It’s appealing, isn’t it? Climb into a living room on wheels, let the computer watch the road, and catch up on Game of Thrones en route to work. Or snag a quick nap. Or (most likely), do a few extra hours of work.
But despite their convenience, self-driving cars could obliterate our endangered sense of place. Already, suburban sameness has severed Americans’ connection to the land, its health, and its history. No matter where we live, our neighborhoods resemble each other: cul-de-sacs. Neighbors we barely know. Commercial strip-malls lined with Lowe’s and Chick-fil-a and Wal-Mart. At a glance, it’s hard to tell Milwaukee from Maine, Tacoma from Tallahassee. We don’t know what makes each town unique, and we no longer care to learn.
Self-driving cars would only exacerbate this problem. As things stand, we’re at least forced to glance at the neighborhoods through which our commutes pass. If the car drives itself, we’d no longer have to look around. Highway treks would be marked not by local landmarks but by a blur of emails, TV shows and catnaps. Location becomes truly incidental, truly irrelevant. We’d never even see—let alone bother to address—the strip mine, the clear-cut, or the spoiled river.
And as we ignore each place, we learn to ignore its people, too. Consider: suburbanites already avoid visiting America’s ghettos and backwaters. We erect fast-food buffer zones along each interstate—little familiar oases that feel safe. We’re never forced to rub elbows with local yokels or explore their native territory. Their lives and concerns are invisibly hidden behind billboards and towering rest stop signs.
Again, a self-driving vehicle would take things a step further. We’d never even have to leave the comfort of the car’s sealed cabin. Why step outside, when the car can re-fill itself? Why risk an unpleasant interaction with a local resident, when we can mediate that meeting with a drive-thru window? Don’t give the people here a second thought. Condemn them not only to our country’s physical backwaters, but to the backwaters and ghettos of our collective consciousness.