Why We Drive review: not today, robots

Published: 24 July 2020

► Review of Why We Drive by Matthew Crawford
► Entertaining and informative argument against automation
► Makes a great case for honing your driving skills to save your soul

Lockdown has brought into very sharp focus two aspects of Matthew Crawford’s fascinating new book, written pre-lockdown, that examines various practical, philisophical and emotional aspects of driving at a time when self-driving looms ominously on the horizon.

The first point about the pandemic that feels very relevant here is the courtesy, good humour, patience and mutual respect widely demonstrated on foot, especially in supermarkets, where both customers and staff kept finding ways to adapt to new guidelines, even if we often seemed to be treating it as a big experiment or reality show, heightened when you factor in the Thursday-night NHS applause.

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The way people co-operated, thought on their feet and read the room provided plentiful ammunition for anyone making an argument that we can do amazing things without machines, surveillance cameras and permission slips.

And that is very high on Crawford’s agenda with Why We Drive, which picks up many of the themes of his first book, The Case for Working with Your Hands, an inspirational (if sometimes infuriating) examination of the benefits of doing stuff yourself. Here he argues that the more rules are imposed on us as drivers, the less we think, and the more our cars do for us, the less we are able to do for ourselves: ‘Automation’s underlying assumption of our incompetence becomes self-fulfilling.’

Like Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, a more scholarly book covering some of the same territory, Crawford is a great admirer of urban planners who remove roadside furniture, traffic lights and overhead gantries, and force drivers to use their common sense.

‘Urban driving at its best is an experience of civic friendship, an act of trust and solidarity that makes one proud to belong to the human race,’ he writes. It’s about flow rather than rule-following – like musicians improvising.

He pulls in examples and illustrations from far and wide, ranging from lab-rat experiments to the case of Captain Sully – you know, Tom Hanks ditching in the Hudson – who became a national hero by using his very human skill, judgement and experience to achieve what a machine could not.

‘As the space for intelligent human action gets colonised by machines,’ writes Crawford, ‘our intelligence erodes, leading to demands for further automation.’

He hates Uber and greatly admires ‘the Knowledge’– the laborious process in which trainee London cabbies memorise the city. He astutely debunks sloppy thinking about scrappage schemes. And he suggests that some of the tech genius currently working on driverless cars should be diverted to combating distracted driving, picking up some of the themes of his second book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

One of the great successes of Why We Drive is that it’s not too academic. Although he clearly has read widely on the subject, and examined many scientific findings, the heart and soul of the book is experience – his own, and that of various driving enthusiasts he visits, from rally raiders to soapbox racers.

He’s very convincing when he rails against the ‘inevitability’ of driverless cars; even if they were possible, they wouldn’t be desirable. He’s perhaps on shakier ground when complaining about speed cameras.

It’s entertaining and provocative in equal measure. Is he right? He certainly makes you challenge a lot of assumptions about more driver aids being automatically a good thing.

But then you remember another big car-related thing about the pandemic: the widely experienced sensation, deep in lockdown, when you had to make a car journey for the first time in several weeks, of having forgotten some important things about driving. So many people seem to have been confused by the ultra-light traffic levels. Normally skilled, law-abiding drivers were suddenly speeding in town, or stopping at green traffic lights, or veering out of their lane. 

If even the best, most frequent drivers can get it wrong so easily, what about all those who were never very good at driving in the first place – those who simply aren’t interested in the thrill, the engagement, the profound bliss of driver, car and road being in perfect harmony, and just want to get to work. It makes you think. Which is the point.

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions