My British friend Paul Maconochie was once riding in my car as we returned to my home from a retreat. He asked how far it was to the house. I replied, “Only an hour and a half.” His response was an English proverb: “An American is someone who thinks a hundred years is a long time, and a Brit is someone who thinks a hundred miles is a long distance.”
Where our European forebears were all about time, we in the United States are all about space. From the colonists to the Lewis and Clark pioneers, North Americans have been people on the move. Freedom for a North American is the agency to move unimpeded through space.
Of course, the great symbol of this agency is the automobile. Perhaps the greatest historic multiplier of the impact of the automobile was the 1956 Eisenhower interstate highway system, which led to mass individual auto travel. Perhaps the next multiplier will pertain to the evolution of the car itself.
Some innovators are suggesting that the evolution of cars will look more like a revolution. Much of this discussion centers on the future of driverless cars. When Google, Tesla and Uber are developing prototypes, you can count on these coming to a neighborhood near you sooner than you might first guess. They will indeed come, as early studies are showing that driverless cars will be far safer. Not only will there be frills like automated parallel parking, but essentials like crash prevention through automatic speed adjustment and braking based on traffic conditions. I do predict, however, that the path to driverless cars will be bumpier than expected. Cars are archetypes in the U.S.; they are, as a teacher of mine once said, “the ultimate power symbol.” It will be very hard for some drivers to give up the power inherent in driving.
I’m not going to be one of those hesitant to give it up, however. I’d gladly cede control of the wheel in the service of getting other things done. And this attitude provides a clue to the other coming trend in cars, travel, and autonomy: the car as a roving work space. Already we have seen that “remote work arrangements” are surging in popularity. Soon enough, companies and individuals will figure out how to multiply efficiencies between auto travel and productivity. According to Professor Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech, the car will become a conference room. Mercedes-Benz is already designing future cars as “digital living spaces.” Some futurists are claiming that smart cars will auto-adjust for traffic conditions (sort of like Waze for the masses), pick you up and drop you off at the airport (wouldn’t that be great), and transform the parking-lot-dominant landscape of cities.
We’ll see. How highly-automated smart cars will play nice with pedestrians and bikers, and how they will deal with emergencies (ice? what happens if the grid goes down?) will determine how quickly we move into this future. I’m not seeing George Jetson on the horizon just yet, but I do believe it will be normal for my baby granddaughter to get a very different sort of driver’s license than the one I got.
Already the church is dealing with an increasingly mobile population. What will we do once people are enabled by smart cars to be in many different places more rapidly and more frequently? Will it bring the homebound and kids to church? Will families head of town even more frequently once transportation hassles are automated away? Will worship attendance frequency patterns become even more erratic and unpredictable?
In-person community in the form of the congregation gathered will always be indispensable to the life of the church. But we’d be wise to explore fresh expressions of what it means to be “gathered,” especially as cars figure out new ways to scatter us to the four winds.