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What will become of U.S. car culture in the age of self-driving vehicles?

Are We There Yet? The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless

Dan Albert
Norton
2019
400 pp.
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In his new book, Are We There Yet?, Dan Albert reveals how automobiles came to be seen as a technology of freedom in America and how the ability to experience the world became enmeshed with personal identity. On one level, it is a general romp through the history of the automobile in the United States—and a good one at that. But on a deeper level, Albert uses this history to reflect on the near future, when many predict that autonomous vehicles will wipe away “car culture.”

When the automobile industry first emerged in the 1890s in Europe and the United States, cars were playthings for the rich. Families such as the Astors, the Drexels, and the Vanderbilts amassed collections of European vehicles that cost many times the average American’s annual income. The rise of mass production, especially at the Ford Motor Company, changed everything. Henry Ford envisioned a car for average people, and the talented and experienced men who worked under him reorganized manufacturing, driving prices ever downward. General Motors, under the guidance of its president, Alfred P. Sloan, took Ford’s lessons even further by introducing consumer credit and perfecting body styling and annual model changes. The result, Albert writes, was an “American automobile that made each driver feel unique.”

Although Albert occasionally waxes nostalgic, he is not naïve. He emphasizes that automakers have vociferously fought off safety and pollution regulation and describes the dangers drivers pose to others and how they fill the air with deadly gases and burn through finite resources. In admirably written chapters, he recounts the long history of attempts to control car culture’s dark sides, from the racist public safety campaigns that
identified immigrants and African Americans as potentially unsafe drivers in the 1930s to the work of Ralph Nader and other safety advocates, who pushed for collision science in the 1950s and 1960s.

Albert also shows that our emotional relationship with cars came not from consumer desire alone but was created by powerful actors, including automobile executives and government planners. In one of the book’s most original chapters, “The hidden history of the superhighways that transformed America,” he provocatively shows that interstates “are not the product of Republican free-market ideology but of its opposite: statist central planning.” He locates the birth of the interstate highway vision squarely in the New Deal, when the designer Norman Bel Geddes and other pro-planning types attended a “no black tie—very informal” stag dinner at Franklin Roosevelt’s White House to build support for an ambitious national highway system.

Whether revisiting 1950s visions of self-driving vehicles or 1970s fantasies of a post-automobile society, hardly any of the conversations we’re having today are specific to this moment. In this sense, the book’s title has another layer of meaning: technofuturists have been promising self-driving automobiles and the death of car culture since the mid-20th century. Are we there yet?

Albert dedicates the book’s third and final part to exploring this question. Millennials appear to be less keen than previous generations to own cars or even get drivers’ licenses, and climate change makes mass automobile use look downright irresponsible. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation creates about 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with most coming from cars and trucks.

Moreover, boosters of autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise that this technology is on the near horizon and that it will make cars much safer and likely decrease automobile ownership. After a man died in an accident while using the autopilot feature in his Tesla car, Elon Musk warned journalists away from writing negative stories about accidents involving the technology. “If, in writing some article that’s negative, you . . . dissuade people from using [AVs], you’re killing people.”

At times, Albert seems more confident about the inevitability of autonomous vehicles than I and many other auto-watchers are. But his core concern seems to be what this will mean for the emotional landscape of automobiles. He writes, “When we embrace driverless cars, we will surrender our American automobile as an adventure machine, as a tool of self-expression, and the wellspring of our wealth and our defense.”

Albert still gets a lump in his throat when he thinks about the death of the 1985 Saab 900S that carried him across the country as a young man (he dedicates the book to the “honor and loving memory of” the cars he’s owned). “When a driverless car dies, don’t expect anyone to shed a tear,” he concludes.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA, and the author of Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).