the narrator is speaking of distraction from outside cues and smart devices inside the vehicle and is not necessarily suggesting female mental inferiority, this sequence nevertheless reinforces gendered notions of automobile space and culture as one in which female occupants might pose a risk, or be in need of greater protection.
When the white male protagonist engages with the tablet between the two front seats, an e-mail from a person named Eva appears, announcing two extra guests for dinner. An image of a white woman with long brown hair flickers past. Traditional comprehensions of the mobile public space as the male and private domestic space as the female domain are strongly reinforced in this narrative.50 Besides this small virtual, textual, and thus disembodied appearance of a female character, no other women are introduced in the audiovisual preview of Volvo Concept 26. This observation stands in contrast to the narration of Tylman-Mikiewicz, who expresses Volvo’s intention of producing not something futuristic but something “you can recognize.” If we recognize it, it is as a heteronormative and racially homogeneous tradition of mobility and spatial arrangements.
While stereotypically gendered spaces and affordances are discernable in these visuals, it is questionable whether female drivers have much to associate with beyond the traditional distribution of gendered spaces and tasks. Similarly, the general manager emphasizes how “autonomous driving is much more of a people’s story rather than a technology’s story.” The notion of “people” presented in the image film seems to be exclusive to white male protagonists, given that not only the depicted driver but also the two narrating representatives of Volvo are male (and white). The depiction of Volvo’s vision of autonomous driving intends to show how the emerging technology transforms people’s lives “into something totally new.” However, while the “total newness” is attributed to solely the technology, the visualized agents, spaces, and affordances are a repetition of the old gendered notions of driving as masculine, and as a white mastery of both urban and wilderness-like areas.
Gender, Race, and Space in Discourses around Autonomous Automobility
Both of the explored audiovisual previews by Nissan and Volvo depict and describe the future automobility space as continuing to be predominantly masculine and associated with the dominant racial order. Although the arrival of autonomous technologies might allow for a rethinking of hegemonic technology, design, habit, and infrastructure, the current representations of them reinforce hegemonic masculinity and whiteness (including so-called honorary whiteness in the example of the Asian protagonist).51 The female body is mostly absent or visually delegated to the passenger seat and to the space of family or romantic partner, and matched with the race of the male driver. Although it is possible to imagine self-driving vehicles as “degendering (or deracializing) the driver,” these future visions stylistically, visually, and narratively counteract such notions by retrieving and underlining older gender distributions and racial perceptions.
Stretching across these visions of autonomous automobility and the contemporary journalistic and scholarly discourses surrounding them are several conceptions of what kind of space the emerging automotive technology creates and affords. Some of them are metaphors that have been circulating with the proliferation of the motor car in general and find themselves continued in the conversation around self-driving automobiles. Examples are the car as “safe space” and “sanctuary,” a space for communication and entertainment. In terms of gender, this emphasis on safety and harmony prompts notions of femininity rather than masculinity. Women are said to prefer bigger and safer cars, that is, “family models,” in their responsibilities as mother and housewife.52 Men, however, would be drawn to “the ‘Top Gear’ fast sports car or the impractical ‘classic car.’”53 Second, the concept car visions also try to allay fears of the more dystopic imagery of the car as a physical trap in congested traffic, or notions of the car being a virtual glass house and an algorithmic target. These fears are related to both the militarized basis of technologies of securitization54 and the concerns over bias in algorithmic biometric technologies such as facial recognition,55 both of which suggest underlying raced and gendered processes inherent in the automation of automobility.
