Combustion, Hydraulic, and Other Forms of Masculinity

An Essay Exploring Dominant Values and Representations of the Driver in Driverless Technology

in Transfers


This article presents two representations of masculinity based on media images found in television and online promotion related to motor vehicles. The dominant image in much advertising is the bursting, thrusting power of what I refer to as “combustion” masculinity, identified as active engagement and connected with significant road trauma. The less visible, fluid power found in professional driving that I refer to as “hydraulic” masculinity draws on precision and awareness of the surroundings rather than aggressive force. Social analysis of electric and driverless vehicle promotion and media discussion indicate that moving to electric and fully automated driving requires overcoming the essential contradiction of combustion power, as it is associated with cars and freedom. Alternative modes and images of being mobile must be highlighted in order to challenge the combustion image. Fundamentally, activity should be ascribed to all mobile persons, and policy and mobility systems should be designed to maximize mobility for all.

Human bodies can be regarded as invested, marked, pleasured, and tortured by discourses of gender in a manner that helps constitute a body’s postures, thoughts, performances, and subjectivities as typically male or female.

—Richard Pringle and Pirkko Markula, “No Pain Is Sane After All”1

Combustion, provided by burning fossil fuels, provides much of the power required for human societies and is responsible for global warming and the many effects of climate change. Alternatives are gaining momentum, resulting in enormous technological progress. We are already imagining a world where power is provided by clean, green alternatives that do not destroy or pollute. A related challenge is to imagine the roads as a calmer, safer, more cooperative social space without the aggression of bursting power, intimidation of size, and temptation of increasing speed that currently characterize them.

Great speed has been an achievement of the car’s first hundred years, and there is widespread expectation that speeds will continue to increase. However, increased speed is not feasible in most circumstances, and the costs of providing infrastructure for greater speed are increasingly harder to justify.2 Speed limits have been lowered in urban areas in many constituencies to achieve safer mobility for all. Smarter vehicle technology is clearly the future, and the desire to combine this with safer, more efficient systems is gaining momentum against the constant push for greater speeds.

This article presents an analysis of representations of drivers in advertising and promotion of motor vehicles and changes in technology. The dominant representation of the driver is what I refer to as combustion masculinity, where the emphasis in advertising is on speed and acceleration designed to appeal to male drivers and their desire for thrill. Online searches have been conducted in which the major manufacturers and their representation of the car, driver, and driving environment were considered. In most car ads in which a driver is shown, the driver is male. Men are considered active and masterful in their engagement with cars. Women are not commonly portrayed as engaged or active users, despite their increasing numbers among drivers. In television advertising and characteristics of car promotion, it is evident that males are regarded as superior in their privileged relation to cars and their exclusive right to exhilaration. Advertising promotes the explosive, spurting power of combustion masculinity. A brand that does not draw on combustion masculinity in some of its advertising has not been found in searches online, and it is difficult to find advertising that presents a different representation of masculinity in relation to cars.

One alternative is presented in this article. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Volvo truck ad is explored as a demonstration of what I refer to as hydraulic masculinity in defiance of combustion masculinity. It is of interest that this alternative representation of masculinity is demonstrated using professional drivers. Another potential alternative is a short film made for the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY) in 2011 for Volvo’s S60. Volvo has a reputation for safety, yet it follows the tradition of promoting vehicles as a source of male exhilaration. It also has a driverless vehicle, the XC90, on the road in Sweden and on trials in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.

Advertisers have used women to promote new technologies such as the electric start, explored further in the article, in order to make them more acceptable to male drivers. The gender of the driver is significant in the promotion of autonomous technologies and vehicles by manufacturers such as Audi, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz. Tesla’s electric technology embraces autonomous technologies though finds it necessary to appeal to combustion masculinity. Google stands out from manufacturers with an alternative model of mobility that is both electric and driverless and makes no appeal to combustion masculinity.

While hydraulic masculinity is required for operating machinery and building roads and buildings, it is less visible and rarely promoted. Combustion masculinity would lose its means of expression in driverless cars if they are to be safer for all. It is important to emphasize masculinities here in order to avoid the notion that masculinity per se is at risk, and to move beyond the binaries of male and female. Removing combustion masculinity from public roads would not be a crisis of masculinity but of one expression of it.

Gendered Drivers

The press for greater speed and power is intimately connected with the car and a particular expression of masculinity. Masculinities are taken here as configurations of practice that are accomplished in social action and, therefore, can differ according to the gender relations in a particular social setting.3 There are many kinds and expressions of masculinity, and this article focuses on contrasting one type taken from the image of the driver evident in car advertising with an alternative from the operation of machinery.

