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Culture Maven: Baby You Can Drive My Car ... Into The Sunset

classic car
Flickr/Creative Commons
The ways we see cars depicted in pop culture could be riding into the sunset.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a special episode of GLT’s Sound Ideas focused entirely on autonomous driving. It aired Nov. 21. Read more stories in the series.

Pop culture has been a superhighway for cars throughout the 20th century. Getting behind the wheel was a cool expression of the American dream. But can driverless cars ever capture the romance of the road in entertainment?

The cars we drive also drive our creative impulses, manifesting as a dominant force in popular entertainment, said Shari Zeck, interim dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University.

As GLT’s Culture Maven, Zeck examines the impact of pop culture on our lives. You can hear the importance of getting behind the wheel of a car in the music of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, in the popular genre of road trip movies and the ongoing saga of “The Fast and the Furious,” and in TV shows like “Route 66,” “Knight Rider,” and “Top Gear.”

The cars we drive are an extension of our dreams and our identities, Zeck observed. But as cars change in the future and computers take the wheel, will the impact of giving up control over the car change what we hear and see in entertainment?

“Cars are for us the possibility of escape,” said Zeck. “Cars are in our imagination and in practicality our way to freedom.”

But autonomous cars could shift that narrative to a dark place.

“I think right now, in terms of driverless cars, what we’ll start seeing in pop culture is something that will feed into disaster films.”

“The vehicle now is designed around the human body and its capacities. I think what we’re going to see in films is enormous anxiety about the human equation being taken out of the relationship to the operation of the car.”

Driverless cars just seem wrong, Zeck said.

“It seems like something is being taken away as opposed to something that’s being given to us," she said.

Adding to the anxiety of losing the control aspect of driving, Zeck said that cars as weapons might be a rising theme.

“That’s something we’ve already seen in recent years. Cars are dangerous. We’ve seen them weaponized. When you add to that the ability for them to operate themselves, that adds up to a disaster film or a horror film.”

So 100 years down the road, what autonomous vehicle narrative will ultimately take the place of the hormonally-charged teenage road flick that has lit up many a summertime silver screen? Don’t line up those tickets at Fandango just yet, said the Culture Maven.

“We probably won’t be watching movies anymore. There’s going to be something else going on neurologically that provides us that kind of stimulation.”

The Culture Maven connects how we feel about driving with the rise of the drone in this bonus audio.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.