When Cars Were Dumb

Classic early smart car from Google (2010).
A smart car among the dumb: classic early smart car from Google (2010).

None of my students has ever driven a car. They have never had to. By the time they were born–mostly in the early 2040s–the self-driving smart car had decisively replaced the historic automobile, now known pejoratively, and somewhat unfairly, as the “dumb car.” Trying to get my students to understand a world in which people had to actually drive their cars is one of my biggest challenges as a history professor.

I confess that I, too, have trouble imagining a world in which human beings actually had to start, accelerate, turn, and stop their vehicles.  My father, Gabriel Joseph (yes, the renowned surgeon), is one of that last generation of Americans to take “driver’s ed” and get a “driver’s license”.  He started driving in 2015. By the time I was born in 2030, the transition to driverless cars was well underway. Every so often Dad would give me a few pointers on driving, just for old-times-sake. I was happy to indulge him. Once I even took his old classic dumb 2006 Toyota Sienna minivan for a quick “spin”. I made it down the road a couple of blocks until the police stopped me for driving.

I often wonder what it would have been like to drive a dumb car day after day, year after year. It must have taken great cognitive effort to manage so many information inputs – the location of other vehicles, traffic lights, conversation with other passengers, road signage, and even (horrors) pedestrians.  My students are always shocked to learn that traffic accidents took the lives of more than 30,000 Americans annually as late as the 2010s. I have never found this so surprising. Some skills will always be beyond the reach of a good portion of human beings. What is truly odd, and perhaps inexplicable, is how our ancestors allowed the carnage to go on for so long. Between the time of the first assembly-line produced cars by Ford in the 1910s, and the first widely available, totally self-driving smart cars, jazzily called “auto-auto’s” in the 2020s, lies a long road of human suffering.

Even so, there is something quaint and endearing about the dumb car’s long history, as tragic as it was. Human beings have always seen themselves as masters of their fates. We are, in Aristotle’s phrase, “rational animals,” negotiating a world that often feels bereft of reason. We cannot be surprised, really, that men and women gladly put themselves behind the wheel, whatever the cost. The emotional payback, the mental satisfaction, of making a smooth turn or avoiding a rear-end collision must have been exhilarating. Drivers of the early 21st century often complained of long, tedious “commutes” between work and home on congested highways. But this is one area where historical sources can be deceiving. I can’t help but think that drivers of the past actually enjoyed the conviviality of a “traffic jam.” It must have been infuriating, but in a good way. Our flawless traffic distribution technology has actually robbed us of this wonderfully human experience.

Every so often I chat with my grandfather, Anthony Joseph, once a history professor like me. He is nearly 100 years old now, but his physician says neurochip therapy has improved his cognitive age to 48. I ask him about the days of dumb cars. “We didn’t call them dumb back then,” he always emphasizes.  “We knew there were dumb drivers, but not dumb cars.” He admits that driving was a challenge, a taxing activity, and dangerously prone to human error, as few daily tasks were. “But I never imagined we could have cars without the burdens of driving them.”

On a more metaphysical level, Grandpa thinks the rise of the smart car is part of a massive historical trend he calls “re-personification.”  Before the rise of science, he says, “the world was thought to be overflowing with personhood. The things of nature had intellect and will. Gods and spirits were believed to inhabit and control the trees, the heavens, the sea, animals. Then science came along and emptied nature of personhood, and nature became dumb. The tree became just a tree, developing mechanically by an inexorable, impersonal ‘law of nature’. The sun became just the sun, burning mindlessly for millenia. Only we humans were ‘smart’ then. But now, in this post-scientific age, our world is being re-personified, this time not in nature but in our machines. The human being is once again not the only person on the planet.”

Well, I don’t know. The point seems overstated. And Grandpa’s theory reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in his preface to D.E. Harding’s Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, back in 1952. Of course, I would never accuse my grandfather of stealing an idea.

In any case,  one may reasonably ask whether the quantity of personhood in the universe is fixed rather than expansive. If our machines grow smarter, do we simultaneously become less intelligent? Certainly while shooting along in our smart cars today we are not exercising the intelligence that our driving ancestors did, albeit imperfectly. “Life has gotten way too easy,” Grandpa complains, contradicting somewhat the buoyant optimism of his theory.

3 responses to “When Cars Were Dumb”

  1. I really enjoyed this article! Had never really thought about the difference in cars till now! When I am commuting, I will remind myself, I could be in a “dumb” car!

  2. Not to get all conspiracy theory on everyone here, but once the “auto-auto” is developed and reliable it makes sense that the government would step in to manage and regulate the industry, using a lot of the same arguments that are presented in this brilliant article (safety, convenience, efficiency, etc.).

    On a seperate note… one of the last things that stands in the way of regionalism/smart growth, socialism, environmentalism, and guaranteed property ownership in the US is the interstate highway system and our national trucking based economy.

    I can see this so called “smart car” technology when added to extreme federalism/social/liberal policy causing the loss of our personal autonomy yet again when the interstate highway infrastructure becomes exclusive property of the government.

    Makes me think of another set of Lewis’ ideas as presented in “That Hideous Strength.”

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