Women have taken to cars with great enthusiasm since cars first became household items. It remains the case that males are more likely to be killed in car crashes partly because men are on the roads more and partly because they are more likely to take risks such as speeding.4 Even in wealthy countries where more women drive and drive more miles such as Europe and the United States, the proportion of males to females killed in motor vehicle crashes is four to one.5

Women would seem to enjoy the same freedoms as men through access to the car; however, this does not mean that women are equal in their access, use, and representation in relation to cars.6 There are many aspects of mobility that remain male dominated. In developed or higher-income countries, most women drive though, men nevertheless maintain their superiority as drivers, seeing themselves as more in control because they are able and prepared to take more risks.7 At the same time, policy and transport planning is oriented more to the travel patterns of men.

The report Gender Mainstreaming European Transport Research and Policies points out that while “transport is an overwhelmingly male-dominated sector men and women make different uses of a shared system of transport.”8

Committees and advisory boards related to transport in Europe are typically comprised of only 15 percent women, and none are equal. It is recognized that “worldviews guiding our common sense and perceptions of transport are gendered,”9 with gendered representations in advertising, films, and literature: “Mainstreaming gender equality into transport policy should consider how transportation affects women and men. Accordingly, future transport policy should emphasize accessibility as well as mobility.”10

The important values here are accessibility and mobility rather than increasing speed. Women are likely to make shorter trips than men, though they may make many of them in a day, and many will be between major routes rather than along them. Major routes are constructed with commuters in mind, and these are predominantly male. Women are likely to be taking different routes and are more likely to use public transport.11

Men have been dominant in the generation, production, and use of technology and have in turn generated technology that suits male ideas of power, use, and form, and these ideas have been “baked” into the technology. Women are expected and believed to be less competent with technology than men: “The ‘woman driver’ cliché, so often ringing in our ears, helps to produce an unconfident woman driver and contributes to the making of men in the persona of ‘driver,’ a driving person.”12 The desire for more power and acceleration, higher top speeds, and performance in cars is consistently promoted.13 Other demands are now propelling changes in vehicle technology. Automation of vehicles is becoming more likely as manufacturers produce vehicles capable of taking on more aspects of the task of driving. It is argued that they are likely to be safer than human drivers, more efficient, and potentially more equitable.14

A more nuanced understanding of gender is required to consider the cultural limitations of future advances. A simple man-woman binary divide is too crude to capture the complex relationship between gender and the car. Neither masculinity nor femininity is a simple, singular, uniform construct. In the masculine gendering of driving, the differences in construction of masculinity and the question of the type of masculinity that is being mobilized is crucial.

Combustion and Hydraulic Masculinities

What I have referred to as “combustion” masculinity15 is the bursting, spurting speed and power indicating high performance demonstrated and expressed in various media, including representations of cars and their use. Combustion, or “fire power,” is explosive and is associated with violent excitement, agitation, or discontent. It requires ignition or rapid oxidation and the constant burning of fuel. Paul Virilio refers to combustion-powered speed as the “binomial fire movement of implosion and explosion,” the power to penetrate and the power to destroy.16 Combustion power is noisy, invasive, and a dominating force capable of great destruction; it is both the source of power and an expression of power. The explosion is evident in the sounds that can be made to emanate from cars as they accelerate with the roar of a thundering beast. The danger of explosive power is all too evident with fast acceleration, an unnecessary threat in most urban environments where the majority of driving occurs.

A less represented form of masculinity, “hydraulic” masculinity, illustrates an alternative image of masculinity related to vehicles.17 While machinery uses combustion power to run, machines rely on hydraulic power for most of their functions. Hydraulic power is fluid, using pressurized liquid for controlled, flexible, and accurate operations.

Hydraulic masculinity requires skillful maneuvering, patience, and careful, slow handling. From skid loaders and forklifts, bulldozers and cherry pickers, to cranes on trucks for removing heavy materials, modern machinery requires skill that is patient and precise rather than aggressive. Handling hydraulic machinery demonstrates extending the body, where a skid loader bucket or a crane becomes an arm that can be manipulated as if it were an extension of the operator’s body.

A masculinity based on the precision of operating hydraulic machinery is one that can move slowly and carefully, taking into account the surroundings and the impact on other things. The building of roads requires hydraulic machinery, careful planning, and concise placement. As a model or type of masculinity, hydraulic masculinity is everywhere, but at the same time it is less visible.

Many aspects of cars and car promotion have enforced and reinforced combustion masculinity at the expense of other forms, a characteristic of hegemonic masculinity.18 Not all men find it necessary to demonstrate combustion masculinity, though many will express its more extreme forms when they begin to drive, and some women identify with the thrill of speed.19

The Promotion of Thrill in Car Advertising

Car advertising promotes aggression and speed through a focus on performance, which includes features such as speed, power, maneuverability, traction, and stopping ability.20 These features have been “directly associated with unsafe or aggressive driving activities such as excessive speed and acceleration, racing, high speed cornering, risky off-road driving, skidding, and sudden braking not associated with accident avoidance.”21 The promotion of the thrill and exhilaration of speed commonly involves the use of such features in car advertisements.

