Tex Avery’s 1951 animation, “Car of Tomorrow,” is limited only by the historical imagination. Wrapped in chrome and richly colored, the car of tomorrow is long, smooth, and muscular. Inspired by the postwar economic boom and the burgeoning aviation industry, the car of tomorrow combines exquisite luxury, convenience, and design. Automotive interiors are imagined as expansive lounges. Parking is solved by the compact car, which folds into your pocket. There is even a car with “a hole in the top for all those people who have pet giraffes.” By today’s normative standards, the cartoon is also unwatchable. Numerous scenes reproduce the most derogatory stereotypes of its era: the “Paris creation” designed for women, with seashell pink exterior, lacey undergirding, and rear end “done up in a flattering bustle effect”; the “classic convertible” for Native Americans (verbatim: “Indians”), with retractable tee-pee ragtop; the aerodynamic “sport roadster” pulled like a rickshaw, “very popular in China”; and so on.

Yet, one thing is notably missing from Avery’s animation. That thing is speed. Not a single scene imagines a new invention of speed. There are no flying cars, no jet engines, no racing heroes. From the standpoint of today, the absence of self-driving vehicles is also remarkable. There are no autonomous cars to schlep father home from a long day at the office. There are no automated vehicles trapsing the kids to soccer practice while mother cooks dinner. There are definitely no robotic automobiles to drive the mother-in-law around in endless circles. Today, above all else, the car of tomorrow must be fast, autonomous, and energy efficient.

Bulbous in shape and suitable for a family of four, the Tesla Model S Plaid represents the pinnacle of this vision. With 1,020 horsepower and electric battery offering 396-mile range, the car is capable of launching itself to 60 miles per hour in 2.1 seconds, reaching speeds of 200-plus miles per hour. This makes it among the fastest production vehicles on the market. Starting from a 2022 base price of $135,990 USD, it also comes equipped with Tesla’s experimental Full Self-Driving capability—a technology viewed as key to populating roads with autonomous vehicles that reliably cause fewer accidents than their human-controlled counterparts. The Tesla Model S Plaid thus embodies the rather paradoxical dream of a perfectly fast, perfectly sustainable, perfectly safe automobile. In order to accomplish this, Tesla also appropriates from that other American dream, not only the accumulation of wealth required to afford such a vehicle, but the accumulation of wealth sufficient to relieve the driver of driving responsibility. Efficiency, safety, speed—and total lack of responsibility. The impossible ideal of total responsibility joined with total irresponsibility rules today’s American automotive dream.

This dream is nowhere more evident than in rumors about the not-so-secret Apple iCar. Envisioned as an all-electric, fully autonomous vehicle brimming with cameras, artificial intelligence, and remote-control capabilities, some versions even showcase the iCar without a steering wheel. To be sure, the invention of a fully autonomous vehicle is a welcome advancement for members of our population who will benefit from increased mobility assistance. Physical disabilities and old age will present fewer obstacles for everyday errands and trips to family and friends. Children can now be driven to soccer practice while parents or caretakers take care of business. But herein lies the vital question. In freeing ourselves from the responsibility of driving, what are we freeing ourselves for?

Our values are embedded in our technologies. Our time is also controlled by the demand of production. We are required to produce our means of subsistence. Survival in capitalist society requires the production of value. When the value of our values is expressed through the production of new technologies, it becomes possible to see ourselves anew in what the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard called, in 1973, “the mirror of production.”

At the level of all political economy there is something of what Lacan describes in the mirror stage: through this scheme of production, this mirror of production, the human species comes to consciousness in the imaginary. Production, labor, value, everything through which an objective world emerges and through which man recognizes himself objectively—this is the imaginary. Here man is embarked on a continual deciphering of himself through his works, finalized by his shadow (his own end), reflected by this operational mirror, this sort of ideal of a productivist ego. This process occurs not only in the materialized form of an economic obsession with efficiency determined by the system of exchange value, but more profoundly in this overdetermination by the code, by the mirror of political economy: in the identity that man dons with his own eyes when he can think of himself only as something to produce, to transform, or bring about as value.[i]

According to Baudrillard, we come to consciousness of ourselves through a process of recognizing ourselves in the objective productions of our imagination. We decipher ourselves through our works. Thus, the “ideal of a productivist ego” is formed, not only by the capitalist system of value exchange, but through the imperative of production, which determines the profound understanding of ourselves as producers of value. As a consequence, the technologies we produce function as the mirror of our values. The Apple iCar is one such mirror. As the material ideal of a driverless vehicle, it not only grants the wish to free ourselves from the responsibility of driving; it also allows us to realize the vision of ourselves as optimized for maximum value production.