As an extension of the human body, the motor car is frequently discussed as providing an extra layer of skin, shielding off not only physical danger but also sensual distraction such as the smells and sounds of the street.56 The car affords “the experience of privatized movement to the sound of communication technologies in the automobile.”57 With the car and its safe and secluding environment, the driver can privatize and personalize the inhabited space.58
Michael Bull speaks of the “desire for accompanied solitude,”59 which the two analyzed concept cars directly fall back on. In most of the scenes, the white male driver is alone in the self-driving vehicle but nevertheless accompanied by the car as partner. Interestingly, the depicted drivers do not directly address or communicate with the vehicle beyond nonverbal gestures stressing the notion of solitude. The “accompanied solitude” enhances the impression of the car not only as a safe space, since it is always alert and ready to assist the driver, but also as a sanctuary, since the driver is not obligated to talk to the artificially intelligent company. The Volvo Concept 26 preview, in particular, strongly emphasizes the vision to provide space and time to relax and create. Yet this “safe space” is also a space of surveillance, which may not be experienced in the same way by differently raced and gendered mobile subjects, who may find themselves targets of securitization.
Nissan’s descriptions also have recourse to previously observed qualities of the car as providing a secure space to dwell in.60 “The car’s [Nissan IDS Concept] bluish satin silver body color heightens the impression of a comfortable and secure cabin space,” and being inside is “like relaxing in a living room.” Moreover, Nissan’s design and features are to create “confidence” and “harmony”: a “natural, harmonious system of communication” between driver and car as well as car and outside actors are to further provide a space that is safe and stress-reducing for the car dweller.61 The unlikely depiction of almost empty streets and limitless space in these visual “imagined futures” likewise prompts notions of safety and harmony. If this first metaphor of the driverless car as sanctuary might already illuminate a slight turn toward seemingly female spatial values of the car interior rather than exclusively male desires, these threats of passivity are quickly counteracted by active narratives. The comfortable “living room” also assumes certain dominant subjectivities, for whom the work of maintenance, cleaning, and reproduction are performed by racialized and gendered subordinates, who here remain invisible.
Second, the autonomous automobile is clearly premediated as a “virtual hangout” affording multiple communicative and/or social activities both on- and offline. This notion too needs to be seen as a continuation and enhancement of previously integrated qualities into the car. Employing the “screen” as conceptual framework, Jeremy Packer and Kathleen F. Oswald argue that “what happens under the hood comes to be understood as information rather than sensation” as more and more communication and information technologies enter the automobile interior.62 The authors observe a “triple displacement” through screens: “First, the driver was distanced from the road environment; second, the driver displaced the vacuum of sensation with entertainment and advanced information systems; and third, these systems have developed into networks that work to displace the driver from … driving.”63 The gendered communication tools that now dominate the car’s interior (and possibly exterior, as visible in Nissan’s communicative exterior design) theoretically lead to a “degendering” of the male driver. With the automobile as extension of man, the amputation of this extension sets in as the medium has been extended out too far: the driver is not driving any more. The void of activity for the now passenger can be filled with increasing communicative actions associated with the female gender. Moreover, the “quiet” forms of media that are featured also downplay the desire for loud sound systems and boom boxes associated with minority ethnic drivers who personalize their cars with “excessive” sonic capabilities.64
Regarding scenarios that are more dystopian, the automobile space can also be discussed as a trap. While the mobile car and the immobile body inside already often find themselves stuck in heavy traffic and congested roads, this immobility and ultimate “incarceration” may increase with a larger number of not only driverless but even humanless vehicles on the road.65 This vision feeds into concerns of explosive growth of vehicle trips locking in humans that are in fact riding in the cars.66 Projected congestion disasters speak to gendered perceptions of immobility, fixity, and passivity as feminine in contrast to mobile masculinity. The concept car films fend off any notion of congestion by showing extremely empty and open roads. They also promote highly personalized car ownership, avoiding any indications of the need for car sharing. In addition, these visions depict ease of parking of the self-driving cars in the future, and no substantial changes to the urban land use associated with traditional automobility.