An analysis of television car advertising in Australia taking into account characteristics of the ad such as gender of driver, number of cars shown, and setting of the ad indicates an evident preference for single vehicle ads with a single male driver.22 A dominant image emerges from the analysis of a single male driver with no passengers, on a road with no other cars evident. Cars are frequently shown in advertising on open roads with challenging bends, indicating speed and the chance for the male driver to experience skill, mastery, and exhilaration free of constraint. Shots of the speedometer and gear levers, exhilarated expression of the driver, and fast-moving scenery all imply high speed and fast cornering. Women are very rarely shown driving alone on open country roads, and ads with no male presence are also rare.

Cars are made to turn men’s heads and to seduce them into playing out their desires and continue to be promoted for higher speeds. In order to continue reproducing exhilaration, cars must continue to go faster and increase acceleration. This kind of advertising for cars can be found in many countries. A YouTube video from Auto News for the “Best Upcoming Cars (2016–2017)” includes Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lotus, Porsche, and Range Rover, and shows vehicles on race tracks and deserted country and city roads, with the roar of the engine, fast acceleration, and tight cornering. “If the rebel inside you dreams of this. Get him on track. REBELS RACE HARDER.”23

Mercedes-Benz’s AMG GTS IAA 2015 advertisement shows a race car driver climbing out of a race car in the city, walking into a shopping center and getting suited up, walking out the other side, and climbing into the AMG.24 He puts it into “race” mode and then proceeds to race through the city streets, fishtailing and drifting around corners at traffic lights. Shots of his watch show that he made it with minutes to spare (thanks to a clear, traffic-free path). The ad reinforces the male fantasy of being a race car driver, the ultimate symbol of combustion masculinity and often the model of “good” driving.

A brand that does not promote its vehicles in advertising through images of the bursting power of speed and acceleration, often with a male driver alone on the road, free to explore his supposed propensity for risk taking and experience exhilaration, is hard to find. The association between male styles of driving and risk taking indicating that men have more crashes and more serious crashes25 has been well established,26 and still the popular image of the driver is based on the carefree male.

The male subject of mobility as desiring risk and danger is produced in promotional discourses, and the dynamics between promotional and regulatory discourses in turn creates a combative relationship to the authorities. The automotive industry and its advertising associates have long pitched authority against the driver, demanded faster roads and higher speeds, and provided ever-faster cars with greater acceleration. The image of the single male driver alone on the road fuels the expectation that cars allow unlimited and unobstructed opportunities for male drivers to experience the thrill of speed and fast cornering on the open road through their driving prowess.27

Thrill and excitement, as well as domination, power, and competitiveness associated with masculinity and cars, are evident in popular motoring magazines in which women have been portrayed as negating men’s passion and right to exhilaration.28 Games such as Need for Speed: No Limits promote classic combustion driving, urging players to “rule the streets, never back down; drift between chaos and control, let the sparks fly; take down racers and cops, increase your rep; nitro and win, smoke the competition.”29

Combustion masculinity is the dominant image for the expression of masculinity through cars, fueled by car advertising and other forms of media, which constantly employ images of thrusting, bursting power and excitement. It is the dominant social norm of driving informed by other social norms relating to gender and gender relations. Legitimation of risky driving goes along with a lack of care for oneself and others.30 It is not popular to associate maleness, cars, social awareness, and caution, even though driving involves careful maneuvering and cooperation facilitated by agreed-upon rules. Much advertising is focused on promoting performance and the comfort, freedom, and experience of the driver at the expense of the surrounding social environment.

Volvo Trucks, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the Epic Split: Machinic Ballet

Hydraulic masculinity is not often seen in car advertising. To illustrate hydraulic masculinity, the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme’s performance of the splits between two trucks in the Volvo truck ad, known as “The Epic Split,”31 is discussed in this section. A machinic ballet, the ad is a magnificent combination of forces, color, sound, and imagery with the implications that come with Van Damme “as a man, and as a body” promoting Volvo’s dynamic steering technology. The technology being promoted allows more precise steering and comfort for a “more enjoyable working environment.”32

The colors of the sunset are accompanied by the music of Enya’s “Only Time.” The movement is precise and with exact and constant speed between the two trucks moving in reverse. Van Damme calmly straddles them, his feet placed on the side mirrors as they move away from each other. With incredible poise, he performs the splits, his legs spreading until they are completely at right angles to his body. Both trucks are gold to add to the softness of the scene with sunset backdrop. Filmed on a surface with no bumps or holes, line markings are precisely followed by the drivers.

Van Damme’s voiceover states, “What you see is a body crafted to perfection, a pair of legs engineered to defy the laws of physics and a mind-set to master the most epic of splits.” The body crafted to perfection is reflected in the vehicles holding him, making them also machine bodies crafted to perfection to support, sustain, and embolden human movement.

