Review of Why We Drive by Matthew Crawford

An edited version of this review was published in the Guardian, 16 July 2020

Maurice Gatsonides was one of the world’s first professional rally drivers. He won the 1953 Monte Carlo rally, but made his fortune and his name with an invention that would torment other motorists. The Gatso was the first speed camera. Using a combination of flash photography, radar and road sensors, the machine was able to enforce speed limits more effectively than any traffic cop. Gatsonides himself lamented: “I am often caught by my own speed cameras and find hefty fines on my doormat. Even I can’t escape my own invention because I love speeding.” Ever since there have been speed limits, there have been attempts to evade them. The Automobile Association was created in 1905 specifically to warn motorists about speed traps. Speed cameras make our roads safer, and when we are caught it is almost always a fair cop, but they generate intense anger. During the gilets jaunes protests that began in 2018, more than 60% of France’s speed cameras were vandalised.

Matthew Crawford would have huge respect for Gatsonides, while despising his invention. Bruno Latour wrote that “no human is as relentlessly moral as a machine”. A speed camera brooks no argument, and Crawford loves to argue. In Why We Drive, he recalls being clocked doing 86mph on his motorbike in a 55 zone and explaining to the traffic cop how the laws of physics should trump arbitrary speed limits. He is delighted when the case reaches court and he can go full Atticus Finch. He imagines the judge’s delight at his presence: “What they rarely get in traffic court is an argument, or an attempt at rhetoric – the stuff that presumably made them want to go to law school.” He then declares, as though it was someone else’s fault: “A couple of months later, it happened again.”

Crawford’s project is to build a conservative philosophy of technology to meet what he calls “the challenge of remaining human against technologies that tend to enervate, and claim cultural authority in doing so”. Why We Drive follows his bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft (published in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands) and The World Beyond Your Head in making the case for freedom in a technological society. This time, he takes aim at the new digital technologies that threaten his relationship with the old technologies he loves: cars and motorbikes. The book contains some terrific moments – an explanation of how human and machine contrived to crash two Boeing 737s; a description of the suck-squeeze-bang-blow four-stroke that happens a billion times in an engine’s life – but its big and important argument is muddied by the author’s prejudices.

The book’s middle is like being taken for a drive by a hyperactive, unreliable uncle. You’re going a way you don’t recognise and you’ve been told not to put on your seatbelt because seatbelts are for squares. As you cling to the sides of your seat, he takes you past a stock car rally, then an off-road race course in the desert. Just as you’re approaching something familiar, there’s a handbrake turn and off you go down a detour on the Nazis, a bit on utilitarianism, then a lesson on how to drift. He rolls down the window to shout something at some “bicycle moralists”. There is a merciless digression about rebuilding a VW Beetle and some of the author’s drawings of gears. His justification for all of this is what he calls “philosophical anthropology”, but its real purpose is to tell you what he approves of – mechanics, motorsports, motorbikes, the autobahn, real men and old-fashioned women – and what he doesn’t like: bicycles, the pencil pushers at the DMV, “safetyism” and the town of Portland, Oregon.

He is selective in his nostalgia and romanticises bits of the present that other freedom-loving individuals would object to. In his view, it’s fine to destroy speed cameras, but it’s not fine for grown-ups to ride bicycles. His description of the traffic in Rome having an “improvisation and flow that is beautiful to behold” suggests he has never tried to cross the road there. He admires London’s taxi drivers for their Knowledge and their enthusiasm for Brexit (see the subtitle, “take back control”) and mourns their slow death by GPS. (Just wait until the Brexiteers find out about the EU laws, which Britain has signed up to, mandating ‘intelligent speed assistance’ in new cars from 2022).

We do not have to see cabbies as heroes to critique Uber’s data-hoarding gig economy. Nor do we have to admire rule-breaking in general to see that some of the devices that constrain our driving are counterproductive. The “shared space” movement in Europe has been making the case for decades that roads need more uncertainty, not more rules, in order to slow down cars. Crawford would appreciate their motto – “unsafe is safe” – but he isn’t much interested in shared space. He wants his own space. If, as he argues, “the road is a place of mutual trust”, what should we think of a motorcyclist doing 86 through a 55mph speed limit?

On the road, individual freedoms do not add up to the public good. Traffic is a collective action problem, and individual risk assessments are notoriously unreliable. Crawford sees driving as a “skilled human activity” and would like more drivers to become as skilled and confident as he is. But “expert” drivers – the sort who palm the steering wheel as they reverse – are part of the problem, not least because they despise other drivers. A survey conducted by a Swedish researcher found that, of his compatriots, who are among the world’s safest drivers, 69% thought they were better than average drivers. In the US, where road death rates are more than four times Sweden’s, the figure was 93%.

The benefits of cars come with an extraordinary potential to do harm. We can be legitimately horrified that more than a million people a year die on the world’s roads, while being also surprised that most of us, most of the time, do not get into danger. Crawford hates what he calls the “safety industrial complex” that has taken all the joy out of driving. Here he is at odds with historians and activists such as Ralph Nader who have catalogued the US car industry’s opposition to regulations and safety innovations that aim to protect drivers from their own delusions.

Cars, for Crawford, are liberty: “The gas pedal and the steering wheel are wired directly to your will, via the seat of your pants, and there is no committee involved.” But it takes a lot of staging to maintain the performance of freedom. Driving, even in rural America, requires a byzantine arrangement of infrastructures and rules, in addition to the common sense that Crawford admires. The German philosopher Max Horkheimer wrote as long ago as 1947 that “It is as if the innumerable laws, regulations and directions with which we must comply were driving the car, not we.”

‘The gas pedal and the steering wheel are wired directly to your will, via the seat of your pants’ … Matthew Crawford Photograph: Colin McConnell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Many of us do not share Crawford’s need for speed. We want our cars to be safe and we are slaves to, rather than masters of, this technology. Cars enable freedom of movement but they also homogenise our lives. So many of our lives and places are structured around the car and we collectively find it hard to build the alternative forms of mobility that would allow us to escape traffic, pollution and danger. Are self-driving cars the answer?

Crawford is understandably worried that the same tech companies that have taken over navigation, devaluing the cab drivers’ Knowledge overnight, are now coming for the rest of the world’s drivers. It’s not that simple. Having generated huge hype, self-driving evangelists are now starting to admit that their challenge is harder than they first made it seem. Teaching a computer to drive is not like teaching a computer to win at chess. However, there is a risk that, as with the car a hundred years ago, the rules of the road will eventually be changed to suit a new technology and, in doing so, will impede other ways of getting around. Freeing us from driving could require enormous digital infrastructures and monopolistic control. The people selling “autonomous vehicles” should heed, and be worried by, Crawford’s argument for autonomous people.

Car culture, as with many traditions invoked by conservatives, is a relatively recent invention, propped up by powerful industrial interests. Arguments against the claims of new technologies need not be as reactionary as Crawford’s. In the space between a souped-up vintage Beetle and a speculative self-driving Uber, we can imagine a range of progressive possibilities. Nostalgia may not be a good guide.

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