With the rise of automated cars soon to become the norm in a few decades, and the promise of rising insurance rates for actual humans driving their vehicles, I’ve been thinking about what the future of road travel will mean.
I think back to my days in school, when we would read classic novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which some of the narrative’s plot rested on vehicles and their impact on society. Nick Caraway spends some time meditating on Gatsby’s car, and how it compares to others on the road. Cars fill Gatsby’s lot for every party, Gatsby himself gushes over his ride, Jordan dies in a road accident, etc. Back then, in the 1920’s, having a vehicle was a sign of wealth as the lower class could not afford them. These days cars are a staple of American society, absolutely necessary to commute to a low to high end paying job. The lower class can afford them (if they are willing to offer an arm and a leg, i.e. debt) yet the higher classes still attain the most well constructed machinery.
Elon Musk has developed automated cars that drive themselves, known universally as the Tesla (affectionately named after famous inventor Nikola Tesla). He has gone on to make his invention even more affordable to the lower classes, starting at $30,000 USD (which, while still out of many people’s wage range, is fairly affordable considering the price for a first model Tesla began at over $200,000 USD). It’s important to note that these machines aren’t fully automated yet. You can set them on a course, and have them drive on their own, but you are still behind the wheel, ready to take over with a moment’s notice.
If the characters in The Great Gatsby were to test drive a Tesla these days, I’m afraid they wouldn’t make it out of the parking lot without having a stroke.
It’s incredible that science and technology have advanced so quickly within a hundred years of publication of Fitzgerald’s novel. But it’s also a huge paradigm shift for humans, as once again we will have to come to grasp with the idea that we are advancing. Again. We’ve had plenty of time to evolve, and in the last two hundred years we’ve seen exponential growth. Are we ready to accept, just within one hundred years of the Ford Model-T’s manufacturing, that someday soon we will never manually operate a vehicle and the mere idea will be reserved to wealthy enthusiasts, once again?
I received my first car last August, in 2016. My ex-girlfriend poked fun at its small size when I first brought it home to Maine, having made it’s own trip from Costa Mesa, California to Worcester, Massachusettes where I picked her up using my own means of public transportation. She nicknamed my car “Blueberry”, as within certain lighting the car’s black paint appears midnight blue, or rather the deep blue of, you guessed it, a certain sweet and sour fruit.
At first I resented the nickname, because part of me had wished for more cabin space, and for my car not to resemble a blueberry. It was a great car! Why such a silly name? I grew accustomed to it however as I drove across the country in my little car, deciding to adopt the name to hinder my past feelings and to spite my bitter ex. These days I can’t imagine a better name for my darling vehicle. If anything were to happen to my Blueberry, I really don’t know how I could move on. Sure, I could get another car before her natural end, but it would just feel wrong.
When I exited the car of the Uber driver who drove me to the Worcester Mazda dealership, I was in awe at the sight of my Blueberry, stationed on the tracks of the shipping truck. The driver saw my wondrous gaze and patted my back. He had an accent I couldn’t place, maybe Italian, with a mix of Boston native? “First car, kid?” he asked. I nodded, my mouth dry with anticipation. He laughed. “I remember my first pair of wheels. You’ll love it, kid. She drives like a dream.” He proceeded to drive it down off the tracks and into the small visitor parking area where I stood. We installed the car’s plates, which I stashed in my backpack along with a Philip’s head screwdriver, the registration papers, a bottle of water, a bag of trail mix, and a towel (as Ford remarked in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “a towel is one of the most important items in the known universe”. I paraphrase, but you get the point).
Soon I drove it off the lot and I was off, stopping only for a two hour pit stop wherein I had Autozone install a fresh battery (but that’s a whole other story). I was hungry and tired from literally travelling all day long. I had just taken that day off from work, and needed to go back to my telemarketing job the following morning. It would be a two hour drive home, through Route 128 to I-93, and then I-95, in the dark. Which was a huge bummer. Not that I was opposed to driving at night (I still love driving at night far more than during the day) but I would have hoped to come home early enough to eat dinner with my girl and share in the excitement of my first car.
Something happened on the drive home, however, and this is difficult to put into words but it inspired this blog post, so fuck it. I began to feel myself merging with the car. At one point I felt my body slip away from me, and suddenly I had become Blueberry, and she had become myself. It sounds odd without an anchored reference, so try this: in the culturally celebrated and infamous anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, three young teenagers grow up in a post apocalyptic version of the year 2000 and are forced by the adults around them to pilot giant robots known as mechs. Their neural networks and consciousnesses literally merge with these machines, and they have full control over these mechs. The downside here being that if the robot, say, gets its arm cut off or is stabbed through the chest by an alien enemy from the deep reaches of space, while the pilots will physically be fine, mentally they feel every bit of pain that the mech feels. They are literally bonded on a neural level, which can be extremely overwhelming for the pilot.
That is how I feel when I drive my Blueberry. Not that I’ve been encountered aliens on my daily commute, but rather I feel deeply connected to my vehicle. My mind merges with the machine, and I become faceless and outside of myself. Driving through the Angeles mountains can be exhilarating , reaching high speeds and taking sharp turns. It feels like a dance. Every turn, stop, acceleration, and bump on a curb, I feel too. Sometimes I even like to take a breath before putting the car into drive, and close my eyes for a second – long enough that you wouldn’t even see me do it – and when my eyes open, I am in sync with my machine. I am the pilot. I am Blueberry. We are one.
And that’s how I feel when I’m driving my car.