Autonomy and Automobility

Autonomy and Automobility

June 01, 1995

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As the automobile enters its second century, it is increasingly attacked as a public malefactor. The fact that automobiles cause deaths and pollution does not seem sufficient to explain the intensity of the opposition to them. These are only its costs; what we still must account for are its benefits.

The focus of this paper will not be on the many and varied instrumental uses to which the automobile is put, but on what is intrinsic to automobility — the capacity to move oneself from place to place. Automobility directly complements autonomy — the distinctively human capacity to be self-directing. Automobiles enable us to extend the scope and magnitude of our self-direction, and for that reason they are worthwhile.

  • Automobiles allow us to choose where we will live, where we will work, and to separate these two choices from each other.
  • Automobiles enhance knowledge. From watching geese fly to Canada, to visiting a battleground, to attending an opera, no form of transportation combines local maneuverability with extended range to the degree that the automobile does.
  • Automobiles enhance privacy. While public transportation is not always bad, and sometimes is the only viable alternative, it necessarily encroaches on privacy. The automobile is for 20th century American society the quintessential bastion of privacy. The failure of diamond lanes and other car-pooling inducements may be viewed as a failure of policy, but it can also be seen as a result of the valid human desire for privacy.
  • Automobiles allow control over one’s immediate environment. Surely one reason for the fondness people hold for their cars is the scope of control over this environment, which is not possible with any alternate transportation mode.


In short, what is conspicuously left off the balance sheet of automobility is its intrinsic goodness of promoting autonomy.

When compared with alternate means of transportation, the automobile is the prime vehicle of self-directedness. Its most strident critics are well aware of its relationship to autonomy, and that is precisely why they are so wary of it. People who drive automobiles upset the patterns spun from the policy intellectual’s brain. They wish to drive, and their exercises of choice also have the effect of rendering the planners’ conceptions moot.

In the end, highways are so heavily used because millions of people judge that driving enhances their lives. The striking feature of the critique of highway building programs is that what should be taken as a sign of great success is instead presented as a mark of failure. But the only failure has been with the critics’ attempts to talk people out of their cars and out of the neighborhoods and workplaces that their cars have rendered accessible. This failure is well-deserved. Automobile motoring is good because people wish to engage in it, and they wish to engage in it because it is inherently good.