Another spatial notion of the self-driving car concerns even darker visions of visibility and surveillance. In its necessary multiconnectivity, the formerly “semiprivate” vehicle turns into a “glass house.” In terms of virtual visibility, the emerging technology must be understood as fully “public” similar to social digital media and the Internet in general. Surveillance technologies are likely to make up a crucial component of automated vehicles. Carports already transmit such data for insurance reasons at the least, and possibly for more direct purposes of surveillance in the future. This quality leads to an exposure of passengers and their activities inside the car, dissolving the former protective cocoon of the car shell toward virtual visibility and vulnerability. Anonymity could turn into a hindrance to the vehicle’s functionality. In the Nissan IDS Concept, the car’s personal identification of the driver, possibly through biometric data, is presented as a charming (“Good morning, Hiro”) and secure feature. While securitization may be increased and criminal activities such as car theft may become a thing of the past, the driver will be subject to surveillance of an invisible third eye, threatening traditional rights to privacy.
This exposure to a virtual gaze again invokes connotations of the male gaze onto an objectified female body. While this virtual gaze is foremost algorithmic in its detection of deviant behavior, the respective code is still designed and implemented by a human, who, considering the lack of gender diversity in computer programming, is still more likely to be male and, thus, an extended male gaze.67 Through overextension of the driver-car into an autonomous technology with surveillance capacities, the male body reverses into an overexposed feminized object of investigation. In contrast to the audio-visual previews of the masculine self-driving concept car, this vision again presents an automobile space that mediates femininity. Beyond this, though, biometric surveillance is a highly racialized technology, which has been used to differentiate “trusted travelers” with data-ready bodies from those (often minorities) who are suspect.68 Thus, from the point of view of the nonwhite, non-Asian driver, such imagery may provoke fear and insecurity more than a sense of safety and security. The glass house of a powerfully mediated car may be experienced as a panoptic or algorithmic site of surveillance of the racial or sexualized “other,” a scopic trap.
Last, and in close relation to the car as surveyed space, examples of the self-driving vehicle as target must be discussed. Although the hard physical shell of the car may protect from outside harm, the soft virtual space inside the car may invite cyber attacks. The driver’s disempowerment and the technical vulnerability of the “communico-automobile assemblage” raise issues regarding enactment, control, and exploitation of mobility: “If any automobile can be hacked and remotely controlled, all cars could become remotely controlled weapons” state Packer and Oswald.69 Moreover, it may not be external forces that interfere with the man-machine partnership; it may be the vehicle’s internal, conceivably gendered and racialized algorithms that calculate which subjects to protect (e.g., white women) and which to harm (e.g., racialized “suspects”). This may result in the possible moral and ethical dilemma of an innocent driver being let to die to save others, or a “suspect” vehicle being brought to a halt under external control. This notion of the driver within the “safe space” of the vehicle turning into a “target” again relates to gendered and racial imaginations of mobility and immobility, activity and passivity, and women and minorities as targets for attack and surveillance in public.70 A closer analysis and critical discussion of race and racialized notions of “driving while black” seems crucial in this context,71 especially insofar as it relates to “driving while female,” and the absence of both subject positions in these imagined futures of driverless automobility. There is furthermore a double erasure of the black female mobile subject, reinforcing the invisibility of black women’s potential geographies of (auto)mobility and the potential violences inherent in the loss or devaluing of collective public spaces of transit.72
In this analysis of two advertising promotions for future automated cars, we have explored how designers and corporate promotions continue to evoke utopian spatial metaphors of the car as sanctuary and communicative environment while allaying or suppressing fears of dystopian metaphors of the vehicle as traffic trap, virtual glass house, and algorithmic target. In repositioning the white or honorary white male driver as central to their narratives, the two concept cars presented by Nissan and Volvo extend the male driver and embody white masculinity within hegemonic masculine spaces of automobility. In deconstructing the automated car as a safe space, physical trap, virtual glass house, and algorithmic target, we have attempted to address the feminine and nonhegemonic bodies and spaces of automobility that are subordinated or absented within these corporate imaginaries. If the automated car is envisioned as a safe and comfortable living room, one must ask for whom is it safe and with what risks or harms to others? If the automated car is envisioned as a powerful mediascape moving through a “smart” city and connected to a “smart” home, then one must ask which mobile and dwelling subjects might be at risk within such a “code/space” and how might its software support the transduction of hegemonic spatialities and subjectivities.73
The brief analysis calls for greater attention to the remediation of existing gender orders, racial orders, and power relations within the making of emerging (auto)mobile futures. The hypermediation of the autonomous automobile as hybrid extension of the white masculine subject points toward the question of what kind of “auto” is being envisioned and developed.74 Like the “auto” in contemporary automobility, a “self” in the future “self”-driving mobility is shaped and shaping not only as a mode of transportation but also as a medium of communication. McLuhan remarks how after the extended organ has been amputated, it impacts the human body and mind without us being aware of it. What have “drivers” given up to the self-driving car? We suggest that race or gender have not been given up, for there is no degendering of the driver. Gender and racial orders remain productive of the system of automobility of the future, and the system of automobility will remain productive of racialized and gendered orders.
