Drive On

Essay by Tag Christof

August 01 2016

If you live on one of the U.S. coasts‚ you’re no doubt familiar with the idea of “flyover states.” For the uninitiated‚ that’s the dismissive blanket term for the vast expanses one skips over while jetting between important places like L.A. and New York. Other than momentary hotspots—Austin‚ Nashville‚ Denver right now—the popular coastal notion that not too much goes on in the middle continues to hold sway.

But with all the rigmarole about self-driving cars‚ the “flyover place” has begun to take on new meaning. In the not-too-distant future‚ it is entirely possible that car travel will mean being chauffeured by sophisticated code from one well-marketed‚ tidily packaged destination to another with no effort or attention required. With the self-driving car‚ all that in-between will become just as undervalued as it is with the jet—and on the more immediate scale of the car‚ it means something entirely more insidious. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which your Alphabet car will only take you to restaurant chains that buy Google ads or where your Amazonmobile will summon a gift-bearing drone rather than drive you to the mall. Forget flyover states: it will be flyover brands‚ flyover neighborhoods‚ flyover classes.

While all the tech wizardry sounds seductive‚ what will happen to these places? A quick look to the past provides a useful parallel. In the 1950s and 1960s‚ gigantic ribbons of the new Eisenhower Interstate System cut fresh‚ broad gridlines through the U.S and changed highway travel from an a to b to c to d affair into an A to Z blast‚ with the only easy stops being corporate roadside stations and fast food restaurants. As a result‚ hundreds of small towns died slow deaths over the following decades.

A future where the sole job of a car’s pilot is to fiddle with the climate control whilst endlessly scrolling slack-jawed through Instagram is unsettlingly Wall-E‚ and makes it certain that places not digitally marketed and branded well‚ even if they’re fantastic‚ die because serendipity dies. Stopping off at an unexpected hole-in-the-wall that serves up the best meal you’ve had in months never happens‚ because you only value a place for its safe Yelp score.

The technologists all argue that driving can be perilous‚ tedious‚ stressful and just downright shitty—all occasionally true. But there are few joys quite like consciously piloting a taut machine through a beautiful landscape‚ over fast roads with windows down and good music on. Moreover‚ long drives are among the few moments in modern life where one must focus on a single task‚ which in turn creates mental space for reflection.

Environmental detriment aside‚ cars—even ugly ones—are wonderful objects of design and mechanics. The sensory experience of fine interiors‚ sharp steering and good snick-snick gearboxes are the stuff of dreams for real design snobs. If you like Dieter Rams‚ you should love Alec Issigonis. And whether or not car-as-object is something you appreciate‚ no one can argue with channelling a little Steve McQueen. Driving gives us all a fantastic excuse for style.

We’ll keep moving forward—there’s no sense in being on the wrong side of progress. But the old routes that still amble on away from the Interstates remain the best places to find good coffee‚ pancakes‚ pho‚ tacos‚ and offer way more in the way of impressive landscapes and architecture. It is never not magic to stumble upon a country house in Louisiana serving up gumbo to visitors‚ or a lobster festival in an out-of-the-way town in Maine‚ or to buy perfectly in-season peaches at a fruit stand in Georgia that brushes up against the orchard where they were grown. Like art‚ road trips can be grueling and often seem pointless. But like art‚ they can open dramatically expanded ways of understanding the context of a city‚ or a culture‚ or a country‚ flyover or otherwise.