The Emotional Machine:

Searching for Soul in the Autonomous Future

Illustration courtesy Leo Marzolf

Years ago, at a screening of Thomas Campbell’s The Present, he said something that struck me as both simple and profound. Although he was talking about his preference for the format of his latest film, it turned out to be equally relevant for the current state of autonomous cars.

He said, “Video captures motion. Film captures emotion.”

Everyday we get closer to the time when cars will drive themselves. Waymo is running a completely driverless pilot in Phoenix presently. Many firms were demoing various degrees of autonomy at CES this year. Beyond the prying eyes of the press and public, companies from Ford to Zoox are racking up miles as fast as they can to both understand and define this game-changing technology.

But so far, everyone is still on the “motion” side of the equation. One observer on twitter (@binarybits) captured the Waymo achievement perfectly, “It’s hard to feel like you live in the future while also feeling like your mom is driving you to soccer practice.”

Not to take anything away from Waymo’s achievement, but it somehow managed to be both astonishing and banal at the same time.

Maybe it’s a little unfair to be critical, as Waymo has thus far only been focused on half of the problem. The driverless pilot performed flawlessly, it met all the requirements, it was an A+ by every technical measure. But as a human experience, it whistled directly past the “emotion” side of Campbell’s equation.

It should come as no surprise that the first driverless cars would be proficient at moving people but still have some distance to travel before stirring our souls. After all, the first automobiles were similarly focused on solving for movement, and were only unintentionally exciting. Solving for the functional and emotional role of cars are two separate things. So as of 2018, we can put a check in the “win” column for proficiency, but if we’re ever going to see a day when self-driven cars are the preferred means of mobility, it has to do more than deliver mom-like reliability.

For better or worse, cars are more than tools. They do have a functional role and we’re right on the cusp of when most, if not all, of that function can be done as well, if not better, by the car itself.

But what about the “emotion” side of the equation?

Regardless of how you feel about cars, it would be hard to overstate the impact they have had on our way of life. They shape our cities, our culture, and our lives in many important ways. In some cities, we give over 80 percent of our urban public space to cars (if you count roads, streets, and parking). There are more cars than people on Earth.

Given all we’ve done for cars, and how much they have shaped our culture and our cities, it seems unlikely that the swap to the current vision of autonomy will not be met with some resistance. At the moment, autonomous cars are rendered as purely functional—little more than a faceless, anonymous transporter that takes us from A to B. But that misses the question of meaning, of identity.

Humans are social animals and, as such, have a strong desire for belonging, identity, and community. Cars give us an easy path toward satisfying those human needs. Even as car design homogenizes, cars remain metal embodiments of our aspirational selves. They provide us a means of personal expression for status, values, and identity. The aggregate of that personal expression bonds us to tribes and community. Additionally, they provide a forum for rituals (cleaning, maintenance, etc.) that further strengthen the bonds between the car and the human and to the rest of the tribe.

Even without the rituals, cars allow us to express identity on a variety of spectra. Steven E Sexton, an economist at Duke University did a rather extensive analysis of the premium that drivers were willing to pay for a Prius (over other hybrid cars) to establish their environmental bona fides. His study found that those drivers were willing to pay between $1,000 (in Washington) and $3,000 (in California) to drive a Prius. So even if the statement you are trying to make is your stand against the status quo, that still has both monetary value and impact on social status.

The vision of autonomy that imagines wheeled boxes gliding to us as hailed and that quietly take us where we tell them to go presents a real challenge to these complex social needs. What’s being heralded as the future of cars is little more than an elevator for streets. With all the same emotional gratification.

The trouble is that these new “cars” are all parts and no soul. And that soul matters. They neither stir the soul nor spark the imagination. There is no craft, no passion, no drama. There’s nothing to focus on, nothing to draw us in, no shared experience of ownership. In short, there’s no human story. There’s no way to build a relationship with, or around, this version of the car. There’s no place for people in this new reality except sitting passively inside.

Nearly every concept thus far is still heavily influenced by the existing car paradigm. They are overwhelmingly extruded rectangles with four (or eight!) wheels at the corners. Seating is typically facing forward or bus-like bench seating. There is an amazing design opportunity to explore the world that scaled level 5 autonomy will provide.

Today, the overwhelming majority of modern car design is driven by safety and aerodynamics. But if they don’t crash, if they can’t crash, then they won’t need to be so heavy. Or built out of steel. They don’t necessarily need to be fully enclosed. Or have four wheels. An entire world of possibility opens up as does another chance for cars to be a completely new and different expression of ourselves.

The technical task of getting cars to drive themselves has made great strides in the 14 years since the first DARPA Grand Challenge. But solving for “motion” alone is not a formula for human engagement. People want to tinker, to repair, to build, to improve, to modify, to personalize, and to touch. We want to love but the cars can’t love us back. We want tribes, and rituals. We need shared experiences, stories to tell, campfires to sit around.

Our challenge now is to solve the “emotion” question. To find ways to build both community and identity through experience rather than the machine itself. What’s true is that we want the things that cars have given us: a tribe to belong to, a series of rituals that bind us together. Until we find a way to create connection and community through this new experience, these new boxes might remove cars from the road but they’ll never replace them in our hearts.

All illustrations courtesy Leo Marzolf.