The concept of defying the laws of physics has been promoted in vehicle advertising.33 The car gives drivers the ability to defy the laws of physics by moving at speeds the body cannot reach by itself. The desire to defy the laws of physics can be extended to stopping distances and taking corners at impossible speeds. In this case, it is Van Damme’s power to do what most bodies cannot do. It is not only the precise truck movement that gives Van Damme the ability to do the splits; it is long years of cultivating the skill, accomplished even while straddling two trucks moving in reverse, with complete confidence.

The splits belongs in nonaggressive sports like ballet or high-level gymnastics, yoga, and martial arts. These are not combustion sports like football or individual explosive performances such as running and swimming. More emphasis is on the practice of an art and body control, flexibility, and manipulation rather than explosive exertion and the thrust of power. Volvo offers their precision vehicles as a way of giving more control to how the day unfolds.

There is defiance in Van Damme’s crossed arms and direct gaze. The target of Van Damme’s defiance is those who would diminish his skills and disregard them as masculine. This is not the usual defiance of combustion masculinity against authority but rather a challenge to combustion masculinity itself, showing an alternative that has presence and valuable expertise and skill.

There are plenty of demonstrations of hydraulic masculinity in Van Damme’s movies. He is usually the hero fighting combustion masculinity, taming it and using it along with other styles. In Nowhere to Run (1993), he uses an earthmover to topple a water tank on a stand onto a large gas cylinder that is next to a burning barn, dousing it in water and preventing an explosion. In an open road motorcycle scene, he escapes by throwing the motorcycle on the ground to hide in the tall grasses. Rather than engaging in endless pursuit, he throws aside combustion masculinity when it is not going to serve him. In Bloodsport (1988), a young Van Damme plays the good fighter. Drawing on Eastern techniques of centering and calming, he is not coerced into wild outrage or out of control anger but instead uses calm inner power and technique to overwhelm his unscrupulous opponent.

The Volvo truck ad won awards and became one of the most popular ads on YouTube, with more than seventy million views.34 The largest group influencing truck buyers is truck drivers. “And you can’t reach truck drivers with traditional advertising.”35 “It should, by all rights, be one of the worst ads you’ve ever seen: A Hollywood has-been straddles two 18-wheelers at sunset while a nearly forgotten new-age song somberly drones along in the background.”36 Associating Van Damme with truck driving brought out something new for the image of truck drivers, namely, an alternative to combustion masculinity. Van Damme’s age in the ad is unusual, with most car ads showing young twenty-something males. The combination of the has-been actor with the forgotten new age song works because it privileges and displays a different form of masculinity. It brings to the fore masculinities that are derided from the point of view of the dominant image of the bursting, threatening power of combustion masculinity.

Van Damme presents an alternative image of masculinity not often seen in association with motor vehicles. It is likely that many action heroes demonstrate alternatives to combustion masculinity, though combustion masculinity remains the glorified standard in promoting cars. Professional driving cannot be associated with risk taking and freedom to perform at the edge of control, as this would be at odds with the work environment and the need for safety and precaution that has also always accompanied the driving task.

Promoting Changing Technologies

It is difficult to see how a transition can be made to driverless cars with combustion masculinity as the dominant image of the driver and increased speed and acceleration as the dominant values. The impetus to speed and take risks would essentially be removed. Despite the absence of women in car advertising, appeals to women in advertising have been made since the advent of cars to enable the introduction of new technologies. The electric start was originally promoted as enabling women to drive. The inclusion of an automatic ignition to replace the dangerous crank handle on cars was considered too feminine for the male image, so it was associated with a concession to feminine convenience.37 Early electric cars had already been associated with women, as had additional internal comforts such as softer suspensions and more comfortable, stylish leather seating.

Though men liked to boast about their victories over early cars, which were often difficult to handle, Virginia Scharff says “it is by no means clear that ordinary male motorists disdained comfort, or that they always enjoyed demonstrating masculine prowess by deliberately choosing a Spartan automobile.”38 Despite its instant and universal acceptance, the self-starter was nevertheless promoted as a feminine convenience enabling women to take the wheel.39 Similarly, the automatic transmission was sold as a labor-saving device for women so that men could purchase it, ostensibly for their wives.40

Several current promotions for driver-assistance technologies show women as the drivers. An Audi A7 ad demonstrating self-parking shows a woman driver who steps out and leaves the car to park itself.41 The Volvo S60 auto-drive advertisement is promoted as a “sexy” ad with a woman waking and dressing for work as a man on a train sits looking uncomfortable and cold.42 The woman sits in the driver’s seat of the car, drawing, taking a picture of the drawing with her phone, and sending it to the man on the train as the car moves through the city. This appears to give her time to gather herself and her thoughts before taking over the driving of the car. The comparison with a man on a train suggests the woman has more control over her environment.

