It’s possible that the past couple of months have been the biggest era in human history for sitting on one’s ass and watching TV. In our Golden Age of television, we have a vast array of options, some of which include some pleasingly if unsettlingly cynical portrayals of the near future. One show like this, Amazon Prime’s Upload, also happens to have what may be the most prescient portrayal of autonomous vehicles that I’ve seen anywhere.
Now, I’m not going to spoil anything for you if you want to watch the series; but I guess I can give you Amazon’s description to give you a general idea:
In 2033, people can be “uploaded” into virtual reality hotels run by 6 tech firms. Cash-strapped Nora lives in Brooklyn and works customer service for the luxurious “Lakeview” digital afterlife. When L.A. party-boy/coder Nathan’s self-driving car crashes, his high-maintenance girlfriend uploads him permanently into Nora’s VR world. Upload is created by Greg Daniels (The Office).
As you can see, the whole thing hinges on a self-driving car accident; this also may be a first for a television show. The tone of the show is deeply cynical, extrapolating our current reality to a disappointingly plausible (mostly) future, sort of like a goofier Black Mirror. There’s also some of the best predicted corporate mergers I’ve seen, with Panera Bread buying Facebook, and, my favorite one:
Oscar Mayer-Intel, pushing those boundaries of meat. I’ve always wanted a hot dog with a GPU.
Anyway, that should give you enough of a sense about the show in general; let’s focus on the cars, now.
The first encounter we have with the show’s protagonist, it appears he’s looking at a computer screen somewhere. Well, he is, but it’s soon revealed that the “where” part of “somewhere” is in his car:
The windows of the car have the ability to darken and display information and visuals from a computer, which is something many concept vehicles have already shown, and people have been asking Elon Musk to implement in Teslas, just this week.
That seems like a very plausible trait of future AVs, since as soon as people don’t have to use those windows for driving, they’ll either want to use that space for their own chosen content and/or make them opaque for privacy.
Speaking of privacy, it’s worth pointing out that the car has a pair of inward-facing cameras:
There are some current cars that have these, too, like the ones used in GM’s SuperCruise, but since that’s just a Level 2 semi-autonomous car that requires the driver to pay attention, its use is pretty clear: make sure the driver is watching the road.
On a full-autonomous vehicle, the function is less certain, but the camera’s presence does suggest that the car’s owner/occupants have agreed to some degree of surveillance, possibly as part of the system to interact with the vehicle’s AI.
There is also a scene where the protagonist has the car clean its internal cameras, and uses that brief lapse of visual data to the car to hack it and take over the driving, which he controls via a console-style gamepad that plugs in to the dash (surprisingly with a USB-A cable—did USB-C not take off, after all?).
While I’m sure such a hack won’t be this easy-seeming in the actual future, I feel pretty confident similar hacks will be attempted with AVs.
While he’s joyriding we get a good look at some of the general traffic of 2033, at least in LA: lots of those seemingly-popular pod-like AVs, plus some older SUVs, a Cadillac sedan, and a smattering of other cars.
There’s a pickup, what looks like a one-person commuter electric vehicle, but those AV pods seem dominant—I suspect that only 13 years from now reality will still have many more older, human driven cars still around compared to what we see here.
That said, there are shots, like the one above, that show a healthy mix. Is that a Neon way in front, there? A Tiburon? Hm.
The clearly non-AV driving gets the attention of a “SCHP” (Southern California Highway Patrol, I guess?) drone, which asks the driver what was going on, and then interrogates the car for the car’s side of the story.
While I’m not sure it will be done verbally, as we see here, I think some process is not unlikely in the future if an AV needs to be pulled over—the car will be checked for any issues or tampering right there, on the side of the road.
Also, this is a good place to notice all those cupholders, which I’m pretty certain will be all over AVs.
The show is also interesting because, unlike other shows that feature AVs like HBO’s Westworld, some of these AVs are privately owned, and not just shared vehicles.
