Vehicle entering tunnel

Above: Vehicle entering a tunnel. Credit: Burak Kebapci.

Motorway in Sweden

Above: Motorway near Gullmarsplan, Sweden, 2016. Credit: Johan Arthursson.

Tunneling effect

Above: Optical effect, 2016. Credit: Clickphoto Switzerland.

Tunneling effect

Above: Tunnel effect at night, 2011. Credit: Boyan Brenn.

Motorway tunnel

Above: Motorway tunnel. Credit: Johannes Rapprich.


The modern high-speed road transport system (in the Developed West at least) has created a specific landscape consisting of road signs, way-markers, blinking hazard warnings, flow-direction indicators, concrete architecture, contra-flow systems, crossing points, underpasses, roundabouts, etc. Taken all together these produce a nauseating and banal no-man's-land that is dehumanizing. The art-and-connoisseurship-of-travel has been replaced by movement through a landscape of transit. The driver travels in an affectless state with no thought for the geography-and-culture that he passes through. The modern road-user "leaves himself behind," when he sets off, he enters a special state of being-in-transit, during which, psychologically, he is "no longer himself (AD: 75)," and his "body is dead (CD: 38)."

The view through the driver's windshield is compulsive--and horrifying. The driver is trapped in a role between an actor and an agog spectator. Depthless objects loom up and then instantly vanish in a "suicidal" phantasmagoria. The vanishing point on the horizon "becomes a point of attack sending forth its lines of projection onto the voyeur-voyager [i.e., the vehicle driver] (NH: 101)." The road ahead appears as a macabre diorama-like immersive stage-set a view which is "opposite to stroboscopy which allows us to observe objects animated by rapid movement, as if they were in slow motion, [whereas] this dromoscopy [by contrast] displays inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement (NH: 101)."

Where once travel could "broaden the mind" today the opposite is true: the driver on a modern motorway is reduced to (or induced into) a semi-hypnotized, trance-like state. The driver certainly has no relationship to the scenery that he moves through. In his fast-moving vehicle he is not functioning at the level of the local whatsoever. He is locked into travel mode (UD: 75-76). As the speed of travel increases, the driver's view is reduced solely to that of the road only just ahead. Travelling at high speed, the motorist tends to stare fixedly ahead of him through his windshield, he is blinkered--he cannot risk to look to the left or right. The driver of, say, an F1 racing-car, reaching its maximum speed (around 325 kp/h) will tend to experience a "tunneling" of vision, as he becomes increasingly focused on the road ahead, to the exclusion of all else. Beyond a certain speed of acceleration the driver no longer sees the world around him in any ordinary way: he sees only a tiny zone of the on-rushing road up ahead, "when we drive faster than one hundred and seventy miles per hour, we are no longer ourselves. We are plugged in. It is no longer a philosophical, reflective activity, but a pure reflex (CD: 150)." (It is an added irony of course that however fast the F-1 driver travels he is doomed to continuously return to his starting point.)

For Virilio, the "tunneling effect" is becoming a pervasive phenomenon facing the modern driver "the faster we go, the more we look ahead in anticipation and lose our lateral vision (ADF: 37)." In this tunneled state, the driver is forced to live only in the present moment, he is in fact trapped in the present moment--driving at speed can be described as a form of induced nihilism. At the level of the street, the physical construction of a road has become really an indispensible component of high speed automobile transport--much as the perfectly flat and smooth racing circuit is a requisite for the speed of F1 racing. The highway surface is integral to the speeds reached on the autostrada; it is a component now of a larger machine, it is a "static machine (OS: 79)." Many recent urban-vehicle self-driving prototypes (from UNO, Audi, Tesla and many others) reduce the driver to the role of a "fundamentally incapacitated (GA: 69)" voyeur-voyager moving around in something like a high-tech mobile armchair.

It might also be remembered that the automobile is a pre-requisite for much criminality. The sedan--with enclosed trunk--has, since the 1930s, been a basic machine which enables kidnappings (forced disappearances), smuggling, drug-trafficing, the transportation of illicit substances (including explosives); drive-by shootings, and so forth (SP: 49).