I just finished a very long, trans-continental drive. I enjoyed it. That's not to say long stretches of it weren't boring, tedious, and I spent most of the drive fighting off the powerful claws of Road Madness, but overall there's something therapeutic about a nice long drive. Too bad the robot cars will take that away.
Before I go on, let me make something clear: I'm not against autonomous cars. I think they have a great potential to fundamentally change how we live, and in a positive way. Sure, there's plenty of issues we still need to work out, but autonomous cars are very likely to be safer and more efficient.
That said, I don't ever see a day when I won't, at least some of the time, want to drive my own cars, on my own, without help from any friendly robots. Part of this is because I, fundamentally, just love to drive. And another part of this is something I only just realized while driving in a boring, straight, fast line through America's emptiest parts: I don't always want to be productive.
I don't work in an office, so it's already hard to separate my working and non-working life. My Jalopnik writing and design work takes up a good amount of time, and I'm always researching and looking for new ideas. I'm also working on a new art installation and a book, so down time is pretty rare, and most of that I like to spend with my wife and little boy. I'm "productive" — in one sense or another — almost all the damn time.
So when I got behind the wheel of that BMW and set off for the long journey West, a part of me was really happy that, for a good chunk of hours at a time, I wouldn't feel like I needed to be writing or researching or sketching or anything like that.
I was driving. That's it. I was watching the road, listening to music, piloting that 3000 or so pounds of metal and rubber and glass down the long ribbon of asphalt, and that is precisely all I needed to be doing. Sure, there were plenty of things I needed to do, but they'd all have to wait. Because I was driving.
It's sort of like being able to take a dump for an 8-hour stretch — one of those very few times when no one can really ask anything of you.
Autonomous cars will give us the freedom to focus on other things while in the car, and, in granting us that freedom, will destroy the freedom we once had to not do shit. The time you spend while driving on a long, boring trip eventually trancends the grey miasma of boredom and becomes something almost meditative.
Part of your mind is occupied; you're adjusting the throttle, you're steering, you're remaining alert for other cars or a misguided armadillo or whatever, but other parts of your mind are free to rest and wander.
This wandering is where new ideas are often born, where realizations come about things that your mind is normally too occupied to find. There's real value to letting your mind wander as you wander in your car, and as soon as we no longer have to drive, we can lose this valuable opportunity.
Once the car is doing the driving, you can pretty much expect that car will have some manner of net access, and that means you and your laptop or tablet or dental implant can take advantage of transit time. Sure, it could be spent relaxing, but let's be honest: for many of us, a net connection and hours of free time just means work will happen.
And, sure, in some cases, that may be great. Hell, I probably could have written bits of this book that I haven't even really started yet. That time could have been spent very, very productively.
Luckily, I had to drive instead.