RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017


193 Systems of (auto)mobility: Continuities, disruptions and futures (2): (Auto)mobility technologies, infrastructures, identities and ontologies
Convenor(s) Brendan Doody (University of Oxford, UK)
Debbie Hopkins (University of Oxford, UK)
Chair(s) Debbie Hopkins (University of Oxford, UK)
Timetable Thursday 31 August 2017, Session 2 (11:10 - 12:50)
Session abstract It has been over a decade since John Urry’s (2004) influential paper ‘The ‘system’ of automobility’ was published. In it he sought to account for the expansion and continuing ascendancy of the car and the ‘specific character of domination’ it entails (p. 27). Having explored the ‘awesome’ social, cultural and environmental consequences of the car he concludes by considering a number of ‘technical-economic, social and policy transformations that in their dynamic interdependence might tip mobility into a new [post-car] system’ (Urry, 2004, p. 33). For Urry, new fuel systems (e.g., batteries; hybrid; hydrogen fuel cells), new materials, smart vehicles, digitization, de-privatizing of vehicles (e.g., car clubs; car-hire schemes), new transport policies and new living, work and leisure practices would potentially become central elements of this new ‘vehicle system’.

In the intervening years since its publication, a number of the emergent elements identified by Urry have become evident. This has prompted a number of scholars to claim that the post-car system is on the horizon in the global North due to processes such as ‘peak car, rail renaissance, cycling boom, the rise of mobile information and communication technologies, and broader lifestyle and cultural changes’ (Cohen, 2012; Metz, 2013; Newman and Kenworthy, 2011; Schwanen, 2016, p. 155).

As Schwanen (2016, p. 155) and others (Wells and Niewenhuis, 2012) have observed such analyses are by no means unproblematic and tend to fail to sufficiently account for the ‘capacity of automobility to endure’. The alarming growth rate of car ownership in the global South (especially China and India); the ability of car manufactures to delay more radical forms of change (i.e., electric propulsion; fuel cells); incumbent automobile manufacturers and car hiring companies such BMW, Dailmer-Benz, Hertz and Enterprise acquiring, merging and/or developing car-sharing schemes/car clubs; and the growing interest and momentum around autonomous vehicles are just a few examples.

Building on the late John Urry’s legacy, this session explores dominant and emerging systems of (auto)mobility. More specifically, it seeks to address three interrelated issues:

1. How might we understand the continued centrality of the car in the global North and the substantial growth in car ownership and use in the global South?

2. To what extent might new vehicles (electric, hybrid, self-driving, autonomous), materials (light-weight; super-strength) and technologies (automatic cruise-control; lane departure warning; radar; lidar) reproduce or disrupt existing car-dependent cultures?

