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things 14
summer 2001
Talking taxis
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Jane Stevenson
Talking Taxis

I don't know if navigation is commonly cited as a cause of marital breakdown, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were. Most spouses, surely, have a collection of horrific memories of journeys in which the navigator was squinting at the map in the half dark at the fatal moment when the absolutely essential sign emerged from its concealment behind a hulking container-lorry; the third lefthand turn was taken instead of the second, or someone said left when they meant right ... while the driver, meanwhile, screamed or was sarcastic according to temperament, the emotional temperature in the car rose to boiling point, and before anyone could stop themselves both parties were staring ahead, white with rage, having a filthy row about something else entirely.

Not, it would seem, in today's Germany. I needed to get from Hannover to Wolfenbüttel, a long, but not absurdly long, way: the projected journey involved a taxi from the airport to the train station, a train to Braunschweig, another train to Wolfenbüttel, and a second taxi. Suffice it to say, I wimped out and took a taxi to Wolfenbüttel. The driver surprised me a little by asking for my exact destination before we started. I was considerably more surprised, as the journey proceeded, to find that the car was talking to him. 'In three kilometres, you will come to the exit. Move into the righthand lane...this is your exit. Turn right. Now turn right again ... you are now on the 513. Go ahead for twelve kilometres...' There was also a little display on the dashboard, which showed the precise shape of each junction the car was approaching. I was struck dumb with admiration, the more so, when the car, with the necessary assistance of the driver, threaded us smoothly through the one-way system of Wolfenbüttel, a small Baroque town not notably friendly to vehicular traffic, and stopped literally at the door of my temporary home.

The utility of all this is obvious. The technology, doubtless, is extremely complex, and I couldn't begin to understand it. What seemed to me interesting about it was the social dynamics involved. What gender is a car? Traditionally, we have referred to large and bulky objects, particularly ships, as 'she'. In the early days of motoring, cars were 'she', presumably because they tended to break down more often than not and demanded a great deal of fuss: Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, owned a car called Mrs Merdle. However, on the theory that the advertising industry knows a fair bit about the psychology of men and cars, it would seem that the vehicle of today is perceived by many a man as an extension of himself, as it were, a mechanical prosthesis in which he can act out a fantasy of himself as a fast-moving, aggressive and solitary being. The more expensive and faster the car, the more blatantly the advertising suggests that this is the case. So, how to deal with a car which takes over? My taxi driver's car was a woman -- not a girl. She spoke in a firm, pleasant contralto suggestive of maturity. She sounded as if she knew what she was doing, and her tone was perfectly neutral, without aggression or flirtatiousness. As I sat in the back, contemplating this technological miracle, I began to think what she reminded me of. A nurse in a private medical practice. '...Cough ... now stand up, please. Thank you, sir...' A senior secretary. '...You'll get into Charles de Gaulle at 10.15, Sir Simon. M. Dupré will send a car...' All the legion of women whose competence is taken utterly for granted, even by the sorts of men who think they believe women can't cope. So competent, so self-effacing, that the responsibility they take is completely invisible. Which is, of course, why the driver can let the business of navigation out of his hands; if he wants to think of the vehicle as in some sense himself, then the fact that he has acquired an obedient and competent secretary need not diminish the fantasy. I was deeply impressed, but it still all left me feeling that the women's movement has a long way to go. 

things 14, summer 2001

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