Beyond the Driver Barrier
by Prof. Dr. Gary Genosko
Much has been written about Baudrillard as a critic, but hardly anything about his driving. Baudrillard wrote auto-critically in America (53-4) about driving on the highways of the mid-west and west coast. His apprehension of Los Angeles freeways as collective and ceremonial and his deployment of driving as an anti-academic method richer than anything he could learn from a university research institute remain touchpoints for his understanding of automotivity.
As a motorsport enthusiast, Baudrillard’s essay, “The Racing Driver and His Double,” allows him to take some distance from these earlier experiences: as a driver he retains drivers and all the perceptual distortions of driving, and inherits speed as a “pure object” that is initiatory since it creates forgetting and emptiness (Baudrillard, “Driver” 6-7). The mythic drivers of the Grand Prix circuit and the calm of maximum acceleration are contrasted to the ordinary highways and byways of everyday transportation. The open road gives way to the closed track, and the relationship between them remains to be negotiated. Indeed, Baudrillard went into the desert, in order to find the Bonneville Salt Flats, the site of land speed records: “the Bonneville track on the immaculate surface of the Great Salt Lake desert, where prototype cars achieve the highest speeds in the world.” (America 4)
What would Baudrillard say about the status of drivers – not like you and me, in our pokey Subarus, but in the motorsport world – in the era of driverless vehicles, that is, of what is known today as robo-racing? What critical reflective approach would he recommend that may be applied to break through what is called here the driver barrier into a universe in which conceptual vehicles have been actualized through an aggressive program of motorsport artificial intelligence. Once the driver barrier is breached, the cockpit is emptied and motorsport racing can experiment with a culture change in which race car driver celebrity-athletes are displaced definitively by their vehicles, which are themselves indexed to cinematic designs and developments in software engineering. The driverless future displaces human vision onto techno-sensing the track as well as mapping and analyzing its parameters. The primary example deployed here is the robo-race competition, a branch of Formula E racing. However, Baudrillard often wrote as a driver in an almost nostalgic mode about the so-called open road, and his reflections are quite autobiographical, and it is only when he considers the Formula 1 driver and car in terms of doubles that their mutual imbrication permits an opening to a driverless future of autonomous vehicles, a development in motorsport, it is noted, beyond his experience by some 10 years since his death.
Driver and Double
Given a promising promiscuity of human and machine, this relation will become a template for Baudrillard in “The Racing Driver and His Double,” and his careful confusion of doubling: race car driver and machine, working together, pushing forward one another “without it being clear which is the engine of this meteoric advance and which is merely the other’s double” (“Driver” 166). Baudrillard focuses his effort on the advance of the tensile relation between driver and machine, which are engaged in a mutual “haunting” that is sealed as a pact of sorts through “excessive expenditure” and reconciled in “the ecstasy of speed” (“Driver” 166). Ultimately, the interface between driver and vehicle points toward the driver’s reduction to an integrated component so that in the future to peer into the cockpit of a Formula One vehicle – providing such a cavity still exists – will be to find it empty. That future is nearly upon us since only a few years ago the robo-car autonomous racing vehicle debuted before a Formula E event.
Let’s consider the slow disappearance of the driver. We begin at a point on the continuum on a Formula One track or circuit established by closing off public roadways for a brief time. With the double of the driver, that is, the car, a condensation occurs. The efforts of many team members are condensed for the sake of a “dazzling moment” broadcast to millions. The tip of this pyramid of expenditure is the driver. He is, as Baudrillard insists, “no longer anyone.” He is alone in his cockpit already merging with his car, inexorably losing some of his identity while also gaining a machinic form. His loneliness is neither that of a long-distance runner, nor a torero, not even that of a goaltender before a penalty kick. It arises from, thinks Baudrillard, alluding to the great French driver Alain Prost, not seeing the other drivers, except at the pole. A Grand Prix is nothing more than an “obstacle course” of calculations that is “teleconducted” by drivers, rather than a competition. The passion for winning is strictly “operational” and the vehicle “incorporates the driver’s will [to win] as one of the technical elements” (“Driver” 168). This incorporation is still incomplete as the question of passion remains, displaced onto the audience in the form of spectacular crashes. Baudrillard could be alluding to Sebring, 1966, when he notes it is unlikely that spectators and drivers would lose their lives as those “sacrificial days” are over (“Driver” 168). Death has become less personal, more a matter of engines and cars rather than drivers: “Only the technical double dies, which reinforces the abstract nature of the race” (“Driver” 168-9). Yet the history of Grand Prix racing is riddled with driver, marshal and spectator deaths. As the driver slowly loses his identity, speeds approaching 200 mph begin to affect perception, and vision gives way to a predominantly tactile apprehension of space (“Driver” 168): Baudrillard concludes that F1 is a “monster” whose time is slipping away as “monsters are doomed to disappear” (“Driver” 170).
