Volume 23, Issue 2, 2019
Julia M. Hildebrand
On Self-Driving Cars as a Technological Sublime
Driverless automobility presents a “technological sublime” (Marx 1964; Nye 1994, 1997) encompassing both promises and perils. The light side of the emerging transportation future lies, for instance, in the newly gained freedom from driving. The dark side of this sublime includes ethical challenges and potential harm resulting from the required socio-technical transformations of mobility. This article explores contemporary visions for the self-driving car future through the lens of the sublime and some of its theoretical variations, such as the natural (Kant 1965), technological (Marx 1964; Nye 1994, 1997), electrical (Carey and Quirk 1989), and digital (Mosco 2005) sublime. Nissan’s IDS Concept preview clip (2015) and the Chevrolet FNR trailer (2015) serve as examples for this analysis, which aims to demythologize the visual rhetoric of the depicted awe-inspiring self-driving systems. The sublime’s inherent dialectic of inducing both pleasure and displeasure is removed in the corporate utopian visions in favor of an exalting partnership between human and machine. This strategy succeeds by setting the mobility future in the context of controlled parameters such as the trustworthy communicative vehicle, the vital and independent protagonists, and the harmless and unharmed environment. Recognizing such recurring strategies and identifying the controlled parameters which allow the sublime object to electrify, not terrify, is key for a sensible engagement with such imagined futures and their social, cultural, political, economic, environmental, and ethical implications. Such premediations (Grusin 2010) of awe-inspiring technological formations and the underlying logics ask to be unpacked toward decision making that considers all potential facets of the sublime future.