Wheels in the Sky

Fantasies of space flight distract from the nightmare of automobiles

The fantasy of flying cars is a durable dream. Every year or so it seems like I read the same article about how flying cars are just about to take flight. They used to mimic coupes, but lately they have come to resemble hobby drones. Whatever is fashionable to consumers on the ground is projected as eventually carrying them into the air.

But despite the hype, such articles tend to reinforce the idea that flying cars belong in science fiction rather than on Earth. A September 2017 article in the Guardian on flying cars couldn’t help but reference both Luke Skywalker’s land-speeder and Back to the Future within the first two paragraphs. Another more recent article, in the New York Times, cautioned that while flying taxis were probably still years away, the “groundwork is accelerating.” This strange description suggests a frantic sub-structural race to become airborne, as if humans had never flown before — as if our planet weren’t itself spinning in space.

Whatever is fashionable to people on the ground is projected as eventually carrying them into the air

Meanwhile, ordinary cars on the ground are facing something of an existential crisis. They have been usurped by phones as the means by which we project an image of ourselves, and it may be that people would rather be scrolling than driving. Picture the furtive, scrambled look on the face of the driver you last saw who was trying to do something on their phone while behind the wheel. They are caught between contradictory embodiments of agency and individual freedom.

At the same time, climate change threatens to flood cities and render automobiles useless at worst and insurance-claim headaches at best. Hurricanes sweep through coastal cities, and news images show stranded SUVs and waterlogged sedans. Our cars no longer promise safe passage, much less sure escape routes. Car manufacturers continue to churn out new models and find clever ways to market them. But our fatal attachment to these things is showing signs of strain.

Consider a recent commercial for the Volkswagen Tiguan, which features an apparently well-off white couple frantically loading their car to evacuate ahead of what the TV proclaims as a “METEOR HEADING TOWARD METRO AREA.” The disjunctive tone of this commercial, which seemed strangely prophetic against the backdrop of Kim Jong Un’s missile launches, is a bit bewildering — part whimsy, part despair. As the couple loads bottled water and a laundry basket into the back of their chili-pepper-red SUV, the wifely figure shouts, “We can fit more!” and the ad cuts to the husband ripping a TV off the wall. A distant flash lights the suburban hillsides in an eerie orange glow. Eventually the Tiguan is turned on, and for a split second all we see are the dials and displays coming to life, as if we’re in the cockpit of a spacecraft from Star Wars — if only this really were a flying car. Cut to a wide angle of the SUV as it is backed out of the driveway, and then the couple races on a smoothly flowing highway to spritely music as the fireball plummets, presumably about to change the world forever.

Whatever is happening in the sky, an automobile is not going to save the day, no matter how deceptively spacious it is. But even as VW reveals consumerist accumulation as somewhat ironic as we sit on the brink of annihilation, it continues also to try to sell vehicles with it — they let you carry everything with you, all your important personal property.

It’s as if car companies don’t know what else to do. They can’t devise an alternative to consumerism’s eternal appeals to individualism, to personal choice and identity projection, even as these sit in stark contrast with the collective doom we face.

If the days of car culture are seen as numbered, it helps explain the search for ways to refresh their presence in our midst. Thus the Tiguan ad uses irony to add fun to our current relationship to cars, and the news stories about flying cars keep us looking wistfully toward a future relationship with cars to come. These treatments of automobility place cars beyond the horizon of environmental or social critiques or condemnation and maintain them in the realm of wonder and entertainment.

If the 20th century championed the rise and democratization of the individual drive, the 21st century might signal the end of it. Around the same time that the Tiguan ad was subliminally suggesting North Korean missiles, another rocket was being prepared for launch — this one with an automobile in tow. In Florida on February 6, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful commercial rocket in operation, in the direction of Mars, with CEO Elon Musk’s personal red Tesla aboard as the payload. Behind the wheel was a mannequin named Starman, steering the vehicle on its ultimate trajectory to the void. In a spectacle meant to foretell a trajectory for human survival involving space colonization, a $100,000 convertible has symbolically been relegated to mere space junk, on a drive to nowhere.

