Cars as crucibles for personal autonomy

From Merriam-Webster:



  1. : a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted
  2. : a difficult test or challenge
  3. : a place or situation that forces people to change or make difficult decisions

This is what cars will become.

The difficult decision is where to draw the line between what the owner/driver controls and what the maker/seller controls.

On one side is the owner/driver’s sovereignty over his or her own vehicle (more about this below). This includes the right to hack or customize that vehicle, to obtain and manage data that vehicle throws off, and to relate to other drivers with other vehicles (see Robin Chase), outside the control of the manufacturer or any other commercial “provider.” This is what we get, Cory Doctorow says, from general purpose computers.

On the other side is the manufacturer’s urge to provide that vehicle as a kind of IT service, like Tesla does, and to manage that vehicle much as, say, an iPhone is managed by Apple. This is also what we get from cable company set top boxes.

In the industrial Matrix we have built so far, the latter prevails increasingly, and that is limiting the ability of the former to flourish. For more on why this is a problem, visit the Lessig Library (notably Remix, Code, Code 2.0, The Future of Ideas and Free Culture), Cory Doctorow, Eben Moglen, the EFF and other fighters for personal freedom.

Cars will be crucibles because they have been, for more than a century, instruments of personal freedom and independence. (Not to mention the biggest-ticket retail item any of us will ever buy.) It is not for nothing that we speak of our car and its parts in the first person possessive: my tires, my dashboard, my fender, my seats. We even do this with rental cars, because, as drivers, our senses extend outward through the whole vehicle. In expert use our tools and machines become extensions — enlargements — of ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with having help in this from the Apples, Googles and Teslas of the world, provided our sense of where we end and where those companies begin is maintained, along with our full sense of autonomy and independence as individual human beings who can be social in our own ways, and not just in the controlling ways provided by commercial entities.

But today that line is very blurred, and may not be a line at all. As long as that blur persists, and superior power lies on the corporate side, we will have problems with compromised autonomy for individuals and their things. Those problems will only get worse as cars get “better” the (current) Tesla way. (Tesla can change, of course, and I hope they do.)  And the entire market greenfield that grows naturally on personal independence and autonomy will fail to materialize. We can drive all we want around walled gardens.

Cory calls this crucible a “civil war”. I don’t think he overstates the case.

An early shot fired in that war is Fuse, which plugs into the ODB2 port under your dashboard and gives you data your car throws off, and ways to use that data any way you please. Can’t wait to get mine.

By the way, I believe one reason Mozilla is in its current fix is that browsers and email — its founding apps — were born as instruments of personal autonomy. That’s what Mosaic and Netscape Navigator were: cars on the “information superhighway.” Now, too much of the time, they are just shopping carts. More about that in the next post.

(HT to Hugh McLeod for the car-toon.)

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5 Responses to Cars as crucibles for personal autonomy

  1. Jan Searls says:

    Blurred comfort:

    A year ago my beloved ’95 Camry was totaled while sitting in a parking space. Although it had 250k miles it looked more dated than used, still drove like a dream, got 25+ mpg on the highway and cost very little to maintain so I had anticipated a leisurely search for my next perfect car. Instead I had to scramble to make a huge financial commitment within a very short time. I started at Cox Toyota, the same dealer who sold me that Camry 17 yrs. before when my last car died, and I went no farther.

    I searched online, and with USAA’s buying service but I never stepped foot in another dealer. Since then, and in spite of loving my new Toyota, I’ve continued to wonder what kept me there. I shopped their inventory, yes, but why didn’t I look at other makers or shop at other dealers? Reading this post got me reviewing that decision and now I think I know: Cox Toyota has modeled it’s dealership on the Apple Store, and it’s service center on the Genius Bar. Toyota makes a quality product, generates customer loyalty and ensures when their owners become buyers they are so comfortable in the Cox environment that they won’t want to start over in another dealer relationship.

    My MacBook Pro is 5 years old and much like that ’95 Camry. I am comfortable with it, I enjoyed the initial buying experience, I trust the manufacturer and the dealer – the Apple Store – and I know that whatever happens they will do everything they can to keep it running and, just like Cox Toyota, when I bring it in for service they will not bother me with a sales pitch until I am ready to hear one.

    Sunday confirmed this when I ran over some debris left from the last ice storm and the pan under my engine got caught and ripped off. I booked an appointment online, was welcomed as a valued customer, spent 30 minutes in their sunny, comfortable and quiet waiting area, enjoyed a free beverage and some high speed connectivity and a half hour later drove away with a new pan and no payment. Now if only Apple would include comfortable and quiet waiting areas and free refreshments ….

  2. Brian Driggs says:

    This post has been on my mind since Valeria Maltoni shared it with me the other day. As a gearhead still rowing my own gears in a 25 year old, 100hp truck with neither AC nor cup holders, I know a lot of people who equate modern automotive convenience with irresponsibility and a double time match toward automotive Cuisinarts – and we’re all terrified.

    That fear shows in our collective antipathy toward modern commuter appliances. We’ve become a society of vehicle operators disinterested in driving, averse to mass transit, and coddled into a false sense of confidence by electronic nannies.

    It’s too the point where I advocate driving a sub-$5000 beater to work and an expensive race car for the track, because at least your fellow racers are there to drive and not fiddling with some gadget or cup of overpriced coffee.

    And yet, since we tend to buy used or otherwise aren’t buying the latest beige compromise, we aren’t really the customer. This makes marketing-driven technologists and clueless debtors all the more powerful in driving such policy/practice.

    So how do we, as those who hold automotive freedom most dear, make our voices heard? How do we go about arming ourselves with the facts and figures which add substance and value to our cries for personal responsibility and vehicles with character?

    The last thing anyone needs is a self-driving car which generously lets us skip the ad after 5 seconds before starting to move, or displays ads on the dashboard, or otherwise tricks us into thinking the product is something other than us. I have to think there are subjects we can study, concepts we can master, to help us help the OEMs continue their beloved existence in the center of our universes. And I’m willing to bend over backwards empowering passionate brand advocates with this information. Just having a hard time finding a starting point.

    Any fool can say the Prius or Camry is indicative of a larger societal problem. It takes hard work (and brass balls) to develop a solution. There’s got to be a middle ground where everyone is happy. I want to find it. And bring others.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Appreciate them.

  3. SAA says:

    Thoughtful piece

    You might enjoy our attempt at reconciling this problem. In our paper we discuss the issues about how cars reconcile (or not) their sociability with other vehicles and the systems within themselves.

    Applin and Fischer (2013)

    Applied Agency: Resolving Multiplexed Communication in Automobiles

    Pg. 159 or 163 depending upon if you go by overall pages, or image pages.

    More at

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Thans, Jan.

    Brian and SAA, apologies for sloth in passing through your comments. I just found 1.5 months of backlogged comments in a folder I didn’t know existed, but not behind the comments link in WordPress. A duh for me, I guess.

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