The Open Road

25 September 2020

Review of Matthew B. Crawford, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (William Morrow, 2020).


Can rats drive? So asks Matthew Crawford, the playfully self-styled “philosopher-mechanic” in his newest work, a meditation on cars, driving, and the good life. The motorcycle repairman, armed with a University of Chicago PhD in political philosophy, burst on the national scene a decade ago, when he extolled the virtues of manual labor in the “knowledge economy.” Against the academicians’ insistence that the only way to make it in modern life was to patronize universities and their arcane disciplines, Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft championed a return to vocational training and the dignity of physical work. The book touched a popular nerve, and was followed a few years later by The World Beyond Your Head, a celebration of the skills-building ethos of short-order cooks, glass blowers, and the craftsmen behind pipe organs. The theme was clear: We are embodied beings, with hands and minds, fated neither for pure cogitation nor unthinking toil.


His latest foray, entitled Why We Drive, returns to such familiar ground through a new prism. Think Laborem Exercens for gearheads. After all, driving is a sort of secular religion for some. Acolytes of restoring classic coupes or engineering the perfect chassis can sound as devotional as any liturgy. And, like all faiths, in the Church of the Combustion Engine, there are parables to be told, and heresies to be rooted out.


The stories are fun. Crawford draws on a rich autobiographical reservoir and seems to have been bitten with the literal car bug since his teenage years. His first entrée into hot rods and car culture was a 1963 Beetle, and many moldering junk piles later, he’s still at work today fixing up a 1975 Volkswagen. In between, he regales his readers with zippy anecdotes that glimmer with the heart of a moralist. Trading away a broken-down Jeepster off Highway 101 is a lesson in the sunk-cost fallacy. An encounter in small-town traffic court becomes a humbling lesson in local justice. And a high-speed race out in the Nevada desert turns into a celebration of rugged self-sufficiency and communal responsibility. This mechanic has wisdom yet to impart.


He has criticisms, too. One persistent bugaboo is “safetyism,” the state’s tendency to prize and then mandate technological features in cars aimed at protecting life. But who could object to that? Seat belts and airbags are estimated to have saved over a quarter million lives since being introduced. Crawford readily admits this, and accepts such improvements alongside features like anti-lock braking systems and stability controls.  After all, he has an engineer’s mind, an undergraduate degree in physics, and multiple passages describing technical mechanical workings that are beyond the capacity of at least this layman. So despite his passion for restoring old vehicles, he is hardly a Luddite pining for stripped-down dune buggies.


The threat of “safetyism,” as Crawford identifies it, is instead twofold. The first is political. Once society permits some measures in the name of saving lives, it becomes difficult to draw a principled stopping point. Safety regulations have a totalizing tendency. Anyone who recalls Philip K. Howard’s classic account of (even well-meaning) bureaucrats setting up OSHA’s health and safety regulations will know how such protocols threaten to swallow up entire industries and generate their own lumbering make-work. And, more insidiously, the danger becomes that anyone who “question[s] Team Progress is to invite being labeled pro-death.”


So the real critique of mechanized features like cruise control and automated braking is more fundamental. By outsourcing away the required attentiveness to the nitty-gritty of actually steering and operating a few thousand pounds of steel and glass in situ, we risk sacrificing the core of driving itself—the application of man’s skill, as mediated through his intellect, to the ever-changing circumstances of the open road. When technology becomes a substitute for, rather than an aide to, human effort, we have abandoned the distinctive quality that makes work worthwhile. A driving that has been totally sanitized is a driving that is totally meaningless.


At the heart of this approach is a focus on thumos, what the Greeks called “spiritedness.” Allan Bloom described it as “the central natural passion in men’s souls in the psychology of the ancients.” Perhaps we should expect no less from Crawford, whose dust-jacket picture depicts him squinting in the frame and in full motorcycle-racer costume. But there is more at stake in his account than mere thrill-seeking. At its best, getting behind the wheel becomes a way for man to more fully prove his excellence. Put another way, we fulfill more completely our potentialities in the flawless execution of a hairpin turn or the smooth acceleration down a stretch of level, country highway. But that requires practice and skill and lived experience that cannot be replicated in any way except by the activity of driving itself. Mastery is an excellence. But for mastery to be fully and truly itself, there must always be the possibility for something to go wrong. To drive is to engage “with a reality that pushes back against us”—that challenges us and stands apart from us. And because we know our limits, the spirited part of our nature strives to push them ever further.  It is precisely the element of danger that presents the prospect for dominion. An antiseptic approach to driving eradicates that possibility. Sublimity, Edmund Burke says, depends on dread.


So it may be little surprise that the principal threat to driving is “selfdriving,” or autonomous vehicles that literally remove human beings from the equation. Human control, and human effort, are subordinated to mechanical calculation, and experience and reflex must yield to statistical probability. And when the two conflict—when the driver wants to go right, and the computer demands the car move left—there is a necessary choice.  For now, of course, people can overrule the automaton, but the logic of artificial intelligence suggests that, eventually, the computer may out-process our baser animal instincts. HAL 9000 is not so remote a possibility in an age where cars pilot themselves and can override the explicit, contrary commands of their ostensible human governors.  


Crawford’s warning thus comes at a unique time.  Technology stocks have fueled an otherwise idling economy. As of this writing, Tesla has a market capitalization of just over $410 billion (for reference, roughly seven times that of General Electric), in part because it bills itself as not merely a manufacturer of vehicles but as a pioneer of automotive tech. The gulf between those who traffic in the digital world—business-types, writers, lawyers, and, of course, denizens of the technology sector—and those who live in analog reality—doctors on the front lines, service employees, delivery workers, and, yes, auto mechanics—has never been wider. But the present circumstances demonstrate that, try as we might, neither political economy nor social life is sustainable absent real interaction in the material world. Driving manifests this fact, for, at its best, it requires not only reciprocal commitments between drivers sharing the road, but a collective engagement. Even the most solitary motorist keeps a steady eye for approaching traffic, and, in the routine course of day-to-day commutes, we must regularly interact with our peers. Driving thus becomes a kind of politics, a demonstration of “civic friendship” between those who weave in and out, together.


Photo Credit: Matt Duncan, via Unsplash.


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