The Mercedes-Benz S500 is also promoted as “sexy” and driven by a woman.43 A male voiceover explains Mercedes-Benz’s interest in autonomous cars and that the car “garners endless information from its environment,” processing “in a split second.” It “knows its way around” and is able to “understand its environment and choose the correct maneuver for the situation” combined with “learning new traffic conditions.” The car itself takes over the activity of driving in this example, and this is more compatible with the image of the woman driver.

All of these examples are shot in urban traffic situations, while men are usually shown alone with the car on an open road, as has been argued earlier. Women are portrayed in these examples as more passive users of technology in not being as concerned with controlling the activity of driving. New technologies are seen as threatening to masculinity, aligned with the reckless bravado considered as active engagement, whereas women are seen as able to more easily take to automatic features and being less active in their engagement. It has been assumed that women will take to autonomous vehicles more easily than men, though a recent survey found women less trusting of driverless technology.44

Images Driving New Technology

It might be hoped that changes in fuel source from combustion to electric could change the desire for spurting power; however, the promotion of future cars appears to require evidence of combustion masculinity in some form. Many manufacturers are keen to promote electric cars as maintaining the meanings associated with the combustion engine, with its explosive power and spurting performance. In an Audi commercial for its hybrid A3 e-tron, the quiet of a street with a woman on a bicycle, a woman gathering eggs, goats on a lawn, and a man on a roof with solar cells is interrupted by the screeching of tires as a car comes hurtling into view, swerves to a stop, and is reversed up a driveway. Everyone stops to look as a man climbs out and plugs the car in, nodding to the woman on the bicycle with an expression intended to convey dangerous sexiness: “It doesn’t look like a hybrid, and it certainly doesn’t drive like a hybrid. The A3 e-tron hybrid plug-in from Audi is not your average eco-friendly experience. That’s because the aggressive styling and the performance you’ve come to expect from Audi let you ‘Plug in and take names.’”45 The irresponsibility of illustrating driving in such a way in suburban streets or on any public road is typical of advertising employing combustion masculinity to sell cars. The behavior is clearly seen as attractive despite the obvious disregard for the social environment.

Tesla is a leading producer of fully electric cars as well as stationary battery storage and charging infrastructure. It has three vehicles, starting with the Roadster in 2008, the Model S in 2012, and the Model X in 2015. Tesla’s mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.”46 There is no compromise on acceleration, however, with promoted rates of acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds for the Roadster. The Model S “provides the comfort and utility of a family sedan while achieving the acceleration of a sports car: 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds.” The Model X features “exhilarating acceleration.” Tesla, its website proclaims, “is not just an automaker, but also a technology and design company with a focus on energy innovation.” A great deal of thought goes into every aspect of the beautifully designed cars. The cars are equipped with touch screen displays covering every part of the car and Internet capability. In promotional videos, Tesla must show that the vehicles have power equal to that expected by drivers, as electric power is assumed to be much less powerful than combustion. Tesla does not advertise, but its vehicles are promoted on open roads and race tracks and as able to kick up a storm in the dust, drift with control, and hold the road in snow47 in order to match the combustion desires of the male driving public.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, sees driverless cars as inevitable and likely within two to five years,48 and he allegedly exclaimed at a conference that “people may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.” He was forced to “clarify” this in a follow-up tweet, however, stating that “Tesla is strongly in favor of people being allowed to drive their cars and always will be.” Elements of combustion masculinity are appealed to in claims such as Tesla’s “high-performance cars are a blast to operate in a traditional hands-on manner.” Removing the driver is perceived as a threat to the traditional need for hands-on engagement, that is, masculinity as combustion.

Autonomy is likely to be a phased process, according to Musk, with some vehicles already able to offer computer-assisted parallel parking, assisted braking, steering and lane changing on highways, and warning systems for side collisions. Fully autonomous cars without steering wheels and brake pedal are currently prohibited in most jurisdictions.49

Google has been working on electric self-drive technology for more than six years and is the only company pushing for completely autonomous vehicles to be legalized. Combining robotics, sensors, and computing power, Google cars “know how to stop at a stop sign, look for oncoming pedestrians, change lanes, get on the freeway and anticipate all the various problems that drivers face.”50 It is maintained that the driverless car will be safer, and Google’s accident record is an indication that the problem is going to be the phasing out of human drivers. Google cars have been involved in eleven accidents in six years, and none were the fault of the driverless cars.

This has prompted headlines showing skepticism for driverless cars like “Google Blames Humans for Self-Driving Car Crash—Again”51 and “All Google’s Self-Driving Car Crashes Were Caused by Humans, Testers Claim.”52 There are those who are sympathetic as well, such as Natasha Lomas of Tech-Crunch: “Driverless Car Accident Reports Make Unhappy Reading For Humans.”53 Lomas says that laying the blame on human drivers “underlines the inherent complexities of blending two very different styles of driving—and suggests that robot cars might actually be too cautious and careful.”