There’s even an exchange where the protagonist asks the car who owns it, to which the car responds:
“Citibank’s.” But then the guy reminds it he’s making payments, and so on, confirming that yes, this is a privately-owned car.
So many discussions of AVs assume that the future will be all car-sharing, and while I feel like that will be a significant part, anyone who has owned a car knows that a shared car is just not the same, and there will always be a demand for your own personal vehicle, because cars are such personal spaces.
I make an argument for this in my book, and the show reinforces the likelihood of people wanting their own private cars with a scene that shows this:
Yes, boning. Because of course people will be boning in cars they don’t need to drive, and of course it’ll happen in shared cars, but of course it’ll be way less gross to consider if you’re doing it in your own private car.
Hell, they even had sheets! Clearly that’s an advantage of boning in your own car.
This scene also brings up one of the most interesting and telling details of autonomous vehicles in the show, which you can see in the caption there:
“You don’t have ‘prioritize occupant’ on, do you?”
That’s an extremely loaded line, and it implies a whole host of regulations and concepts around AVs and what society in this future has decided. I’ve been wondering about this very question for years, so it’s interesting to see it so casually mentioned in a show like this.
Most importantly, it implies that the owner gets to decide how the vehicle interacts with the outside world, safety wise, either prioritizing the occupant of the car or prioritizing pedestrians or drivers outside.
This suggests that this choice is not mandated at any sort of state or federal level, which means that the AV landscape could be a bit more unpredictable, since not all the cars are playing by the same set of rules.
The manner by which the protagonist asks his girlfriend about the setting also is loaded, as it feels like there’s a bit of a social stigma against “prioritize occupant,” at least among some segment of the population, which is also a plausible idea.
Whatever the setting, we do get to see an AV not see a parked truck and wreck, too, with an implication of hacking. Anything with a computer and a connection has the potential to be hacked, so I think this is a reasonable prediction, too.
It is implied that such accidents are very rare, though, and many people have trouble processing that someone would have been hurt or killed in an autonomous car wreck. In fact, there’s no seatbelts shown in use, or deployed airbags of any kind, which implies an awful lot of faith in the car’s driving abilities.
I don’t think this is likely, though, at least not as soon as 13 years from now. I’d think cars would at the very least retain passive safety systems like airbags.
Another possible TV first is seeing an autonomous vehicle junkyard, which is pretty fun.
The junkyard scene also establishes that AVs are expected to be recording everything to their cameras while in motion, and those files should be retrievable.
Other cars used in the background are interesting as well. There’s a Fiat 500 there on the left, and on the right we see what seems to be the next-most common car in the show, after the egg-like AVs, an Electra Meccanica Solo.
I suspect these were picked because they’re uncommon and look futuristic, but in context of the show I read them as a lower-tier basic transportation option, still human-driven, at least in part (no need for side mirrors on a self-driving car, after all) but still modern and electric.
We also get to see the interior of at least one other type of autonomous vehicle, this one larger and seemingly a bit more luxurious than the ubiquitous egg-cars. This scene also tells us that, for whatever reason, New York doesn’t have many self-driving cars.
Upload is easily the first show to integrate the idea of self-driving cars into the plot so deeply and seamlessly; there’s enough hints dropped around via the dialog and production design to sketch out the future of autonomous vehicles, and, while it appears to largely work, there’s some big questions, like the vulnerability to hacking and the inherent ethical and logistical issues that would be caused by letting owners decide how these machines should value lives, and whose lives should get priority.
It’s very interesting to see it all. Oh, and I should mention, the show also has one of the grimmest yet plausible visions of the future of air travel that I’ve seen, theorizing a miserable new class called Economy Minus:
I think maybe I’d rather just be anesthetized and loaded like cargo.
Upload has proven to be entertaining, and I’m impressed with the thought that went into the portrayal of the automotive landscape. If you’re still shut in, I say check it out. It’s not like you don’t have time, right?