What, then, has been amputated in the emerging self-driving car assemblage? Nigel Thrift observes that the car turns into “something akin to a Latourian delegate.”75 “First it has been made by humans; second, it substitutes for the actions of people and is a delegate that permanently occupies the position of a human; and, third, it shapes human action by prescribing back.”76 More than ever, the car is “prescribing back” to its increasingly symbolic driver. It begins to imbricate the human not only in the mechanical processes of driving and the regulatory processes of the highway code but now also in the mediated processes of mobile information and communication networks. Secured in the self-driving vehicle, the human “driver” will be assured in his dominance and masculinity by exercising a new “auto” mobility.
As designers, engineers, advertisers, journalists, and corporate publicists currently envision, depict, discuss, develop, and design future “self”-driving automobility, it is imperative for social scientists and the wider public to contemplate how these decisions concerning automobile spaces and bodies reproduce and remediate gendered and racialized social hierarchies and moral orders. Automated cars may eventually not only “drive” themselves and the people within them but also will shape us and our spaces and bodies in return. The car not only drives itself but also drives what kinds of selves-information are possible while hinting at the possible paths of resistance that it will most certainly elicit.
This article benefitted from its presentation at Drexel University’s STS Works-in-Progress Series in 2016 and the 14th Annual Conference of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic, and Mobility (T2M) in Mexico City in 2016. We thank the participants for their thoughtful responses and the editors and anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.
Richard Grusin, Premediation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Jean-François Bonnefon, Azim Shariff, and Iyad Rahwan, “Autonomous Vehicles Need Experimental Ethics,” Cornell University Library, 12 October 2015, http://arxiv.org/abs/1510.03346; Newsdesk, “Driverless Cars Spell Trouble for Insurers,” Insurance Times, 25 November 2015, http://www.insurancetimes.co.uk/ driverless-cars-spell-trouble-for-insurers-axa-underwriting-boss/1415994.article; Cat Zakrzewski, “Federal Officials Are Warming Up To Self-Driving Cars,” TechCrunch, 25 November 2015, http://techcrunch.com/2015/11/25/federal-offi cials-are-warming-up-to-self-driving-cars.
Sarah Kaplan, “What If Your Self-Driving Car Decides One Death Is Better Than Two—and That One Is You?,” Washington Post, 28 October 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/10/28/what-if-your-self-driving-car-decides-one-death-is-better-than-two-and-that-one-is-you; Dave Lee, “Google’s Driverless Car Is Brilliant but So Boring,” BBC News, 2 October 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34423292; Patrick Lin, “The Robot Car of Tomorrow May Just Be Programmed to Hit You,” WIRED, 6 May 2014, http://www.wired.com/2014/05/the-robot-car-of-tomorrow-might-just-be-programmed-to-hit-you.
Ole B. Jensen and Malene Freudendal-Pedersen, “Utopias of Mobilities,” in Utopia: Social Theory and the Future, ed. Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), 197–217.
Mimi Sheller, “Automotive Emotions: Feeling the Car,” Theory, Culture and Society 21, nos. 4–5 (2004): 221–242, here 222.
Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 4 (2000): 737–757, here 739; Jeremy Packer, Mobility without Mayhem (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Cotten Seiler, Republic of Drivers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Packer, Mobility without Mayhem; Seiler, Republic of Drivers.
Seiler, Republic of Drivers; Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage, 1961); Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, Cities and Automobile Dependence (Aldershot: Gower, 1989).
Packer, Mobility without Mayhem; Seiler, Republic of Drivers.
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Newman and Kenworthy describe urban fabrics as “the material reality created by certain urban lifestyles and functions … shaped primarily by transportation infrastructure,” which supports either “walking urban fabric,” “transit urban fabric,” or “auto urban fabric.” Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, The End of Automobile Dependence (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015), 108.
Susan Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism and Gender-Scepticism,” in Feminism/ Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (London: Routledge, 1990), 133–156, here 152.
Linda McDowell, Gender, Identity and Place (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 248.
David Kronlid, “Mobility as Capability,” in Gendered Mobilities, ed. Tanu Priya Uteng and Tim Cresswell (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2008), 15–33, here 18; Georgine Clarsen, “Feminism and Gender,” in The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities, ed. Peter Adey, David Bissell, Kevin Hannam, Peter Merriman, and Mimi Sheller (London: Routledge, 2014), 94–102.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 2006); McDowell, Gender, Identity and Place; Priya Uteng and Cresswell, Gendered Mobilities.
Priya Uteng and Cresswell, Gendered Mobilities, 2.
David Gartman, “Three Ages of the Automobile: Cultural Logics of the Car,” in Automobilities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift, and John Urry (London: Sage, 2005), 169–195, here 183; Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car.”
Colin Divall, “Transport History, the Usable Past and the Future of Mobility,” in Mobilities: New Perspectives on Transport and Society (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2012), 305–319; Gartman, “Three Ages of the Automobile,” 169–195; Priya Uteng and Cresswell, Gendered Mobilities; Gijs Mom, Atlantic Automobilism: Emergence and Persistence of the Car 1895–1940 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015).
Seiler, Republic of Drivers; Priya Uteng and Cresswell, Gendered Mobilities; Annette Jerup Jørgensen, “The Culture of Automobility: How Interacting Drivers Relate to Legal Standards and to Each Other in Traffic,” in Priya Uteng and Cresswell, Gendered Mobilities, 99–111.
Kathleen Franz, “The Open Road,” in Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study, ed. Bruce Sinclair (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 131–153; Seiler, “So That We as a Race.”
Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson, and Angel O. Torres, “Dismantling Transportation Apartheid in the United States Before and After Disasters Strike,” Human Rights 34, no. 3 (2007): 2–6; Robert D. Bullard and Glenn S. Johnson, Just Transportation (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1997).
Tim Cresswell, On the Move (New York: Routledge, 2006), 260.
Paul Gilroy, Darker Than Blue (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), 14.
Art Blake, “Audible Citizenship and Automobility: Race, Technology and CB Radio,” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2011): 531–553.
Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman, Incomplete Streets (New York: Routledge, 2014), i.
Tim Cresswell, “Black Moves: Moments in the History of African-American Masculine Mobilities,” Transfers 6, no. 1 (2016): 12–25; Sheller, “Racialized Mobility Transitions.”
Mimi Sheller, “Gendered Mobilities: Epilogue,” in Priya Uteng and Cresswell, Gendered Mobilities, 257–266.
Tim Dant, “The Driver-Car,” in Automobilities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift, and John Urry (London: Sage, 2005), 61–79; Packer, Mobility without Mayhem; Seiler, Republic of Drivers; Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car”; Nigel Thrift, “Driving in the City,” in Featherstone et al., Automobilities, 41–59.
Dant, “The Driver-Car,” 75.
Seiler, Republic of Drivers, 3.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
Ernst Kapp, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik: Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Cultur aus neuen Gesichtspunkten (Braunschweig: Druck & Verlag von Georg Westermann, 1877).
Jeremy Packer, “Automobility and the Driving Force of Warfare: From Public Safety to National Security,” in The Ethics of Mobilities: Rethinking Place, Exclusion, Freedom and Environment (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2012), 39–64, here 61.