Musk has made space into junk space. Commercial space flight appears not as the future of humankind but the future of egotism

One way to read this spectacle is as a further diminishment of automobility’s already faded promise. Ian Bogost argued in a 2015 Atlantic article that Tesla was “acclimating us to the end of the automobile as an object of desire.” Sending one into space could be read as a metaphoric expression of that; the car is an outmoded piece of trash, a toy, an ornament for a new form of transportation that now nourishes hope and promise. SpaceX ups the ante, flouting global catastrophe and going bigger than mere flying cars in one exorbitant gesture.

But at the same time, the Falcon Heavy launch was also an epic car commercial for Musk’s Tesla brand. In another Atlantic article, Marina Koren described the launch as a shrewd advertising ploy not only for the car but for the commercialization of outer space and a new form of individualism expressed not in terms of what you drive but what you can personally put in orbit: “As commercial companies take bigger and bigger bites out of the industry, the business of spaceflight has become less universal, and more personal.” Musk has become a trailblazer in transforming outer space not into habitable space but into ad space, ready to be populated with name brands.

Beginning with his own cast-off convertible, Musk has made space into junk space. Launching his sports car is less a celebration of car culture than a confirmation of cars as an emblem of selfishness rather than progress. Commercial space flight appears not as the future of humankind but the future of egotism.

A few weeks before the launch, a Dodge Ram commercial played during the Super Bowl that seemed on one level to counteract the selfishness of car culture, equating personal vehicles with self-sacrifice and civic progress. In the ad, Martin Luther King Jr. talks in a voice-over about what it means to serve, as a collage of volunteerism, social work, and military power flashes across the screen. Spliced into these snapshots of courage are three fairly generic clips of the Ram pickup: first as mere headlights; second in full force, splashing through mud; and finally rumbling directly toward the camera at eye level.

Sending the car into space could be read as a metaphoric expression the car as an outmoded piece of trash, a toy, an ornament

As in the Tiguan ad, this commercial presents contradictory messages as apparently cohesive, couching the sales pitch in the insouciant frisson of cognitive dissonance. The ad deploys King, an advocate and practitioner of nonviolent activism, to sanctify a soldier’s poignant return from defending the U.S.’s interests abroad: The final scene shows a soldier in fatigues hugging a boy, presumably his son, in an airport — iconic Eames tandem sling-seats lined beside them on both sides.

In implying militarized scenes of crisis, the Dodge ad seems to cede that the world is becoming inescapably ridden with conflict. No more emphasis on the old staples of car and truck ads, in which romantic country roads and harmonious cityscapes ordain the screen. Instead the Ram becomes perceptible as a Mad Max vehicle for salvaging the Anthropocene: In the ad, a gun case is loaded into a paramilitary helicopter; an injured dog is pulled from smoldering rubble; many men haul something up an icy cliff. Even though there are also clips of football games, children, and even an ultrasound probe roving over a pregnant belly, the ad’s world seems to be trembling on the brink. King’s words come across as all the more moving for how they seem to declare the 20th century as definitively past. We are in a new moment in which those words are little more than memory and marketing fodder.

Recently, I received a junk email from Subaru announcing their latest model: the Ascent. The message invited me to “be the first to own the biggest Subaru SUV we’ve ever made.” I couldn’t help but detect a tone of desperation in this email. It touted Apple CarPlay, Android Auto integration, and wi-fi connectivity, as if trying to steal back some of the glamour from phones. Be the first: as if such a thing were possible when whispered by spam. The biggest: as if that were a badge of honor rather than shame. Ascent: as if this SUV is soaring ever upward, maybe even out into space to join the Tesla. Yet the Ascent is really another plateau, more of the same — just with a slightly higher monthly payment.

Automobility has reached a crisis point, and somehow we’re all too aware of it. The latest car ads scream it. Still sold to the masses as personalized dreams ready to come true, the reality is a nightmare we’re already living. Despite promises of ascent and calls for encore, it’s hard not to take a slightly removed perspective and see an abused planet rotating in space, crisscrossed with tire tracks and littered with the detritus of individual drive.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of OUTER SPACE. Also from this week, Lou Cornum on the search for a space program for the people.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of The Textual Life of Airports (2011), The End of Airports (2015), Airportness (2017), and The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (2018).