Programed to follow the rules, Google cars can astound and frustrate human drivers who do not expect and are not used to such compliance. In clashes between technology and human drivers, Google cars have swerved to avoid a collision with badly parked cars and cars approaching traffic lights at an unsafe speed.54 There have been no injuries apart from mild whiplash for a person in a Google car that stopped at a pedestrian crossing and was hit from behind at 17 mph.

The outstanding problem is seen as the mixture of autonomous cars with human drivers, though the problem, I contend, is actually the image of driving accompanying combustion. There is now a suggestion that Google cars need to be more “aggressive” and to potentially disobey the law to integrate better with human drivers. The problem is apparent especially when joining motorways where the Google car is traveling at the speed limit while traffic already on the motorway is moving above the limit.55 Another issue is that the cars react more quickly than humans do and are more likely to stop or slow down for a pedestrian, surprising human drivers. There is an acceptance of the refusal of human drivers to conform to the road rules. Greater efficiency is an appeal of driverless technology because it will create more predictability than is possible with human drivers.

Google is the most visible proponent of the driverless car and wants its cars to behave like a safe, law-abiding human: “In developing vehicles that can take anyone from A to B at the push of a button, we’re hoping to transform mobility for millions of people … Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this.”56 Google’s website reports its aims as safety, regardless of ability to drive, and accessibility for all, in particular the powerless, impaired, and aged.57

Google’s idea of the future car and that of many manufacturers’ appear to be in stark contrast, with much appeal to combustion masculinity still evident. Speed and fast acceleration remain strong selling points and fuel the expectation of faster roads. While greater efficiencies can be achieved, higher speeds are not affordable with the infrastructure required to make them safe.

The Transformation of the Male Driver?

Vehicles are increasingly being equipped with features such as pedestrian detection and emergency stopping ability. The Volvo S60 2011 commercial made for the NFFTY58 shows a man in his twenties sitting at a park bench, with the car next to him, writing a script for the ad. His scenario begins with a car chase through city streets. He finds himself stopped by the vehicle’s pedestrian detection system inches from a woman crossing the street. The camera focuses on his shocked expression as he realizes where his driving has gotten him. He looks at his dash indicating that the car’s braking system was activated and then in the mirror, where he sees there is no sign of his pursuer.

The script writer is shocked and deletes “He is disappointed” from his script, replacing it with “He puts the car into reverse,” and we see the driver park and go to join the woman sitting at a café table. He is then shown driving with the woman as a passenger. There is no sign of the pursuit scenario/ fantasy. We could take the ad as showing the driver as transformed by a deep realization that his wild fantasy has consequences only salvaged by the vehicle. Or does it simply reinforce the need for vehicles to compensate for combustion masculinity?

Autonomous Vehicle Networks

Alternative values to speed and power are represented in some views. According to Alexander Hars, autonomous cars could “fundamentally change our transportation infrastructure and provide the opportunity to make our societies better—less dependent on oil, less-resource consuming, with less carnage on the roads and with more freedom for the old, young and under-privileged.”59 Hars imagines car sharing allowing greater car utilization rates, tailored public transport, and better road utilization. Safety would improve enormously, as would energy use. Hars considers it a waste to transition to autonomous cars via driver assistance systems, as the latter require focus on the driver and a “powerful model of driver behavior” not needed for autonomous vehicles. He prefers the direct route and the concentration of research funds on enabling complete autonomy, forfeiting the driver completely.

While driverless cars might stop for pedestrians and avoid hitting cyclists, there will be a strong push for roads to continue to be shaped for optimizing car speed if the motor lobby has as strong an influence on policy as it has in the past.60 Values such as equality of access to mobility must be incorporated in planning for the future of autonomous systems. All mobility relies on systems and networks that are the true facilitators of freedom. It is the image of masculinity as combustion power that is likely to be the greatest obstacle if other perspectives are not brought to the fore and wealth continues to determine access.


Driverless vehicles themselves will not bring about genderless mobility. The systems and networks the vehicles function within are key.61 With high-end manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Audi working on automatic vehicles, they will continue to lobby for what they consider their customers’ desires. Google represents a real alternative with the emphasis on greater safety, accessibility, and equity and a different way of thinking about systems of mobility that is more capable of being “genderless” in being able to be embraced by all genders and not requiring a dominant image of gender.

Volvo’s future driving survey reveals the contradiction evident in demands for more efficiency. “Volvo found that 88 percent of respondents said that autonomous vehicles must ‘respect the love of driving,’ while 78 percent believe that autonomous vehicles would improve their commute.”62 Whether both are possible is debatable, and at the very least, less emphasis on the love of driving as high speed, law-breaking, explosive acceleration is required. No analysis by gender is included in Volvo’s press release, nor is it evident how questions in the survey were posed.