Grusin, Premediation, 8.
James W. Carey and John J. Quirk, “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (London: Psychology Press, 1989), 173–200, here 195–196.
Google, “Google Self-Driving Car Project,” https://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar (accessed 6 February 2016); Mercedes-Benz, “The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion,” https://www.mercedes-benz.com/en/mercedes-benz/innovation/research-vehicle-f-015-luxury-in-motion (accessed 6 February 2016); Volvo Car USA, “Volvo Cars | Concept 26,” video, 3:44, 18 November 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihsa3H7Awp8.
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Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. [in Japanese], “Introducing the Nissan IDS Concept,” video, 3:48, 27 October 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-TLo86K7Ck.
Nissan News explains that the steering wheel “takes styling cues from reins for horse riding.” “Nissan IDS Concept.” While this inspiration is visible in the design, the shape of the wheel still seems more closely related to gaming consoles such as Steelseries SRW-S1.
“Nissan IDS Concept.”
Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 148.
Seiler, Republic of Drivers.
Thanks to Brent Luvaas for this suggestion.
Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car,” 747.
Volvo Cars of North America, “Volvo Cars Debuts Concept 26—An Autonomous Drive Concept,” 18 November 2015, https://www.media.volvocars.com/us/en-us/media/pressreleases/169493/volvo-cars-debuts-concept-26-an-autonomous-drive-concept.
Volvo Cars US, “Volvo Cars | Concept 26.”
Malene Freudendal-Pederson, Mobility in Daily Life: Between Freedom and Un-freedom (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).
Sheller, “Gendered Mobilities: Epilogue.”
Mia Tuan, Forever Foreign or Honorary White: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999); Min Zhou, “Are Asian Americans Becoming ‘White’?,” Contexts 3, no. 1 (2004): 29–37.
Sheller, “Automotive Emotions.”
Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car,” 748.
Packer, “Automobility and the Driving Force of Warfare”; Sheller, “Emergence of New Cultures of Mobility.”
Lucas Introna and David Wood, “Picturing Algorithmic Surveillance: The Politics of Facial Recognition Systems,” Surveillance and Society 2, nos. 2–3 (2004): 177–198; Lucas Introna and Helen Nissenbaum, Facial Recognition Technology: A Survey of Policy and Implementation Issues, 22 July 2009, Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response, New York University, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1437730.
Michael Bull, “Automobility and the Power of Sound,” in Featherstone et al., Auto-mobilties, 243–259.
Ibid.; John Urry, “The ‘System’ of Automobility,” Theory, Culture and Society 21, nos. 4–5 (2004): 25–39.
Bull, “Automobility and the Power of Sound,” 253.
Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car”; Urry, “The ‘System’ of Automobility”; “Nissan IDS Concept.”
“Nissan IDS Concept” (this and the quotations in the previous sentence).
Jeremy Packer and Kathleen F. Oswald, “From Windscreen to Widescreen,” Communication Review 13, no. 4 (2010): 309–339, here 318.
Blake, “Audible Citizenship.”
Thrift, “Driving in the City.”
“Autonomous Vehicles and Mobility Services Could Add One Trillion More Vehicle Miles,” PR Newswire, 17 November 2015, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/autonomous-vehicles--mobility-services-could-add-one-trillionmore-vehicle-miles-traveled-annually-by-2050-kpmg-research-300180442.html Jarrett Walker, “Self-Driving Cars,” Human Transit, 25 November 2015, http://humantransit.org/2015/11/self-driving-cars-a-coming-congestion-disaster.html.
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Packer and Oswald, “From Windscreen to Widescreen,” 335.
McDowell, Gender, Identity and Place.
Packer, Mobility without Mayhem.
Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
Sheller and Urry, “The City and the Car.”
Thrift, “Driving in the City,” 49.
Bruno Latour, “Where Are the Missing Masses?,” in Shaping Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 225–258, here 235.