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Masculinity in danger? Autonomous cars as cultural challenge

How manly is a car that drives itself? (Photo: Marcus McCoy/ bit.ly/CC-Attribution)

A technological revolution always has an impact on culture and society. This article seeks to provoke new reflections about the connection of cars and masculinity in times of automated driving. A guest contribution by Anna-Lena Berscheid.

Article Publication Information


A technological revolution always has an impact on culture and society. This article seeks to provoke new reflections about the connection of cars and masculinity in times of automated driving. A guest contribution by Anna-Lena Berscheid.

In the (western) world, the car is more than the dominant means of transportation. It also represents a strong symbol of status and individual consummation and plays a key part in the idea of a “good life”. Yet it seems paradox that cars are also one of the main reasons why this good life is threatened by environmental pollution, fatal accidents and the waste of resources and space.

Automated driving is not only an important topic for the car industry, political actors or people interested in innovative transportation devices: I – as a social scientist – also find this new technology exciting as it could be a game changer on both structural and cultural levels: The industry promises no less than increased traffic safety, social inclusion of elderly people or people with disabilities and the conservation of resources. Some visionaries even dream of a world where private cars are replaced by autonomous cabs. 2025AD invited me to write about my research that sought to answer the question if and how the implementation of fully automated driving might affect the car as a symbol of hegemonic masculinity and I am happy to provide some short insights.

Driving a car: a masculine symbol

Studies have shown that the car has a gendered character signifying flexibility, independence or power, but also risk taking and thrill of speed. In western culture, all these attributes are considered as masculine and therefore make the car a status symbol for the construction of hegemonic (i.e. a cultural dominant ideal of) masculinity. Images of strong, powerful or wealthy men and their cars are widely known in popular culture, just think about James Bond and his Aston Martin or the super-successful movie series Fast and Furious. As we live in a world dominated by dichotomies, defining masculinity almost always happens in distinction to femininity. Whereas an interest for technology, for example, is connoted as masculine, femininity is often associated with a lack of interest and talent in this field. Men are considered as rational, women as emotional…

This list of stereotypes could go on forever; my point is that there exists a quasi-natural symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity that might be challenged by automated driving and could therefore represent an impediment for the implementation of autonomous cars in the near future. Why is that? To answer that, I conducted an analysis of the German media discourse on the topic to learn about existing opinions on and imageries of autonomous cars.

Heavy-duty four-wheel drive trucks - the epitome of masculinity? (Photo: Ford)

Autonomous driving: curse or blessing?

Even though the autonomous car is still a vision, media received the topic broadly. It is said that human drivers are not reliable enough and that computers are better drivers as they are never inattentive or tired. But even though the promises of a vision zero (a world without fatal car accidents) or lesser emissions are appreciated, a lot of authors express their doubts about safety and reliance of autonomous cars. Some of their questions are not new, they are about responsibility in case of accidents and the role of insurance companies.

A lot more interesting is another opposition: Most writers do not want to give up on their own agency. They argue that the car cannot be trusted and that humans have to decide in dangerous situations. Some even fear that autonomous cars might incapacitate them, degrading them to being “unemployed” passengers abandoned to their fate. Those writers – all of them passionate car drivers and most of them male – seem to fear a loss of control.

In contrary to what spokespeople from the car industry or research labs want to tell us – namely that driving a car is either exhausting or dull, especially in traffic jams during rush hour – a lot of people enjoy sitting behind the steering wheel. The German Autobahn without speed limits or scenic country roads are places where writers claim to relax and have fun – i.e. places where they are able to perform and live out their masculinity. In an autonomous car, driving would be less individual and more streamlined or, broadly speaking, boring. 

The car of the future, an expression of gender-awareness? (Photo: Daimler)

Driverless cars still represent a paradox

On top of that, it seems paradox that the car industry claims we need more safety, however, the most dangerous driving situations are those considered as the most fun, when automated driving is neither wanted nor accepted.

All in all, automated driving definitely challenges masculinities in car culture and provokes to think about new attributions of gender and technology. We could even think about a “gender-neutral” automobility – even though it is hard to imagine that.

My contribution is not meant as recommendation for the marketing departments of automotive manufacturers. I want to point out that a revolution in the car industry would not only affect infrastructures or the legal system, it might also change our culture and society in places not obvious in the first place. I therefore argue that it is important to take the discussion out of the special interest media to have a fruitful exchange on what society wants and needs.