Alain Prost – Williams FW15C during practice for the 1993 British Grand Prix
Photo credit: Martin Lee from London, UK (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The anthropological question for Baudrillard is death and destruction: the Accident. It relocates by moving us smoothly back and forth along the continuum from closed circuit to open road. In his early book on The Consumer Society, Baudrillard wrote: “’Smash up your car, the insurance will do the rest!’ Indeed, the car is without doubt one of the main foci of daily and long-term waste.” (47) Baudrillard explained the importance of waste beyond both a moral and economic vision that would criticize it as either irrational or counter-productive. The symbolic force of useless expenditure cannot be grasped in recycling, and those places where it hasn’t really caught on are interesting in this regard, less so than those wealthy enclaves where it is de rigueur, but must regain the social meaning of destruction as essential to the entire system of goods; the compass for the whole system, that is, and its social purpose maintains relationships. Yet the meaning of expenditure in potlatch ceremonies, for instance, is largely lost in the consumer society, reduced to “something more” (Consumer Society 45): a second home or car; or, even better, the “whiff of potlatch” that clings to the fantastic expenditures of the heroes of consumption, their glorious burnouts, parties, and lost weekends. For Baudrillard, this is already integrated into consumption, and poses no threat. Rather, it is this kind of squandering on a spectacular scale that lacks symbolic force because it has been reduced to a personal style and therefore has no collective meaning. Even if the death of a celebrity – James Dean’s crashed Porsche – is a kind of apotheosis of this degraded loss, it only signifies abundance and stimulates more consumption: “we have to distinguish individual or collective waste as a symbolic act of expenditure, as a festive ritual and an exalted form of socialization, from its gloomy, bureaucratic caricature in our societies.” (Consumer Society 47) Hence, the car as the vehicle of this gloom that has the whiff of taxation rather than ceremonial loss.
What about Ayrton Senna da Silva, the great Brazilian F1 driver? His death in 1994 at the Autodrome in Imola, Italy, at the San Marino Grand Prix on the very corner, the Tamburello, that he had predicted would take more lives if not modified, is surely a moment of collective loss, attested to by the millions who watched or attended his state funeral in Sao Paolo. This death is perhaps closer to Baudrillard’s sense of the unproductive nature of loss, and the anguish it triggers, restoring an intimacy that would be, otherwise, reallocated to a productive order concerned with leaving something for the next day’s enterprise. (Bataille, Accursed Share 58) For F1 drivers are worth sacrificing! They willingly enter a space that can bring death; the treacherous corner of a track is a good example of the site of violent consumption. Think of how many car songs, like “Dead Man’s Curve” (written by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys), evoke death and place, a known curvature of a road or track that invites a knowing self-sacrifice.
Robo-racing Beyond Death
There is yet another route if we turn to Formula E for electric-powered cars that employs vehicle designers such as Daniel Simon to achieve a Baudrillardian insight into robo-racing. Readers of Baudrillard should look to fantasy vehicles for a glimpse of the driverless, post-sacrificial future in which only the cars are risked. Simon is the designer of the Tron Legacy Light Cycle and its offshoots – light runner, jet, and tank – the latter modelled on Syd Mead’s original 1982 concept.
Simon worked with Michelin on the concept of an autonomous race car, the Robo-car, that would support the Formula E circuit. The robo-car debuted only in 2017 before the race on the Paris ePrix; two development vehicles, known as DevBots, are also used for track testing, but have an optional driver mode. Eventually, if it survives, a robo-race championship series will be run on the E circuit, although software development lags behind hardware and come companies have recently dropped out (BMW and Audi). The prospect of a meatless accident, at least on the track, but perhaps not in the stands, should dispel any lingering attachments to flesh fantasies of chromium incorporations and evacuations. Goodbye JG Ballard and Harry Crews, too!
What would Baudrillard say about robo-racing? He might point out that the reference point entails the transfer of advanced auto technology from the track to the streets, a typical belief about motorsport development. Indeed, the FIA decision to require halo cockpit protection in 2018 would be step back towards the mundane notion of road and driver safety. Hence, the robo-car concept is not enough of a monster and will take time to garner the kind of prestige that an F1 car enjoys, with the Ferrari, McLaren, etc. imprimaturs. Of course, team imprimaturs such as Jaguar, and Venturi (designer of the land speed record holding electric vehicle) persist on the E circuit, which only dates from 2014.