The political economy of production operates according to the oscillation of work and rest. Thus, created in the ideal image of ourselves as producers of maximum value, full self-driving vehicles will enable us to maximize our productive power, either by sublimating the responsibility for driving into the responsibility for work, in which case the autonomous vehicle transforms into a mobile office, or by allowing its luxurious interior to afford some temporary repose, complete with high-resolution screens and personalized climate settings, better understood as a means to refresh and optimize our capacity for work. The desire of escape from responsibility thus converts the American dream of “freedom and justice for all” into the state of total administration, governed by systems of algorithmic control, structured by a widening gap between the producers of maximum value, on the one hand, and the expulsion of all values that inhibit the efficiency of production, on the other.

Lost in this exchange is the idea of the car as a symbol of unfettered freedom. Whereas autonomy defines freedom literally as “self-rule,” understood as self-determination, freedom encompasses a much wider set of definitions. In the seventeenth-century work of Thomas Hobbes, for example, the sense of unimpeded motion defines the meaning of freedom. Accordingly, the freedom of acceleration is thrilling. The enhancement of freedom as speed also courts inevitable danger. It is precisely this dangerous expression of freedom that the definition of freedom as autonomy tries to eliminate.

In the name of safety, autonomous vehicles are not free. They require us to relinquish our freedom to intelligent machines. Absent steering and an accelerator, by design they destroy freedom in the Hobbesian sense. Well-regulated traffic flows are promised to replace road deaths and driver error. The autonomous vehicle cannot even simulate the feeling of freedom. Instead, asphalt freeways are reduced to fixed paths. In the great sport of luge, by contrast, the supine slider careens feet-first down ice-covered tracks at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. Whereas the daring slider must stay the course with only subtle shifts of body weight to avert disaster, full self-driving abolishes every need for passenger control. Through the abolition of control, the autonomous vehicle heralds the triumph of artificial intelligence over and against the thrill of danger.

The desire to smooth traffic flows and eliminate accidents results in the algorithmic control of everyday life. By abandoning responsibility to intelligent machines, we abandon the demand of thinking, just as we abandon our freedom. The demand of thinking is temporarily deferred, as our autonomous vehicles permit us to travel without having to think about travelling. Behind the imaginary ideal of full self-driving vehicles, we reveal not only the desire for a world without accidents, but also a world without thought—an entirely predictable world.

The French cultural theorist Paul Virilio regards the accident as an invention that uncovers what is hidden, “just waiting to happen.”[ii] Thus: “To invent the sailing ship or steamer is to invent the shipwreck. To invent the train is to invent the rail accident of derailment. To invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway.”[iii] In each instance of disaster, speed correlates with fatality. Conversely, to invent the autonomous vehicle is to produce human beings as thoughtless passengers, secure in the belief that speed poses no obstacle to safety—that artificial intelligence produces a world free of accidents.

Now consider what is just waiting to happen in the sublimation of artificial intelligence into human thoughtlessness. The fatal accident that awaits can be found in the irreducible coincidence of thought and intelligence. Whereas intelligence is calculative, predictive, and result-driven; thought is capable of stupidity, surprise, and getting lost. It is worthwhile to consider how getting lost in thought is a distinctive human capacity. From moments of meandering thoughtlessness, there springs a surprising event, the accident of thought. Unbound by the production of means and ends, such thought is without direction, without end, even useless and without value. Its danger lies in its radical disruption of all end-driven action. Beyond the mirror of production, which produces the productivist ego ideal, the dream of a fully autonomous vehicle finally shatters this mirror by revealing our spontaneous capacity for endless, wandering thought—completely untethered to the political economy of production. The very means by which we abolish the need for intelligence, we thereby restore the danger of thought.

The point at which we become utterly unproductive is the point when our vital humanity is revealed. Thus, the imaginary horizon of the car of tomorrow presents the occasion to question both our relation to road traffic and the values we traffic in. Through the invention of autonomous vehicles, and all manner of intelligent technologies, we reveal the paradoxical desire to abolish the demand of responsibility, the thrill of freedom, and the danger of thinking. Whether we still choose to abolish our radically useless, unproductive, pointless humanity remains an open question, limited only by the historical imagination and our capacity to shatter the mirror of production.


[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster (St. Louis: Telos, 1975), 19–20.

[ii] Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, trans. Julie Rose (Malden, MA: Polity, 2007), 9.

[iii] Ibid., 10.