Mobility systems have the potential to make mobility safer, cheaper, more efficient, and less energy consuming if the right approach is taken to implementing autonomous vehicles and the needs of broader sectors of communities are taken into account. Other forms of masculinity are clearly evident, but the dominant image lingers of the single male on the open road enjoying the thrill of speed and power. The active consumer of mobility systems is the commuter on the train as well as the driver of a vehicle. The negative passive implications of “riding” in a vehicle require reframing. The exhilaration of increasing acceleration is a major focus of appeals to male drivers, though faster acceleration is not required in today’s world and in fact is dangerous.

The analysis of gender and its relation to the car presented here suggests that realizing the potential for both safety and equity is by no means a foregone conclusion. Tackling values, practices, and material culture in order to bring about changes that enable new forms of mobility is required to enable different expectations and ways of being in the world to be embraced. Putting more emphasis on the complex social environment of the motor vehicle could help to change the desires related to cars.

Broader consultation on transport systems is clearly required beyond the desires and images of combustion masculinity. Changes in car design and the systems they operate within can embrace new representations of being human. The popularity of the Volvo truck ad indicates that hydraulic masculinity could be successfully promoted, along with reframing travel in itself, including commuting, as active.


Thanks to Melissa Vick for comments on an earlier draft.


Richard Pringle and Pirkko Markula, “No Pain Is Sane After All: A Foucauldian Analysis of Masculinities and Men’s Experiences in Rugby,” Sociology of Sport Journal 22, no. 4 (2005): 472–497, here 477.


Sarah Redshaw, “Acceleration: The Limits of Speed,” in The Reinvention of Everyday Life: Culture in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Howard McNaughton and Adam Lam (Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press, 2006), 195–206, here 196; World Health Organization (WHO), Global Status Report on Road Safety (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2015),


Raewyn W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Re-thinking the Concept,” Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 829–859, here 836.


WHO, Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015.


Tara Kelley-Baker and Eduardo Romano, “Female Involvement in U.S. Nonfatal Crashes under a Three-Level Hierarchical Crash Model,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 42, no. 6 (2010); 2007–2012 European Transport Safety Council, “Risk on the Roads: A Male Problem?” (PIN Flash 25, 2013).


Susan Hanson, “Gender and Mobility: New Approaches for Informing Sustainability,” Gender, Place and Culture 17, no. 1 (2010): 5–23, here 10–13.


Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), “General Statistics > Fatalities Facts > Gender,”; Ned Levine, “Spatial Variation in Motor Vehicle Crashes by Gender in the Houston, Texas, Metropolitan Area,” Transportation Research Board Conference Proceedings 46, no. 2 (2009): 12–25.


Transgen, Gender Mainstreaming European Transport Research and Policies, Building the Knowledge Base and Mapping Good Practices (University of Copenhagen, 2007), 5.




Ibid., 6.


Ibid., 42–43.


Cynthia Cockburn and Susan Ormrod, Gender and Technology in the Making (London: Sage, 1993), 1.


Redshaw, “Acceleration,” 7–9; Seth L. Feinberg, Mikaela J. Dufur, Amy Famelos, and Valeria Fisher, “Senseless Messaging: Advertising Images of Illegal Driving and Deviant Behavior,” Deviant Behavior 35, no. 11 (2014): 843–858, here 852.


Alex Hars, “Autonomous Cars: The Next Revolution Looms,” Inventivio Innovation Briefs 2010–01, Nuremberg, 2010,


Sarah Redshaw, In the Company of Cars: Driving as a Social and Cultural Practice (Aldershot: Ashgate 2008), 79–83.


Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (New York: Semiotext(e), 1986), 133 (this and the quotation in the previous sentence).


Redshaw, In the Company of Cars, 163–164.


Connell and Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity,” 846.


Redshaw, In the Company of Cars, 42–47, 91–92.


Phillip Shin, David Hallett, Mary Chipman, Charles Tator, and John Granton, “Unsafe Driving in North American Automobile Commercials,” Journal of Public Health 27, no. 4 (2005): 318–325; Susan A. Ferguson, Andrew P. Hardy, and Allan F. Williams, “Content Analysis of Television Advertising for Cars and Minivans: 1983–1998,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 35, no. 6 (2003): 825–831.


Lisa Watson, Anne M. Lavack, Christina Rudin-Brown, Peter Burns, and James H. Mintz, “Message Content in Automotive Advertising: A Role for Regulation?,” Canadian Public Policy 36, no. S1 (2010): S49–S67, 9–10.


Sarah Redshaw, “Investigating the Lack of Social Context in Car Television Advertising,” Road and Transport Research 23, no. 1 (2014): 44–50, here 47.


Auto News, “Best Upcoming Cars (2016–2017),” video, 10:53,


“Experience Mercedes-Benz at the IAA Cars 2015,” (accessed 21 November 2017); “Mercedes-Benz at the CES® 2016,”–3 (accessed 21 November 2017).


David D. Clarke, Patrick Ward, and Wendy Truman, “Voluntary Risk Taking and Skill Deficits in Young Driver Accidents in the UK,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 37, no. 3 (2005): 523–529.


