Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road by Matthew B. Crawford

(New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 348


  • this book answers: what is so special about driving?
  • Crawford is concerned about the coming technocratic control of transportation taking away our freedom of movement, and critiques this from a Toquevillian perspective of coming together in a way that limits central power (10)

Homo Moto

  • movement and joy are connected, especially enhanced movement with machines (11)
  • memory and movement are tied together (perhaps why we don’t remember our earliest childhood) (13)
    • he goes further to say that “the subjective coherence of a life seems to be built up from some basic motor capacities” (13)

Motor Sports

  • the self-loathing of the bourgeois and a life not lived: “the question to unasked and unanswered” (15)
  • “There is a certain tonic effect in being scared shitless and trusting your skills to see you though.” (15)

Folk Engineering: Rolling Your Own

  • talks about the pleasure (and anxiety) that comes from building your own car, and the pleasure of sticking it to the state and bourgeoisie

Trust and Solidarity

  • book: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt (18)
  • book: The Long Haul by Finn Murphy (19)
  • the three modes of traffic management that will be discussed later: rule following (abuse of power), autonomous cars (massively expensive) , and human agency (meditation on self-government) (21-22)
  • dystopian Films to Watch: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, WALL-E (22)

Drivers as Moral Types

  • a defense of lane splitting on motorcycles

A Utopian Thought Experiment

  • driving a light car for maneuverability and because you have more skin in the game (26)


  • “Passion for driving cars...equips them to see just how bizarre and tyrannical a vision of progress may become when it seeks to remove the human element from every human activity.” (28-29)
  • the new focus on sovereignty is “a reaction to the imperiousness of political elites and corporate forces in pressing agendas of progress that seek to delegitimize the concerns of those deemed regressive” (29)
  • “The common thread among these discontents is their sense that they have come to be governed by elites whose allegiance is to their own transnational class, rather than to the common good of the particular nation they happen to reside in.” (30)
  • “The technocrats and optimizers seek to make everything idiotproof, and pursue this by treating us like idiots...to drive us to exercise one’s skill at being free” (31)
  • “Safetyism”: “If one cares about safety, one does well to take a skeptical look at the safety-industrial complex, and it’s reliance on moral intimidation to pursue ends other than safety” (34)
  • “if left unchallenged, the pursuit of risk reduction tends to create a society based on an unrealistically low view of human capacities” (34)

Cars and the Common Good

  • Jane Jacob’s book (35): not just cars destroying cities, but urban planning )36)
  • the growth of the automobile was largely a government (rather than private) understating, from FDR’s road projects through to Eisenhower’s interstate highway system (38-39)
  • why is google making cars? “Self-driving cars must be understood as one more escalation in the war to claim and monetize every moment of life that might otherwise offer a bit of private head space” (40)
  • commute like the rosary...the car’s isolation becomes a humanizing space in the world (41)
  • “Futurism is a genre of myth making that seeks to generate a feeling of inevitability around some desired outcome, a picture that is offered as though it were a prediction” (42)
  • Uber case study of growth at all costs without any hope of profitability resulting in massive misallocation of capital (44-45)

Rolling Your Own

Breaking Down: 1972 Jeepster Commando

  • broke down near San Miguel in his Jeep Commando
  • asking another human being to render aid was the hardest part (54)
  • “when a situation looks grim, but also you’re not sure exactly how things stand, you form theories that are attractive not because they are the most plausible but because they give you something to do, and doing something is the only way not to be crushed by miasmic uncertainty and despair” (55)
  • despair turned to freedom, and he sold his Jeep for a train ticket from Paso to Oakland
  • VW bus: “sometimes a car seems not simply to move you through the world, but to put you into the arms of the world more thoroughly.” (58)

Project Rat Rot

  • his wife is a cognitive psychologist who designed a car and taught rats to drive it
  • Lambert: much depression caused by being disengaged from the basic tasks of our survival (64)
  • taking care of ourselves lowers anxiety: human flourishing requires “open problem spaces” that elicit bodily and mental engagement (65)

