Autonomous Automobiles Drive or Be Driven?

By Lucinda Lewis

As a society, we should ponder new rules of the road for self-driving cars. The human quest to invent new ways to travel is at a crossroads. Shall we swipe right or left? Shall we drive into the future or be driven? In short, who, why, and what is driving the innovators of our motoring future? What is our destination?

A Quora member recently asked what is the impact of self-driving cars on society? Apologies, Bruce Preston, for the delay in answering your question. Your question posted while I was deeply immersed in the stellar automobiles on display at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, so you will understand why my reply is delayed, and perhaps also a foreshadowing of my answer. Anyone, who would travel halfway around the world to gaze upon a selection of classic cars, is marked as an obsessive individual, (the moniker “car-crazed” comes to mind). Of course, the general ambience of the Villa d’Este’s grace and charm adds to the allure, but it’s fair to say that I might journey to far less glamorous locations (and societies), if the right cars were assembled.

1952 Pegaso Cupola Coupe with special coach work by Enasa

The Italian Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza, like it’s corresponding American counterparts, such as the Concours d’Elegance held at Pebble Beach or Amelia Island, are truly competitions of automotive excellence.

Some scenes from the fabulous Concorso d'Eleganze Villa d'Este sponsored by BMW Group Classic.

These automotive extravaganzas have roots in the Belle Époque era when French aristocrats promenaded their newest Barouche or Cabriolet horse-drawn carriages through the Bois de Boulogne. The classic cinema masterpiece, “Gigi”, directed by Vincente Minnelli masterfully encapsulates the era and shows some of the French society pageant replete with horses, bicycles, pedestrians and new fangled automobiles.

Artist Georges “Sem” Goursat focused his illustration skills on capturing the state of transportation during the same period in the stunning leporello shown below courtesy F.A. Bernett Books.

"Sem au Bois"

Sem caricatured members of the famous Jockey Club de Paris as they paraded through the bois of Paris in their diverse conveyances. And what a parade it was. Depicted in various panels are celebrities of the day and their fashionable transportation: fashion models, the Duke of Orleans, the Director of Mercedes, the Kodak girl and the Maharadjah of Kapurthala State among others.

Maharadjah of Kapurthala Stat
Miss Kodak Photographing Duke of Orleans and Mr. Carlet, head of Mercedes
Panels 13 through 15 of "Sem au Bois"
Panels 16 through 18 of "Sem au Bois"
Panels 22 through 24 of "Sem au Bois"

As a student of transportation, the closest similar scene to Sem’s artwork I personally have witnessed is the chaotic traffic trundling through India.

Buses, bicycles, motorcycles and cattle vy for position on a Delhi, India road.

But the comparison bears out. There is a cultural fascination with transportation. We would be wise to recognize that our wheels are fashion statements, and are an irrepressible part of human nature.

Fashionistas posed against a 1961 Osca GT Berlinetta Touring Superleggera, 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spider, and a 1971 Lamborgini Miura SV Berlinetta Bertone.

Computers and their associative devices have also become fashionable. One may argue that our desire for the newest automotive fashion statement, autonomous vehicles, is similar to our technological obsessions. The two obsessions are merging in the 21st century, as we ponder the move to self-driving vehicles. Perhaps now is a good time for us to review our past romances with chauffeurs.

This isn’t the first time we’ve contemplated the “To Drive or Be Driven” question. For many years, it was de rigueur for one to have a driver, especially for ladies. Animals were smelly wild beasts, perhaps unmanageable for the fashionable appearance and corseted attire of a woman on the move in the late 19th century. Never mind that in 1886 Bertha Benz absconded with her husband Carl’s invention, the first motor car. After all, Bertha’s two teenage sons escorted her when she took to the highway.

Today’s blitz in support of autonomous automobiles is predominantly for reasons of safety and increased productivity. No one is opposed to either of these goals but there is little consideration of the costs both real and culturally. Will we really be safer in self-driving cars? Not if they require humans to take control of the car intermittently. We have enough trouble managing distractions already.

Driving and Texting spell Disaster

Will we really be happier in a world of bumper-to-bumper driverless cars? I think not. It represents a turning inward of the mind, and society will put more emphasis on the personal space within the car. You can kiss public interaction good-bye. We will retreat to the comfort of our computing devices in privacy. The rise of the mini limousine will ensue.

Love it or hate it, jockeying a car through our cities today is a privilege where public courtesies can still rule the road. What driver has not waved a fellow traveler in a tough spot through an intersection with a smile and salute? The rules of the road have more of a civilizing impact on society than we may care to acknowledge.

As a bona fide observer of the automotive scene, I have to ask: are we really so unhappy with our cars? Haven’t the last fifteen years of automotive development seen a momentous raft of astonishing technological innovation? Or, is this fascination with driverless cars perhaps a corporate agenda that masks our unhappiness with our transportation infrastructure and public transportation systems?

Are we having a fashion moment?

The 2015 Concorsao d'Eleganza Villa d'Este featured this stunning 1946 Delahaye 135 M Cabriolet with special coachwork by Figoni et Falashi. The fashionable owners are dress in period costumes.

Throughout history, society at large has been seized with the desire to go places and has invented various conveyances to make the journey. Form and function in transportation have battled for supremacy throughout time, but have always co-existed. Society has arrived at a new pivot point: Drive or Be Driven.

It is clear that technology companies have tapped automobiles as their next profit center. It is well to remember that these folks are not necessarily automobile lovers or that the individuals even drive. Before embracing the latest automotive fashion statement, society should align their wish lists with those of the innovators coding up our newest super highways.Who really is driving anyway?

About Lucinda Lewis

I've captured and archived stories, photos, videos and knowledge about Car Culture since ... forever. During this time, I’ve had the opportunity to see the best and worst of our automotive culture around the world. You can view some of my observations about cars and our culture in a series of illustrated Car Culture Stories I'm publishing on my website at

(c) 2015 Automobilia II, All Rights Reserved.

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