Together, Alone: The Car as Shelter in the Pandemic
The role of the automobile has been reinvented in the coronavirus era. Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time.
It took a pandemic to give the automobile its new role. When people pack up their families and friends, they can still adhere to social distancing rules. They remain under a roof, within closed doors, sealed off and separated from the rest of their fellow human beings.
Mobile safe distancing has generated a new way of life — a society on wheels.
The trend has transformed communities and businesses. Drive-in theaters are experiencing renewed interest. People picnic from sedans and pickup trucks. Birthdays, baby showers and graduations are celebrated by waving through Windows.
Gossip is conducted on roadsides. Drivers who would normally speed by each other in isolation are bringing their cars to a standstill, using them for kaffeeklatsches.
“They are like the ultimate P.P.E. — you can really seal yourself into them,” said Peter D. Norton, an associate professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who studies the history of technology.
There are curbside pickups of groceries, hardware and toilet paper. Moviegoers starved for a little fresh air can hitch up to an old-fashioned listening device at a newly refurbished drive-in theater. Laundromats are taking in bundles handed off through car windows.
Do the new pandemic rules mean this is a turning point in society’s relationship with the automobile, or just an extensión.
“I think there are some continuities here,” Dr. Norton said, noting that cars have long been thought of as a way to shield ourselves from a hostile world.
“There is the old cliché of the white suburbanite in what they think of as a dangerous neighborhood: They roll up their windows and lock their doors,” he said.
“In most cases, it is a response to a perceived danger,” he said. But there are also troubling implications, he added. One is that “safety is something we expect you to buy in the form of an expensive machine that is not sustainable and not affordable to everyone.”
While much of life has been reimagined online, from conference calls to Zoom video chats with grandparents, vehicles have allowed people to trim several degrees from that virtual separation.
Cars have allowed their owners to widen their worlds. Quarantine zones can be uprooted from the four walls of a home and transplanted within the doors of a car.