With the automotive past still largely present today, new technologies are actively being introduced into the vehicular landscape. Navigation—like Global Positioning Systems and web mapping services—play a significant role in our day-to-day travel. In these systems, cities amount to matrices of relations, where data is charted to virtually replicate the real. These data interfaces are not merely reflections of the world; they become worlds themselves, ones that are generative and active, tracking and reacting to our movements within them and, consequently, affecting political, economic, ecological, and social realms.

The kinetic sculpture Float (1972) by Robert Breer is an early example of a self-navigating object. Float is part of a series of the artist’s sculptures that are akin to exhibition vehicles in parades, as the title suggests. The sculptures move silently and at an almost imperceptible rate of speed, with hidden mechanisms that make them appear to hover just above the ground. The Floats are minimal, often neutral-colored forms. Their apparent abstraction, however, is overshadowed by a robotic surrealism and uncanny figurality that surfaces in their movement. Breer’s objects glide with a “gentle détournement that defunctionalizes the expressions of commodity culture and grapples through the medium of motion.”[5] Altogether contrary to the contemporary proclivity for speed and efficiency, these sculptures allow for a rarely experienced slowness, reshaping our expectations of mobility and attuning our attention to the navigation of space over time.

Breer’s motorized sculptures, neither programmed nor computerized, move at random, changing direction only when they encounter surrounding objects. Nevertheless, their automated movement anticipates the significant changes underway decades later in the emergence of advanced self-navigating vehicles. Chief among these are autonomous vehicles, drones, and autobots that are shifting the predominance of human visual perception toward machinic data-driven navigation.

These technologies present a host of new issues in the vehicular landscape. Autonomous driving has gained purchase in the automotive industry and promises to improve safety and reduce vehicle emissions. Autonomous vehicles, however, employ artificial intelligence systems susceptible to malicious attacks; they are reliant on programming that could be adversely influenced by economic over public safety concerns; and, without a concerted effort to advance mass transit and ridesharing systems, they could vastly increase the number of cars on the road by decreasing the cost of individual transit since, unlike taxis, Uber, or Lyft, they are not dependent on human labor and its associated costs.

Most problematically, artificially intelligent vehicles of the variety revealed in Trevor Paglen’s photograph Untitled (Reaper Drone) (2010) have been used in the implementation of military actions and surveillance. In this photograph of a sky at sunrise, softened by passing stratus clouds above the Mojave Desert in Nevada, there is a nearly imperceptible black speck. In contrast to the picturesque beauty of the image, its parenthetical title reveals its sinister subject. The black dot is an unmanned aerial vehicle, more specifically a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper Drone, also known as Predator B. Operated by the United States Air Force, its primary roles include military activity, renditions programs, extralegal wars, covert surveillance, and hunt-and-kill missions, often in countries with which the US is not officially at war. These are contemporary versions of the military entanglements fueled by oil that Kleeman’s work highlights.

The mobility of our time is unique in its independence from human intervention and sight but is still entangled with social, political, and economic realities. Autonomous vehicles depend on energy, data, and their neural network. Machine vision and remote sensing facilitate their navigation with multicamera attachments and sensors. The images generated by these technologies are not “seen” as a gestalt but interpreted based on their pixel configurations as they relate to large data sets of existing images and read in combination with other sensors. Both motion and vision are automated and can be digitally mined for information. While that data is required for autonomous systems to function, governments and corporations may use it in surveillance for financial gain, “unambiguously serving (their own) interests at the expense of vulnerable populations and civic life.”[6] Paglen’s work leaves us with a sense of the sublime incomprehensibility of an endless sky potentially full of drones, the scale of data they are amassing, and the invisible networks of power activating and activated by them.

At the dawn of the era of artificial intelligence and in light of the pending broad use of autonomous vehicles, it is crucial to assess how cities can address new technological imperatives and ongoing sociopolitical and environmental problems tied to the legacy of the car. It is possible to imagine a very different vehicular landscape, one that aims to reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of car culture and environmental damage through energy-conserving transit. With architecture and urban planning that prioritize public over commercial and private interests, and the thoughtful incorporation of autonomous mobility that accounts for infrastructural and spatial considerations, our world might be one in which the individual mobility and freedom that the car provides no longer come at the cost of social and collective liberty.

Image credits:
Robert Breer (American, 1926–2011), Float, 1972. Motorized sculpture: resin, paint, wood, motor, wheels, and battery, 17 7/8 x 36 3/4″. University purchase, Bixby Fund, and with funds from James W. Singer Jr.; the Frederic Olsen Foundation; Benjamin Weiss; Bernard Drewes in memory of his father, Werner Drewes; Mrs. James W. Singer Jr.; Constance Wittcoff; Harald Drewes in memory of his parents, Margaret and Werner Drewes; and Morton D. May, by exchange, 2011.

Trevor Paglen (American, b. 1974), Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010. Chromogenic print, 5/5, 48 x 60″. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 2012.