The Destiny of Racing
The empty cockpit of the electric car was already encrypted in the theory of speed and disappearance that announced a loss of consciousness, of a spectralization of the environment. This was driving after consciousness or beyond thinking (Pearce 92); a philosophy of the windshield that fetishized the driver’s seat and the view from the car, no matter how denatured. The driver will have outlived his privilege and will soon be merely a set of encoded instructions in a lifeless algorithm. Of course, there is still a degree of ambiguity here as Formula E racing features professional drivers and even some robo-cars have space for drivers, especially in the case of staged lap time competitions between driverless and professionally driven electric race cars. In this sense drivers persist, and enter into competition with software developers. This human versus AI model rehearses the Garry Kasparov victory against IBM’s chess playing computer Deep Blue first staged in 1996 (Baudrillard “Deep Blue” 160). For Baudrillard, at first Deep Blue was trapped in calculation while Kasparov enjoyed the “secret weapons” of human weakness, irony, and intuition (Impossible Exchange 116). Kasparov’s subsequent defeat by Deeper Blue in 1997, a turn of events in which the computer followed a cunning non-optimal strategy against its “calculating nature,” (“Deep Blue” 118) raised the idea of machine-induced freedom to fail, and to create, that was not only for human players. Baudrillard insists, however, on uncertainty with regard to whether a machine is human or a human, machine-like, in an implosion of interaction that is enigmatic. Yet he still retains a theoretical commitment to the distribution of weakness as a sign of the human player, that in rare moments can be exercised by machines in a flash of irony or a choice of pleasure over performance. Baudrillard cited computer viruses as examples of such a taking of “malicious pleasure in amplifying, and even producing perverted effects, to overcome their [machines] finality.” (Xerox 4)
Drivers, like wheels, are on their way to obsolescence, as Marshall McLuhan once advised (Understanding Media 220). Perhaps, then, it may be said that drivers are at least subsidiary within automotivity. Advances in battery technology place electric power at the apex of the steam and gasoline trajectories of engines. However, McLuhan (225), like Baudrillard, was not completely certain about the “electronic successors to the car.” And this uncertainty is still with us. Since robo-racing is still racing, is it possible to surmount racing, the privileged analytics of speed and time, and get beyond competition in order to enter a new ecology of circulation? Speed and time are basically properties of racing teams and treated like special goods. Micro-increments of time are shaved off of lap times and these can be purchased as part of the enabling technology that crystallizes them (Consumer Society 153). Time is a commodity and remain just that unless a formula for its liberation can be found.
The Driver Has Left the Vehicle
Once a driver has left the vehicle, only a driver in code remains. Yet in this state, the software vulnerabilities of the coded driver become exploitable. Subversion of the software is perhaps the next step in re-identifying the humanness of the driverless robo-racer. Does this imply a rehearsal of the discursive construction of fear of a hacked device, in this instance a self-driving race car? Perhaps, as the assessment of cybersecurity risks in the autonomous vehicle sector is a growing field. However, Baudrillard steers us toward a more theoretically radical perspective on the question of machine intelligence. The worry is not about what pranksters might do, or what bully cars might do to self-driving vehicles, or even how hackers might take control of critical systems at crucial moments with dire consequences, but what non-optimal decisions autonomous vehicles might make in performing their driving functions. This is what fascinated Baudrillard in the case of the software that programmed Deep Blue: “this strategy of not going the full hog” (“Deep Blue” 162), which is to say, playing below its capacity, and embracing “accidental calculations.” This was once the sole purview of the human player, but if it passes over to autonomous machines, play may emerge from within its calculable parameters as a viable option. This would constitute a residual trace of the human. It is not a question of peak performance, but of the potential of underperformance, or calculation without purpose towards overcoming their pre-programmed finality. What might this entail in the case of robo-racing?
If the accident is everywhere, it is also in robo-racing. It would be found across the continuum of tracks, but given the recent history of the deployment of the DevBots, this is not yet likely. In Buenos Aires in 2017 a DevBot crashed into a wall on a street track during a test race, while the other DevBot swerved around and avoided a dog. It was less a race between hardware shells than a battle of two different artificial intelligence software packages. The management of accidents situates waste within consumerism, trapped within programming models. However, the Baudrillardian approach is to embrace mistakes, not to weed them out altogether. Bryn Balcombe, Chief Strategy Officer of Robo-race, is quoted to this effect: “This is the Turing test for AVs: to see if they can drive ‘as naturally as a human but without the mistakes’.” (Belton) Regrettably, by insisting on the elimination of mistakes, the symbolic role of the accident is ignored and the potential human dimension of underperformance in general, what might contribute to a machine’s ability to pass as human, is thus diminished in being de-natured. One could even include in this category ‘taking one for the team’ by allowing a fellow member to pass them. This constitutes, according to Baudrillard, an “extermination” of the human by a surpassing of the negative in a perfected operationality (Passwords 62-3), at the very moment when it is needed more than ever.
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Vol. 1. Trans. Robery Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
Baudrillard, Jean. Passwords. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2003.
— “The Racing Driver and His Double.” In Screened Out. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2002, pp. 166-70.
— “Deep Blue or the Computer’s Melancholia.” In Screened Out. Trans. C. Turner (trans.), London 2002, pp. 160-65.
— Impossible Exchange. Trans. C. Turner. London 2001.
— The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Trans. J.P. Mayer. London: Sage.
— “Crash.” In Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 111-19.
— America. Trans Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1988.
— Xerox and Infinity. Trans. Agitac. London: Touchepas, 1988.
Belton, Padraig. “The robo-racing cars accelerating driverless tech,” BBC Business (27 August, 2019). https://www.bbc.com/news/business-49420570
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Pearce, Lynne. Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness. Edinburgh: Edinburgh university Press, 2018.