If there is a phrase the back of my windshield has heard more than any other, it’s “Come on,” usually shouted. Like most gearheads, I get frustrated with others on the road. They’re content to simply commute, distractedly glancing at the road once in a while, while I want to drive. I want to brake a little later, accelerate a little faster, and generally glean some enjoyment out of transportation. Not being able to do this because I’m stuck behind someone afraid of the rain can be maddening. But will it be worse when that Prius merging onto the highway at 35 mph is actually driven by a robot? Will the madness force me to ride in a robot of my own?
The #youths are all #tweeting about #autonomous cars like they’ll be available to the masses before the next Avengers movie. Since the birth of Tesla’s Autopilot system, the robotic takeover has been on everyone’s minds, and our microwave society believes they’ll be able to buy fully autonomous cars in no time. While car culture among #youths is far from dead, studies have shown that a large portion of the population would prefer to just let the car do the work of driving. And while I wish all of these boring people would have instead helped to establish a decent train system so they could get off the road, autonomous cars are coming. They may be 20 years out, but they’re coming.
Typically, the knee-jerk reaction among gearheads is one of fear. Once the robots become mainstream, we think, they’ll outlaw everything else. Driving ourselves will become too dangerous. It’s an understandable line of reasoning. After all, you can’t buy a new car anymore without airbags, ABS, or crumple zones. A steering wheel delete could just be another government mandated safety feature.
But right now, today, in every state, you can get into your 1908 Ford Model T and drive it legally, even on most highways. Self-driven cars won’t be outlawed in our lifetimes. But maybe our restrictions won’t be legal in nature. Maybe it will be a question of mental and emotional health. Maybe the other autonomous cars on the road will simply wring us crazy enough to assimilate.
My aforementioned frustration with slow, distracted, fearful commuters is at least tempered with the fact that they’re humans. I try not to get so angry at humans. They make mistakes like me. They have their shortcomings. But machines? Let the rage gates open wide. My computer probably needs counseling and a restraining order after some of the things I’ve said to it. I’ve had phones that probably quit out of emotional turmoil. They’re dead, but it was probably at their own hand, to end the torment. When machines don’t work, I get mad.
What happens when I get stuck behind one of those? How much louder will I scream? Will I leave any of the leather on my steering wheel? How much of it will I digest? Will I arrive to work and scramble out of my car on all fours, drooling and hissing, before slamming into the plate glass windows of my office, thinking them an open entrance? My hair matted with mud and 5W-30, I’ll be studied by universities and the psychological community until they diagnose me with automotive insanity.
You might argue that autonomous cars will annoy and enrage me less, because they won’t be in my way in the first place, but I’m not buying that for a moment. No, there will be no perfect, clockwork grids of mid-subsonic transportation pods, seamlessly weaving around each other in a lovely pattern. That’s called a Japanese train system, and we’ll never have one. Robot cars will not solve Traffic, and for two reasons: First, as I said above, there will be human drivers for a long, long time. Humans introduce a beautiful irregularity that computers will never truly understand. We’re spontaneous. We swerve around or slam the throttle open for the sheer heck of it. This will freak the robots out, and they’ll slow down, annoying me, who will be stuck behind them, breaking my fist on the center stack.
Second, robots will slow down for the same reason humans do: comfort. Humans slow down when water falls from the sky or when they can’t concentrate on their Snapchat feed, because it makes them uncomfortable not to. Robots already make humans uncomfortable. The last thing the robot cause needs is to swerve, brake late, or accelerate hard, making humans even more uncomfortable. That would never sell. Instead, they’ll coddle their squishy human passengers, with only the slightest hints of movement. Like an elevator in an old hotel. The technology is there to make them incredibly fast and exciting without endangering those inside, but that’s not going to happen.
So when I’m all out of human buffers to filter my slow-rolling vitriol, what will I do to stave off the ensuing madness? There’s only one real answer. I’ll have to ride in a robot myself. I’ll have to assimilate.
It makes sense. I like riding trains or planes. I don’t even mind riding in cars as long as I can distract myself from the fact that I’m not driving. Just watch the scenery. Read an article. Don’t think about how much faster I’d be going if I was driving. Don’t think about it. DON’T.
Just ride along. Safe, happy, sane.
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.