The Mysterious Allure of the Self-Driving Automobile

The stretch of I-85 North toward Spartanburg around the Pelham Road exit is a nightmare. Although the interstate at that point is 4 lanes wide, traffic tends to back up every day beginning at 4:30 and lasting until roughly 8:00 pm. The exit itself consists of a one-lane off-ramp that widens into a two-lane left turning route and a one-lane right turn. No one turns right. Everyone is trying to turn left, toward Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Chick-fil-A. Toward Greer.

For years, Greer, SC was a sleepy suburb of Greenville, SC, itself a rather rested burg.  However, recent years have brought tremendous economic growth and employment opportunities to the area, resulting in a huge population boom that the cities itself have been happy to accept but slow to keep up with. Traffic is just one consequence of booming markets – others include gentrification, re-zoning, crime, and widening financial inequality – but it is the one that I tend to think about the most.

The exit before Pelham, Woodruff Road, is just as bad and worse around Christmas shopping season. Thankfully, on this March morning, traffic is relatively light, and my drive to the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research is easy.  CU-ICAR (“See you!” “I Car!”) claims to be “home to the nation’s only Graduate Department of Automotive Engineering.” I figured this was as good a place as any to talk to someone about a topic that is quickly gaining prominence in my research: the ethical implications of artificial intelligence as it relates to subalternity, race, and more than human lifeforms.

I’ve seen several articles on autonomous vehicles that view them as utopian advancements in automotive technology: environmentally friendly, cost efficient, and “time saving.” I see just as many that sensationalize them as bloodthirsty terminators and detail how test drivers are getting murdered by Google cars. I have seen very few that explore how autonomous vehicles are the inevitable evolution of capitalist greed. Fewer still discuss how car makers and programmers must grapple with ethical dilemmas that directly concern the ecosystems of developing nations and the autonomy of subaltern subjects. Through the constructed narratives of safety, convenience, and leisure, automotive corporations stand to increase their earnings while depriving agency from their customers. This looming erasure of the human driver serves as a productive referent for the erasure of the subaltern in ecocriticism and an opportunity to discuss its ethical implications. If autopoiesis can determine the “limits of agency,” then the self-driving car signifies a blurring of the limitations between human and non-human matter and a potential occurrence of human modulated sympoiesis. We must ask ourselves, to what degree are we willing to make the autonomous car an actant, and to what extent do its innovations further neoliberal capitalism?

Those are some of the questions I was thinking about asking to an expert at CU-ICAR, but they were surprisingly reticent to talk about autonomous vehicles. After emailing their office manager, she happily sent my request for an interview to the department listserv, where it sat in obscurity for several weeks. After sending her another email, she said she was surprised I didn’t get any replies, that my research was “extremely interesting,” and suggested some people to reach out to directly. On this March morning, I meet one of these individuals on campus, and we drink coffee together.

To be honest, the interview does not go well. I’m willing to accept a large degree of responsibility for that, but I am also surprised that – even with experts in the automotive industry – autonomous vehicles are still largely a mystery.  I came expecting detailed, specific, information surrounding how companies are implementing or pursuing artificial intelligence, and received mostly theoretical answers that mystified more than clarified.

I asked the person if they had been to the website Moral Machine, created by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Together we went to the site, which asks visitors to play a game that tests “human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence.”  While somewhat simplistic, the site illustrates how programmers of autonomous vehicles will be asked to think of life forms based on age, gender, income, and species. In its first example, two images are shown: one where the self-driving car, suffering from a sudden brake malfunction, either runs headfirst into a barricade, killing its passengers (a mother, father, and child) or the other, where the self-driving car avoids the barricade by running down a separate family crossing the street. In another example, the car must choose between mowing down a group of friendly animals or a single old man near death.  The website stops short of adding race into their equations of course, but we know that issues of race are often inseparable from issues of economy and geography.

One bit of information that this person did relay to me was that all manufacturers, not just the prestige ones and Google, are pursuing autonomous vehicles to some degree, because they stand to generate huge financial gain. Development and proliferation of the autonomous vehicle stands to further enmesh its passengers within a corporate brand by eliminating choice.  While these vehicles have the potential to give passengers the freedom to work on personal things while riding, they also require the passenger to fully surrender him or herself to the corporation that made the car.  For example, not only will they be riding in a Chrysler car, but they will be shown advertisements for Chrysler endorsed gas stations. They will park in Chrysler parking garages.  They will pay extra for priority parking at particular restaurants. All of this requires a huge amount of planning in the form of parking garage construction and road expansion. In order to make autonomous cars a reality, particularly in developing nations, corporations will need to inflict a greater amount of environmental destruction than they already are.

Though the interview was largely frustrating, I left with a greater sense of how car culture stands to change in the coming years. I also thought about my experiences driving in places like Taiwan, and how this utopian vision seems dependent upon uncluttered interstates and wide roads. I thought about vehicles in certain postcolonial texts, particularly The God of Small Things.

Most of all, I thought about my own work. In employing material ecocriticism, scholars stress the importance of place and more than human life and urge for a decentering of the human.  In so doing, we must not elide the way that history has used racial, ethnic, sexual, gendered, and economic difference to subjugate some humans under others.  Autopoiesis might allow us to pinpoint how some human discourses are self-sustaining.  Our task as scholars, therefore, is to interrogate which “selves” are being sustained.