Old Cars: A Thorn in the Side of the Future

  • this chapter: the false environmentalism of forced obsolescence, and creative possibilities from the old
  • “patina lends proof of life” (67), Quoted from Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust by Lucsko
  • yard wealth and fixing old things as against the bourgeois virtue-signaling and planned obsolescence of the economy (71)
  • litter and cultivated junk are opposites of stewardship, but viewed as the same by “civic responsibility” (73)
  • “shoddiness is a natural corollary to our faith in progress” ...”nothing is made to outlast probable improvement” (73), and subsequent discussion of the mixed motives of cash for clunkers programs
  • “folk-classic” and the Hagerty persona (80)
  • artistic hatred of the past, as expressed in pleasure at the destruction of old cars or the burning of Notre Dame (81)
  • Michael Oakeshott’s view of conservatism as “affection for the present” and what actually exists (82), cf “On Being Conservative”, Rationalism in Politics

The Diminishing Returns of Idiot-Proofing as a Design Principle

  • this chapter: look at both safety improvements and the changes in driver behavior as a result, which aren’t always improvements (98)
  • analysis of misleading Tesla claims about auto-steer safety and debunking by Whitfield and Ars Technica (98+)
  • Peltzman: we tend to change our driving behavior (risk/reward trade off) in response to the introduction of new safety devices (90)
    • “getting anything done in this world involves risk, and we accept this” (99)
  • “automation’s underlying assumption of our incompetence becomes progressively self-fulfilling” (98)
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman (98)
  • The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr
  • human intelligence and machine intelligence have a hard time sharing control (104)

Feeling the Road

  • test drove a new car in which “mechanical realities must pass through electronic filters” (110)
  • new cars remove the cognitive extension with a closed loop between action and perception resulting in a poverty of information to the driver (111)
  • natural feeling has been replaced with a layer of arbitrary representation
  • “The design principle that could help us mitigate distracted driving, and recover the joy of driving, would be one that exploits the sensori-motor capacities we have developed through human evolution” (113)
  • affective capitalism: “manufactured experiences are offered as a substitute for direct confrontation with the world...we are relieved from the burden of grappling with real things—that is, things that resist our will, and thereby reveal our limited understanding and skill” (114)
  • cf The Revenge of Analog (115)
  • “The pleasure of driving is the pleasure of doing something; of being actively and skillfully engaged with the reality that pushes back against us. Only then do we feel the progress of our own mastery. In skilled activities, we sometimes recover the joy of childhood play, that. In life when we were discovering new powers in our own bodies.” (115)

Automation as Moral Reeducation

  • trolley problem: analytical moral philosophy lends itself to the input logic of a computer (117)
  • Aristotelian virtue ethics (as described by William Hasselberger in Ethics Beyond Computation) as a skill acquired through practice as opposed to the utilitarian (and Platonic?) set of true propositions to be included in a moral calculus (121)
  • “As the space for intelligent human action gets colonized by machines, our intelligence erodes, leading to demands for further automation. By intelligence I mean bodily skills, cognitive skills, and ethical skills, for they are bound up together.” (122)
  • “Systems designed to minimize the role of human intelligence tend to be brittle, as they are not able to anticipate every contingency.” (125)
  • Spiritedness of control and engagement vs dispirited incompetence from automation

Folk Engineering

  • “A fully free relationship to technology is one that neither shuns it as alienating magic nor accepts uncritically the agenda that is sealed inside the black box.” (129)
  • Films to Watch: Fastest Car on Netflix
  • “To go deep into any technical field is to make progress in independence of mind (reject authority and believe your own eyes like Galileo), and feel. Freedoms to maneuver that grows in proportion with ones powers.” (153)
  • “This is why you end up buying a metal lathe and a milling machine. It’s just easier to make some parts than it is to hack a bureaucracy. Plus, you get to replace a frustrating activity with an enjoyable one.” (155)
  • he holds up this Enlightenment idea of knowledge (standard measurement unit accessible to everyone) as opposed to the medieval, but notes this is our caricature of the medieval, see rather The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (155)
  • “Those improvisational folk engineers of the Outback were a bit depraved, but they also preserved the seeds of civilization, and in watching them one could hope civilization might rise again.” (158-159)

