Last week GM CEO Mary Barra spoke with Business Insider about GM’s projected autonomous technology, and how it could turn your car into a “second office,” so you won’t have to wait until you get to the office to start working. I understand this. An hour more each day to answer emails, do research, and have some digital face time with clients would be helpful, especially for a CEO like Barra. But I don’t want it. My commutes are a refuge for a primal, archaic part of my brain, a segment quickly rusting over with neglect. Nine hours alone in a car will have it in fighting spec again, and I need that desperately. Here’s what I mean.
Have you noticed that online movie trailers now have 2-3 second “micro-trailers” before them? Click play and you’ll get all the shots you would have otherwise been surprised by in the trailer, before the green MPAA screen. Hollywood does this to get viewers to stop scrolling and watch the rest. They grasp at the short threads of our rapidly dwindling attention span, hoping we’ll help them recoup their overbudget summer investments on release day.
Microtrailers are just another indicator of our shift into short-form information gathering. We read tweets instead of blog posts, headlines instead of articles. We scroll through Facebook and see short, silent, autoplaying videos of war crimes and atrocities, juxtaposed with birthday greetings, witty comics, baby news, and burnout compilations, all in a handful of seconds. Our minds are forced to ping-pong between emotions and reactions, never having time to process any of it on a meaningful level.
What does this have to do with a manually-driven solo trip across the bland and boring American Midwest?
It’s an escape for my mind, a long, solitary period when it can relax into one task: keep the car on the road at speed. It’s a return to the human brain’s roots, a chance for it to be itself again.
See, for the vast majority of human history, most of us worked at simple tasks for all of our lives. Run the plow, herd the sheep, turn the pots, forge the tools, copy the texts, clear the fields. We became accustomed to repetition and simplicity in our work. Many of us worked alone. We became experts at what we did, focused and specialized, proud of what we knew how to do well.
Does that sound like a contrast to what we do today? Now we must be experts on everything. We must be able to transition between very different tasks, many times a day, often with separate goals. For example, today I need to write this post, edit some photos, schedule out some social media, gather data, and work on a host of other ongoing projects. Our inputs, too, are wildly varied, thanks to the wonders of the internet. Even our relaxation is complex and arduous. How many movies are in your Netflix queue? How many services like Netflix do you have access to?
I’m not going to make statements about how good or bad this is. There’s no doubt that the more information we have, the more we can learn, the better off we’ll be. We’ll adapt as we always have, of course. But there’s a part of me that seems to lag behind the pack, that longs for the simple task, a job to focus on, all day, and do well.
Back when I bought my $760 Civic, I spent an afternoon polishing the valve cover. Just that. Just sanding and polishing from crusted grey to brilliant, silver aluminum. It was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had in the garage. Many of our relaxing hobbies are in this category: simple, patient craftsmanship.
This is why I love my annual Christmas drive back to my home town. I can put a book on and just listen and drive. I know where I’m going, where I’ll stop for gas. I’m in no hurry. I can focus on doing one thing well, rather than one hundred things passably.
This isn’t quite relaxation. Barra’s full quote about autonomous GMs was:
“Whether it’s a second office or entertainment, I think there is a lot of new opportunities when you have that person in the vehicle.”
I don’t quite want that, either. As much as I love movies and TV, I don’t want to spend my road trip whittling away at that Netflix queue. Driving manually is just a different kind of work. A kind I don’t get to do often enough.
Road trips with people are fun, too, but different. Human interaction, especially over a period of several hours, can be far more complex than any day at the office. Each of us is an internet. That can be stressful. Driving alone all day seems to call up ancient, genetic memories of some unknown ancestor of mine guiding sheep across the green hills of Ireland, his only conversation with the livestock and the Almighty.
So I’m counting on those long, straight highways to keep the single-task lobes of my processor strong.
My new car, an ’06 Civic Si has a 6th gear, which should be great for low-RPM cruising, and seats just bolstered enough for spirited driving, but not enough to squeeze my titanic frame uncomfortably, as some bolstered seats have. As tempted as I am to turn it into a wannabe race car, it’s quiet right now. The muffler is aggressively so, which is annoying around town, but will probably come in handy for a full day out on the blacktop river. The stereo is even good, so I’ll have no trouble hearing my books, or switching out to the ’80s mainstream rock and ’90s Christian underground I seem to strangely favor on my road trips. The headlights are bright, the tires are good, the alignment is true.
All of this should make for the ultimate simple task in the modern age, and I can’t wait.
What about your road trips? Do you prefer to drive alone, or would you rather the robots handled it?
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.