Essay

Wheeling It

"We drive, drive, drive on the motorway. We drive, drive, drive on the motorway." In their masterpiece of the same name, Kraftwerk have dedicated themselves to people's great passion: driving. Our author Konrad Paul Liessmann happily thinks along with them. Thoughts about driving.

  • Essay
    Konrad Paul Liessmann
  • Photos
    Matthias Mederer • ramp.pictures

Driving, driving, driving . . . Clear across the country and back, in summer and in winter, through towns and villages, to the sea and over the Alps. Driving, driving, driving . . . But how is it possible for us to do that at all? Humans can do many things. They can hop and jump, walk and run, swim and dive, they can stumble and fall, and sometimes even walk upright. But two forms of movement are denied to them: they cannot fly, and they cannot drive.

The thing with flying is simple. People saw that other animals could do it. And we began to dream of doing the same, of overcoming gravity and gliding through the air. But humans have no wings, and it took centuries for this dream to be realized using sophisticated technical solutions. But how did humans come up with the idea of driving? There are no animals with wheels that we could have used as a model. Like the deliberate use of fire, driving is one of the activities that sets humans apart from all other creatures. The fact that we are no longer part of nature is demonstrated not least by this strange form of locomotion.

Driving requires a tool. Presenting: the wheel. It is precisely this and no other invention of man that makes driving possible. If you drive, you drive on wheels, and if you don’t drive on wheels, you don’t drive at all. The wheel, which now dominates our civilization in many ways, is a late invention of man, probably not much older than five thousand years. There are few natural models for the wheel. It is possible that rolling stones or rolling tree trunks inspired people to invent the wheel. Though not all wheels, for example a potter’s wheel or some ritual objects, are used for getting around. The ancient cultures of Central America were familiar with the wheel, but they knew little about its practical applications. They did not construct carts, perhaps because they lacked the proper draft animals.

Two or four wheels connected by an axle, the invention of a steering mechanism and horses to provide animal power: the original form of the vehicle that made driving in the true sense of the word possible was born. Everything that was added over the next millennia – bodywork, spokes, tires, different sources of power – did not change the principle behind driving. Even the internal combustion engine only replaced the horses of a carriage, and anyone who has any respect for themselves and their car still expresses its performance in metaphorical horsepower and not in physically exact kilowatts. But what exactly do wheeled vehicles do? Well, for one thing, they make it easier to transport goods of all kinds. And on the other hand, they have greatly expanded our radius of movement: the wheeled vehicle also allowed people who could not ride a horse to get about more quickly. So the invention of the wheel, as we can see, also had an emancipatory component.

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“Driving, driving, driving on the autobahn. Driving, driving, driving on the autobahn. A broad valley stretching up a way. The sun shining down with sparkling rays. Driving, driving, driving on the autobahn. Driving, driving, driving on the autobahn. The road a gray ribbon, white stripes, green edge . . .”
From “Autobahn” (1974) by Kraftwerk
Kraftwerk, 1974

When we talk about driving these days, we’re not simply referring to the fact that we are being moved along by a wheeled vehicle, but that we ourselves are doing the steering. This means that the vehicle is being operated by our hands or feet and that we must react physically to critical situations. If you’re being driven, i.e. transported, you can remain motionless. This is especially true for passengers in the rear. The front passenger, who can at least follow some of the maneuvers, is not just a passenger being taken along by the driver, but a companion who engages with the driver, who accompanies the driver mentally and physically, shares their destinations and routes, and sometimes takes the wheel himself. Going on a journey together is different from merely occupying the same vehicle or travelling the same route by chance.

When you’re driving, you’re not alone. The feeling of roaming the countryside all by yourself is deceptive. Even if not always around, the community is always present: as the road.

The aura of driving is inextricably linked to the promise of freedom that comes with driving. Though this aura is currently threatened by the specter of self-driving cars. A sophisticated algorithm can now control the vehicle, and the occupant is transformed from the master of gearshift, transmission, engine and wheels into a passenger. But is it even possible to say that someone who is being driven is driving? The American philosopher and avowed supporter of the combustion engine Matthew B. Crawford, author of a voluminous philosophy of driving, sees the utopia of the self-driving car as an attack on everything that constitutes the pleasure of driving and the essence of the car.

When you’re driving, you’re not alone. The feeling of roaming the countryside all by yourself is deceptive. Even if not always around, the community is always present: as the road. Gray ribbon, white stripes, green edge. Far too rarely do we consider that roads are not a gift from God, but the result of human activity, created to make driving possible in the first place. With the exception of off-road vehicles, cars have always required the construction of wider roads and paths in order to make reasonably efficient progress. In contrast to pedestrians or horse riders, who can negotiate rough terrain, conventional wheeled vehicles fail at the slightest obstacle. If you want to drive, you not only need a suitable vehicle with a suitable source of power. You need a surface that allows the wheels to roll easily, turning driving into an experience that you can enjoy.

In the idyllic glorifications of endless journeys through endless landscapes, the road appears as if it were a piece of nature. But this is by no means the case. The construction of paved and secured roads requires a developed society with a division of labor that combines geological knowledge with material mastery, craftsmanship and political foresight. Roads are places of encounter and conflict, symbols of territorial claims and an expression of increasing mobility, with all its economic, social and military consequences. Historians therefore consider the quality and density of a road network to be a reliable indicator of a civilization’s level of development, while the deterioration of such a network is a clear sign of cultural decay. It is astonishing how little thought is given to this mundane reality – just think of all the road movies – during the romanticization of the road.

Driving, you stay down to earth. The driver is bound to a surface, even if there is no direct contact to the ground. The wheels act as ( … )

→ You can read the full story in ramp #63 "Happy on the Road".

ramp #63 Happy on the Road

ramp #63 Happy on the Road

Glücklich auf der Straße? Sowieso. Für ein anständiges Autokulturmagazin ist so ein glückliches Unterwegssein gewissermaßen nur eine bereits konzeptionell hinterlegte Pflichtveranstaltung. Nach und nach – und mit etwas Glück (was sich hier ja fein ins Thema fügt) – entwickeln sich diese Emotionen in der Summe dann vergnüglich zu einer Affektbasis, ...

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