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Self-Control & Ignorance & Driverless Cars

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I like a car with an actual key. Not one of those computerized trinkets that needs to be coded and hardwired and that might just die on you at any second. Call me old fashioned (which happens to be my favorite mixed drink). Tell my I'm justifying my keyed budget Hyundai. I like inserting the key and turning it and hearing my engine start. I like that if the little remote thing dies, I can still open my car. The underlying objective though, is that I like that my car is not smarter than I am. It does not try to stay in the lane; there are no corrective measures if I suddenly careen into oncoming traffic, no sensors to beep at me and force my tires back. You might find this dangerous, but I find it unbearably safe. If I cannot rely on my car to keep itself on the road then I must rely on me, and so far I've done a pretty damn good job in that regard. I have the safe driver's insurance discount to prove it.

I used to drive an old (2003) Kawasaki motorcycle, complete with a carbureted engine and a gas gauge that only worked correctly when the bike was nice and warm. I loved that bike. I loved the way it smelled and the deep growl of the engine and the way I was in complete control of how smoothly I stopped, of how quickly I drove, of how I navigated in and out of the thick fray of cars coasting along pacific coast highway. Taking care of that bike was a lot of work-the oil needed frequent changing because it leaked a little bit. The chain needed frequent greasing, and the carburetor needed to be cleaned. That was just the start of it. There is something nice though, about taking care of a machine as simple as my motorcycle was. It was sensical in its arrangement, and predictable in its performance.

The underbelly of my love of keyed cars and old motorcycles is control. I like to feel more in control of my vehicle than not, and I think that's a common and understandable instinct. In a world where so much is outside of our control, vehicles are. Vehicles are freedom and control wrapped up in one beautiful package. Your car is the gateway to freedom, and you are the driver of that freedom. To think that one day, your car will control itself takes the edge off freedom and the poignancy out of a road trip. You're not driving your car to the Grand Canyon anymore. You're programming Google to take you to the Grand Canyon. You thereby become less in control of the journey and more a complicit bystander. I don't know about you, but complicities irk me in a unique way.

When I was younger and someone told me not to do something, I wanted (badly) to do that very thing. It's the same inclination many of us felt when told to wear masks: "Who are you to tell me what to do? You can't make me wear a mask." And while some of us where able to see beyond the immediacy of ourselves, some of us weren't. I figured that if masks help me keep other people safe, sure, I'll wear one. It's a small lift for a relatively large benefit. I really believe that the people who got so upset over masks felt like they weren't in control of their own lives in a much deeper way.

The very idea that any of us have any control over anything is a bit laughable if you zoom out enough. But the one thing we definitely do have control over is ourselves. One of my running coaches used to quote what Charles Swindoll said, "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." In driving, as in anything, Swindoll's quote is true, which is why my parents cautioned me, when I was learning to drive, "We're not concerned about you, we're concerned about other drivers." I still feel that way. I can control how I drive, but I can't control any of the other hundreds of drivers I encounter each day and it seems intuitive to think that I'd have no control over a 2-ton self-driving car, either. Which is why I like keys and carbureted engines.

At the rock-bottom of my inclination toward analog cars and simple machines is not only control, but understanding. It's comfortable to feel like you understand the world to some degree, and the various tools and trinkets; customs and policies that keep our world afloat. It may be my own stupidity or blind spot or lack of interest that drives my disdain of the driverless cars, just as it is the stupidity or blind spots or lack of interest that drives the vehemence toward masks or anything else. Maybe I'm simply craving simplicity in any form, and the vehicle I drive is just one iteration of that craving. After all simple things are usually good, while simple people are usually boring. So, I'll endeavor to be a non-simplistic creature in a boring-but-reliable white Hyundai that has very few bells and whistles, a real key that inserts into a real ignition, and a mask in my console, just in case.

P.S. Read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, read about the psychology of wearing masks, or read the BBC's take on the future of driverless cars.


Sarah Rose

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