3. To what extent are emerging technical-economic, political and social transformations (smart technologies; automation; car-sharing and clubs; on-demand services; (re)-emergence of cycling) challenging, reaffirming or reconstituting (auto)mobile materialities, politics, cultures and identities?
Linked Sessions Systems of (auto)mobility: Continuities, disruptions and futures (1): (Auto)mobility planning, policies and advocacy
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
Consuming privacy: the enduring appeal of personal automobility and the automotive industry
Peter Wells (Cardiff University, UK)
Notwithstanding the growing financial and environmental costs of automobility, and the glimmers of change in terms of ‘peak car’, zero emissions smart cities, and attendant themes, it is readily apparent that automobility endures as a socio-technical regime. This paper argues that key to understanding that durability is theorising how cars offer spatio-temporal moments of privacy. Changes to powertrain, automation, connectivity or even through shared use do not erode this fundamentally exclusionary character in which the functionality of mobility may be secondary. The dynamic stability of the automotive industry at the heart of the regime involves the co-option and capture of technological, economic and social changes in a manner that reproduces and mutates cultures of automobility around this central theme of the consumption of privacy, albeit with contradictory tensions between the public and the private or the networked and the placeless. These developments are key to a modern nomadism, in which lives are lived both through mobility and in mobility. The appeal of privacy (and increasingly personal security), accessed usually through wealth, thus permeates emergent markets and endures elsewhere, as an expression of the post-modernist ideal of individualism.
The miracle of the road: The affective atmospheres of Europe’s roads
Michael O'Regan (Bournemouth University, UK)
A billion operating cars, with people are on the road around 1.1h a day has spawned an emergent, complex system of roads and motorways no longer designed for people. The private car promised to create a system of freedom and liberation with Simmel speaking about ‘the miracle of the road.” Instead, for many commentators, it created car-dependent cultures with banal infrastructural spaces of car parks, filling stations and repair garages to service motorways that structure and produce unsustainable automobilities. These materialities, or infrastructural spaces, however, have also come to influence different mobilities, based on differing socio-cultural-political readings of infrastructure. Inspired by cultural geography, spatial-cultural theory and affective ontologies in the context of research on mobilities, this largely autoethnographic presentation challenges the current thinking about the organization of movement by exploring the embodied mobility of hitchhiking and the corporeal experiences of being a passenger in trucks, buses, and cars on Europe’s roads and motorways. As a hitchhiker, I hope to tell a story about mobilities of friction and flow which both challenges and reaffirms (auto)mobile materialities and identities and disrupts thinking on car-dependent cultures. I argue that hitchhikers are not passive bodies in cars or motorways ramps and service stations, but a mobility culture with its own politics associated with innovative appropriations of existing materialities, to work below the radar, to modify the abstract rhythms of motorways.
Anticipation, automation and navigation
Sam Hind (University of Warwick, UK)
In a comprehensive article on ‘Google’s Road Map to Domination’, the New York Times journalist Adam Fisher supposed that, with driverless car technology, contemporary society had reached an ‘endgame in which the capacity to read a map could become a lost art’ (Fisher 2013, n.p.). ‘When cars drive themselves’ he continued, ‘the map will have been fully absorbed into the machine’ (Fisher 2013, n.p.). Suspending critical appraisal of both these statements for one second, what would each demand of the driverless car? Firstly, that this ‘map reading’ could be performed by the vehicle itself. Secondly, that any such calculative power would be integrated into the driving-machine – responsive and reactive to road users, conditions, and vehicle passengers; but also necessarily anticipatory, proactive, and pre-emptive. In other words, for the driverless car to perform navigational duties, it must be able to compute the future. In this paper I want to explore how this might (not) be possible, through three different functions the driverless car will need to perform, or be programmed for: ‘route-calculation’, ‘terrain-optimization’, and ‘object-recognition’. There is a pressing ethical, social and political need to discuss each of these aforementioned functions in turn – building on, and folding in, already-existing work on anticipation, automation and navigation.
Car charisma
Brendan Doody (University of Oxford, UK)
John Urry (2004) has argued that the expansion and continuing dominance of the car can be attributed to the unique combination of six social and technical elements which in their interdependence comprise the system of automobility. In this paper I introduce the notion of car charisma as a means through which to supplement and expand Urry’s account. Following Jamie Lorimer (2007), I understand non-human charisma to be the distinguishing properties of entities or processes that determine their perception and subsequent evaluation by humans. To develop this notion, Lorimer’s three-part typology of ecological, aesthetic and corporeal charisma, empirical materials (interviews with the car manufacturers and retailers, online advertising and marketing and secondary sources), and literatures on new materialisms, more-than-representational theory and affect, are drawn upon. Empirically, manufacturers’ and retailers’ attempts to magnify and construct charisma through a variety of design, marketing and selling practices are explored. It is suggested that these practices condition but do not determine people’s aesthetic and corporeal encounters with, and the associated meanings and identities they attach to, cars over time. In concluding, I argue that foregrounding the lively and unpredictable properties of charisma highlights the cultural and material politics of cars. Moreover, such a focus also helps reveal how the system of automobility is continually (re)produced in dynamic and contradictory ways that have pervasive and ever-changing effects on society.
Automobility: where does ontology take us?
Tim Schwanen (University of Oxford, UK)
Automobility has been theorised extensively at the same time that geography and cognate fields have gone through an ontological turn. The result is a wide range of insightful publications that have proposed to understand automobility as – amongst others – complex system, regime, society, assemblage, and a set of interconnected social practices and material arrangements. Morton's (2013) concept of hyperobject, derived from object-oriented ontology, could usefully be added to the list. In this paper I will critically compare theorisations of automobility against the background of the ongoing incorporation of 'smart' technologies into automobility. In so doing I will address questions of in/commensurability; usefulness to geographers interested in transport and mobilities; and links to epistemology, methodology and ethics. I will suggest that attending to the ontological politics (Mol 1999) of automobility in the era of smart technology is critically important but that questions of how 'we' know automobility in specific places and account for the resulting knowledge cannot be ignored. A plea will be made for place-sensitive ethico-onto-epistemological (Barad 2007) approaches to automobility.