The Untouchable, Patriarchal World of Autonomous Vehicles

Nick Rabb
7 min readOct 5, 2021
“A video still from a mounted camera captures the moment before a self-driving Uber SUV fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz., last March [2018].” Tempe Police Department/AP

These days, there are only so many stories that I can read about the so-called “frontiers” of technology before I have to take a break and reground myself. There is only so much masculine bravado, social ignorance, and blatant indifference to quality of life that one person can take.

The writing and realities surrounding autonomous vehicles are bursting with reasons to need a breather. From fatal crashes where the company is not held liable, to origins in the imperialist goals of European men, autonomous vehicles are a prime example of how the unaccountable tech industry serves the culture of power — whether practitioners know it or not.

The uncritical lens through which we hear about the exploits of tech “visionaries” imposing their will on the world is pervasive. By examining just a few instances of the discourse surrounding autonomous vehicles, we can gain insight into a much larger pattern that has been true of my experience in and around technology: that it systematically and unaccountably serves the interests of the powerful, does so in a way that is highly patriarchal and white supremacist, and by nature of being so, is communicated to the public in entirely uncritical ways.

Autonomy for Conquest

An important question to begin with is asking, “Why autonomous vehicles?” It’s not entirely obvious what utility they provide to the world. It turns out that there are several layers that answer this question, yet the ones which most reliably do so are all in the business of commercial or imperial conquest.

If you believe the promotional materials on company websites like those of Aurora (formerly of Uber) and Waymo (formerly of Google), you will see that ideas like “safety,” “accessibility,” and “freedom” are among the most emphasized. The idea that driver-less cars will save lives is one of the strongest marketing points made by the companies. This is likely emphasized for multiple reasons, but one among many being that one of Uber’s self-driving cars killed a pedestrian in Arizona, hitting her at 40 mph and dragging her 75 feet to her death.

Without clear evidence for future utopian safety being heralded in by autonomous vehicles, it…

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Nick Rabb

PhD candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer w/ Dissenters, MA Peace Action, formerly Sunrise Mvmt. Philosophy nerd.