WHO, Global Status Report on Road Safety, 21.


Sarah Redshaw and Fiona Nicoll, “Gambling Drivers: Regulating Cultural Technologies, Subjects, Spaces and Practices of Mobility,” Mobilities 5, no. 3 (2010): 409–430, here 423.


Catharina Landström, “A Gendered Economy of Pleasure: Representations of Cars and Humans in Motoring Magazines,” Science Studies 19 (2006)(Scarfe, #87): 31–53.


Need for Speed: No Limits, iTunes App Store (accessed 3 October 2015).


Tanja Joelsson, “Careless Men, Careless Masculinities? Understanding Young Men’s Risk-Taking with Motor Vehicles as Violations,” NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies 9, no. 3 (2014): 191–204, here 200.


Volvo Trucks, “The Epic Split feat. Van Damme (Live Test),” video, 1:16, 13 November 2013,


Volvo Trucks press release, 2013,


Redshaw, In the Company of Cars, 140–141.


David Griner, “Undivided Attention: How ‘Epic Split’ Became the Buzziest Ad at Cannes,” Adweek, 16 June 2014,


Ibid., quoting Björn Engström, senior partner and creative executive at Forsman & Bodenfors.


Griner, “Undivided Attention.”


Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 60.


Ibid., 55 (this and the previous sentence).


Ibid., 63.


Raphael Orlove, “How Sexist Marketing Sold America on the Automatic Transmission,” Jalopnik, 1 November 2011,; D. Gartman, Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design (New York: Routledge, 1994).


CARJAM TV, “Audi A7 Driverless Car Amazing Video Commercial 2014 CARJAM TV Google Self Driving Car,” video, 4:41, 30 January 2014,


CARJAM TV, “Sexy Volvo Self Driving Car Video Volvo S60 Driverless Car 2014 Sexy Car TV ad CARJAM TV,” video, 2:00, 5 June 2014,; CARJAM TV, “Mercedes F 015 Self Driving Car Amazing First Commercial CES Mercedes S Class CARJAM TV 4K 2015,” video, 2:15, 6 January 2015,


TestDriven, “Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive,” California, video, 2:33, 19 November 2014,


David McCowen, “Survey Shows Drivers Want to Stay in Control: Motorists Wary of Self-Driving Cars,” Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 2015.


Town Audi, “Audi A3 e-tron® ‘New Arrival’ Commercial,” video 0:47, 9 October 2015, 9 October 2015,


Tesla Motors, “About Tesla,” (accessed 13 January 2016).


As seen with the new Model 3 designed for the cheaper mass market. Sean O’Kane, “Watch the Tesla Model 3 Race Around a Track,” The Verge, 1 April 2016,; Tesla Motors, “Videos,”; “Another Great Fan-Made Commercial,”, 31 August 2014,


Kirsten Korosec, “Elon Musk Says Tesla Vehicles Will Drive Themselves in Two Years,” Fortune, 21 December 2015,


Reid Hoffman, “Driving in the Networked Age,” 18 July 2015,


Joe Nocera, “Google’s Driverless Cars Will Make Roads Safer,” Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 2015.


“Google Blames Humans for Self-Driving Car Crash—Again,” Time/Money, 15 July 2015,


Hannah Parry, “All Google’s Self-Driving Car Crashes Were Caused by Humans, Testers Claim,” Daily Mail, 12 October 2015,


Natasha Lomas, “Driverless Car Accident Reports Make Unhappy Reading for Humans,” TechCrunch, 9 October 2015,




Keith Naughton, “Humans Are Slamming into Driverless Cars and Exposing a Key Flaw,” Sydney Morning Herald, 3 January 2016.


“Can Law-Abiding Autonomous Vehicles Work in World Routinely Flaunting Traffic Laws?,” Chicago Daily Herald, 13 January 2016.


Google, (accessed 31 January 2016).


NFFTY, “NFFTY 2011 Volvo Commercial,” Volvo S60 commercial made for the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, 2011, video, 2:36, 1 April 2011,


Hars, “Autonomous Cars.”


Graeme Davison, Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2004), 123–125; Sean O’Connell, The Car in British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring 1896–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 136–139; Rudi Volti, Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 153.


Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 4 (2000): 737–757, here 740.


Noah Joseph, “Volvo Says People Want the Option to Drive Driverless Cars,” AutoBlog, 7 January 2016,

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Contributor Notes

Sarah Redshaw has developed and conducted several research projects specializing in qualitative social research and analysis. She has developed studies on the social and cultural aspects of young people’s engagement with cars, including as an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Linkage project “Transforming Drivers.” She has published many articles and a book, In the Company of Cars: Driving as a Social and Cultural Practice (Ashgate, 2008), from this research, as well as papers and reports on several health and community-related projects, including most recently on vulnerability, social capital, and community resilience. E-mail: