Self-driving Cars

Aug 1, 2015

They say self-driving cars are coming. I say they’re here. I rented a car last week that didn’t leave very much of the driving to me.

My own car is 20 years old, so the changes I experienced this week have probably been emerging slowly. I’ve been technologically asleep when it comes to automobiles, but sometimes Rip Van Winkle can see things more clearly because nothing helps awareness like a couple of good decades’ sleep.

First, the car wouldn’t let me start it. There’s a key, but not for the ignition. In roughly the same place there’s now a button you press to start the car, with a light that indicates whether it’s on. I hit the start button, but it wouldn’t start unless my foot was pressed against the brake pedal. Thankfully, when the car refused to start, it didn’t know where my foot was; only that it wasn’t where it needed to be.

Cars have gotten smarter, but this bordered on sentience.

   

Once the engine was running, I could back out of my parking space. Once in reverse, the screen that told me where to put my foot now showed me where the car was going. Superimposed over the camera image, the car drew lines to show where the car would end up if I continued, not unlike how commentators use grease pencils to embellish sport replays. The car did all the work. There was nothing for me to turn my pretty little head about.

Admittedly, the actual driving was still up to me. I could set the cruise control if I wanted to give up this small modicum of control, but I wasn’t about to do that. Meanwhile, the car was busy deciding where the air conditioner should blow its air, based on which seats were being pressed on.

Door locks went down as soon as the car started moving. Whether that was locking others out or me inside was not a question I dared to ask.

The passenger side air bag was automatically disengaged when no one was sitting there. When somebody was, the car chimed like a department store elevator until the seat belt was fastened. I tried to trick the car by piling books and luggage on the seat beside me, but it wasn’t fooled. Somewhere in its circuitry, it was snickering at me.

It told me how far and how fast I was driving. It showed my fuel efficiency — or rather, its own fuel efficiency when driven by the likes of me.

Once it started getting dark, I worried that I didn’t turn the lights on. Later, when I saw they came on automatically, I worried that couldn’t turn them off. Then I worried that I had too little to worry about. When I stopped the car, the headlights went off and the dome light came on. These cars have been watching us. They can predict our every move.

I exited the car, feeling disconcerted. Then I heard a rhythmic beeping. There were no other cars around, so I knew I was now in conversation with my rental car. Like a crying infant, I wanted to ask what was wrong. I checked the tires. They didn’t need to be changed. I had noted the fuel gauge. It wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t too warm or too cold. So what exactly was the problem?

The car had been uncooperative when my foot was in the wrong place. Now it was unhappy for some other reason. We were in conversation about my personal failings. The car and I were in an uncomfortable relationship, in a parking lot. Cars have gotten smarter, but this bordered on sentience.

It turns out I had left the key in the center cupholder. I wondered if its rhythmic beeping was Morse code for “You moron!” The key and car talk to each other, using a radio signal to determine whether my finger on the button and my foot on the brake should start the engine.

This sudden surge of technological competence leaves me feeling infantilized. I haven’t yet filled its tank with gas, but I’m pretty sure one of us will want to be burped afterwards.

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each year for Jefferson Monthly and blogs at www.dksez.com.