Driverless Cars – advertising ancient history?

12 January 2017 | By Sign Salad
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There’s been a lot of mileage in recent press about the prospect of driverless cars. While various features in cars have already signalled the presence of automatic technology – from windscreen wipers turning on when they sense rain, to cruise control, to self-parking – now that Uber has driverless cars on the roads in Pittsburgh, and Google, Daimler, Ford, Volvo, Baidu and a host of others are developing a range of autonomous vehicles, driverless cars are expected to have become the transportation norm anywhere between 2030 & 2050, precipitating a mix of excitement and fear in equal measure.

On the one hand, driverless, or “self-driving vehicles” as they should perhaps be described, promise time saved for leisure and work activities when on the move. The 1950s’ vision of a future in which humans no longer worked was always driven by images of self-driving cars. TV shows like The Jetsons, and films such as Minority Report offered a utopian life of leisure in which robotic cars were filled with people reading, in conversation, watching TV and even in erotic interludes; a driverless landscape devoid of traffic jams, stress, and harmful accidents.


Even today, Youtube offers the spectacle of people celebrating their new-found free time in self-driving vehicles. Talulah Riley Musk (Elon’s wife) can be seen dancing hands free while speeding along an LA freeway.

The counterpoint, however, has been the fear of loss of control, of the threat of catastrophe from malfunctioning technology- and ultimately, the redundancy of humanity, the loss of our status and, potentially, the end of our existence. In that vein, the above-mentioned video sees Riley-Musk is positioned in the front seat, ready to seize control of the steering wheel should she need to, rather than cavorting in the back seat.

While cinema and the media are arguably the prime culprits in creating this melodramatic tension between hope and helplessness, branded content over many years has offered a more palliative vision, which few have ever questioned or been worried by. Numerous automotive campaigns spanning back over several decades have featured ‘driverless’ vehicles. They might not do so in the literal sense that’s now on the horizon, but in a powerful metaphorical sense, which has coded the absence of human intervention, and the profound autonomous identity of the automotive brand itself.

Across a large number of car ads, we see the vehicle in motion, curving round a mountain bend, moving smoothly along a motorway, triumphantly through urban streets, or even conquering rough rural terrain. Frequently though, the view of any human driver is obscured in favour of a darkened windshield, or an oblique angle of the car from the side or rear. Of course, the repetitious image of a vehicle driving itself is intended to focus our attention on the premium performance, quality, power and prestige of the car itself.


But this advertising pragmatism has, over time, given way to the deeper coding of car as autonomous machine, capable of performance, power, and charismatic presence independent of any human intervention. While the human driver is implied, he or she is not seen, and this absence is internalised by the viewer and now comfortably accepted as a visual expression of automotives. Given the number of car adverts which have repeated this visual trope, ‘driverless-ness’ is not an alien – or even alienating – ideal, it is an entirely familiar cultural code.

So, while critics and the media explore the technology of driverless cars as a sinister cinematic fantasy, and as a psychologically uncanny perversion of normative behaviour, it is advertising and the world of brands which has for decades offered us a vision of the technological future which we have all accepted without fuss or fear.

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