About our expert:

Anna-Lena Berscheid is a junior researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Paderborn. From May 2013 to November 2014, she was part of the research project “Degendering the Driver? Autonomous cars, Mobility and Gender” under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Jutta Weber. At the moment, she is part of the “Fortschrittskolleg Leicht – Effizient – Mobil” where she conducts a laboratory study on the development of hybrid lightweight materials in an inter- and transdisciplinary research environment. Her research interests are Science and Technology Studies, Gender Studies, Inter- and Transdisciplinarity as well as (Pop)Cultural Studies and Conspiracy Theories.

Our author sees a “quasi-natural symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity.” What do you think: Will autonomous driving challenge this perception? Share your thoughts in the comment section! 

Comments (5)

Dummy User
at 20.04.2016 04:35:21

Symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity

I think you have an interesting premise here, but disagree with your connection of masculinity and car culture. I believe that car driving has created more personal freedom [Show more...]then ever before in history and the resulting pleasure is mostly due to the control people now experience in their lives due to this. The gender bias you pertain to is more likely due to the historical fact that males controlled societies and limited personal freedoms of others in doing so.
In the 21st century western societies in particular have encouraged growth in personal liberties and freedoms across the gender spectrum, and everybody can reap the reward of more control in their life (a basic human need for security).
By the way, I think autonomous cars will only be accepted in taxis and never in personal cars, because of this need for control. The autocars will be able to "protect" people by not allowing excessive speed or dangerous manoeuvres, but only under duress or legally imposed sanctions.
Most people are reasonable drivers, but some driving errors need immediate intervention and this will be easier to implement because it is only an extension of current ABS and anti-skid/lock braking systems. No steering wheel? Forget it. Never happen.
[Show less...]
Dummy User
at 20.04.2016 10:58:28

Reply to Symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity

Car driving, a symbol of masculinity?

Thank you for your comment! A very interesting take on the role of gender and power in modern society. The connection our author sees between the act of [Show more...]driving and manliness mostly derives from the cultural notions of prestige, control, individualism, ruggedness and "flooring the gas pedal"-power that people tend to attribute to driving - and that are also seen as genuinely manly. But you're right: driving as a form of mobility has been delivering an incredible amount of freedoms to people - regardless of gender. And on whether autonomous driving will only be available in taxis and not in private cars: It will still be possible to drive a car in manual mode - even in a future that is becoming increasingly driverless. That way, cars are likely to still have functioning steering wheels that are not just there as cultural artifacts... [Show less...]
reply from other users...
Dummy User
at 20.04.2016 20:00:38

Reply to Symbolic connection of car driving and masculinity

The connection of car and masculinity

Dear petermanson,

thank you for your reply to my text.
As the AD2025 team alrey pointed out, I'm not talking about a "real" bias concerning gender and car driving. [Show more...]I'm rather hinting to a cultural or symbolic connection that clearly has to do with men being in charge of the public space. Cars are "thought" as masculine technology and often represented as such in TV, movies, advertisement and such, even though women are driving as well and as often as men do (maybe even better, according to accident statistics). But your point about the car having brought more personal freedom might be interesting for further thoughts on the topic. [Show less...]
Dummy User
at 20.04.2016 17:14:46

There may be a "Double Standart"

I can mostly agree, with the observations presented in this article.
I, as a speed loving petrolhead, love it, to drive on the German Autobahn with high speeds (especially [Show more...]on a Motorbike) or through the Alps, where driving is more a form of fun than simply a method of Transportation. But I also would love to have a autonomous car for all Situations wich simply arent "fun". Like traffic in cities, trafficjams and 10+ hour long drive to my vaciation.

But not everybody has the money to own 2 cars. Therefore I fear, full Autonomous driving will mostly be exclusive to those People, who have this privilege. For the wide mainstream, automated driving will only be an addon, to a normally drivable Car.
[Show less...]
Dummy User
at 20.04.2016 20:03:53

Reply to There may be a "Double Standart"

The autonomous car as luxury item

I agree that autonomous cars might be luxury items in the first place as all "fancy" add ons in cars are first introduced in the most expensive car [Show more...]series. For me, it is also interesting to think about "mixed traffic" (i.e. automated driving and conventional driving at the same time) - how are autonomous cars going to interact with other drivers (that are, as I showd, considered as dangerous)? [Show less...]

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