Motor Sport and the Spirit of Play

The Motor Equivalent of War

  • Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga: our need for beauty and our need to fight are satisfied in play (168)
  • watch: Hitting the Apex (173)
  • The Red Baron: war as play recognizes the humanity of your enemy, as opposed to the humanitarian conflict which sees the opponent as inherently evil (177)

The Rise of the Bicycle Moralists (A Digression)

  • (Huizinga cited again, a key reference)

Two Derbies and a Scramble

  • Huizinga: “the human need to fight” (185)
  • Clintonville yard signs: "I had never been to Portland before and was curious to see how they lived. One thing I noticed was yard signs announcing the residents' affection for various classes of people. Some of these signs had lines written in Arabic that I wasn't able to understand. It's impressive that so many Portlanders have taken the trouble to learn this difficult language. As far as I could see, the only people fitting the categories enumerated on the yard signs who were actually present were some Hispanic groundskeepers who tended the botanical cornucopia outside a beautiful craftsman-style bungalow." (188)
  • discussion of gender roles:
    • ...the neutering of men in Portland as compared to that of the French Aristocracy just before the Revolution
    • Rousseau: “if you want men to be virtuous, teach women what virtue is” (197)
    • the most successful women (and men) don’t focus on history, they just do what they are doing

Democracy in the Desert: The Caliente 250

  • A desert race as embodiment of Tocqueville’s democracy opposed to our modern selves as “consumers of manufacturers experiences rather than creatures capable of dealing with the world in an unfiltered way” (204)

Self-Government, or Not

Prelude: The DMV Experience

"Reckless Driving:" Rules, Reasonableness, and the Flavor of Authority

  • Automated enforcement insulates forms of power from popular anger (217)
  • Yellow light times and lane widths engineered by cities to generate revenue
  • write out footnote 10 from 223
  • epic speeding ticket speech on 235

Managing Traffic: Three Rival Versions of Reality

  • The ways we manage traffic support and express different forms of political culture: rule-bound surveillance vs socially scaffolded mutual prediction (244)
  • “Perverse consequences follow from trying to disburden us of exercising judgment.” (245)

Road Rage, Other Minds, and the Traffic Community

  • “the human mind is fundamentally organized as a prediction machine” (256)
  • book in footnote 7 (256)
  • Good drivers follow norms to reduce uncertainty and make us more mutually predictable to one another (258)

Meet the New Boss

Street View: Seeing Like Google

  • Map making is an instrument of empire, street view follows this tradition (267)
  • Seeing Like a State: legibility makes you prone to control by outsiders (267)
  • Uber vs London cabbies and the data-driven colonization of local places

A Glorious, Collisionless Manner of Living

  • the smart city and the search for urban order against the unplanned urban delight
  • “people in tech prize ‘first principles,’ a concept that suggests that historical awareness and traditional expertise can get in the way of breakthrough ideas” (285-286)
  • the rational quality of political legitimacy (I.e. a judge’s opinion rather than mere fiat) contrasted against the non-interpretable ML model and “priestly class” of data scientist (287-288)
  • behavioral economics dovetails with the elite project of “enlightened social engineering” and authoritarian technocratic rule (291)

If Google Built Cars

  • customer service: if the exit costs are high enough you don’t need an actual monopoly to get monopoly behavior (298)
  • tech in cars leads to surveillance capitalism (301)
  • read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (302+)
  • terrifying privacy implications of “smart” devices: sleep number beds, Nest thermostats, roomba vaccines...”dumb” products will cost a premium (305-306)
  • “The surest way to predict behavior is to intervene at its source and shape it” (307)

Concluding Remarks: Sovereignty on the Road

  • the central issue of politics is sovereignty (312)
  • “To see a problem that needs fixing often stems from a failure to see that a solution has already been achieved-—through the skill and intelligence of ordinary people.” (313)


  • Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt (18)
  • The Long Haul by Finn Murphy (19)
  • Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust by Lucskom (67)
  • “On Being Conservative”, Rationalism in Politics (82)
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman (98)
  • The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr
  • Ethics Beyond Computation by William Hasselberger (121)
  • The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (155)
  • Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga (168)
  • Seeing Like a State (267)
  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (302+)

Created: 2021-03-27
Updated: 2023-11-08-Wed