Though they’ve only taken center stage in the transportation debate a few short years ago, everyone is beginning to realize autonomous vehicles are A Thing. Lately we’ve seen outlets from Car and Driver to Automotive News roll out packages that assess the future of driving. Now The New York Times Magazine is spending this week publishing stories about cars and how we’ll get around. You should read it.
This is ominously called “The Tech Issue: Life After Driving”, and we’re eager to see what they get right. Like a lot of mainstream outlets, the Times doesn’t always nail it when it comes to cars, but much of their coverage is objectively better than, say, the stuff you see on cable news.
And the Sunday magazine is one of the best parts of the NYT’s operation, a thoughtful and memorable assessment of what’s going on. This is probably worth a read if you care about where we’re moving.
The package was unveiled yesterday, starting off with a deep dive on Tesla. Writer Jon Gertner got access inside of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Fremont, California, in addition to access to Tesla workers and executives. Going to the Gigafactory is about as crazy as you would expect.
Perhaps the only thing as impressive as its size is its cloak of secrecy, which seems of a piece with Tesla’s increasing tendency toward stealth, opacity and even paranoia. When I visited in September, a guard at the gate gave militaristic instructions on where to go. Turning to my Lyft driver, he said severely: “When you complete the drop-off, you are not to get out of the car. Under any circumstances. Turn around and leave. Immediately.”
Among the things discovered there: Tesla coffee.
“We think of this building as a product, because it is a product,” my guide told me as we walked alongside a production line. Every machine had been scrutinized, every inch mapped out, every efficiency contemplated. Tesla had taken the highly unusual step of setting up a separate entity to take full control of the building’s design, engineering and construction, reflecting Tesla’s D.I.Y. ethos to achieve levels of vertical ownership and quality control that its executives believe are unreachable otherwise.
The company had even concocted its own Tesla blend of coffee to serve near its cafeterias. “If we cannot get exactly what we want from the world,” one executive told me, “then we have to go do it ourselves.”
All of which was fairly inspirational until Gertner ran into a common reporting problem with Tesla: Their utter secrecy, secrecy to an extent that you wonder what could possibly worth being so secret about. And, remember, Gertner was invited in.
The company’s evasiveness and secrecy extended to self-driving cars, a subject it was unwilling to discuss in any detail. One Tesla engineer I spoke with, who works on autopilot systems, maintained that the company’s camera and sensory hardware will prove good enough to get his team where it wants to go, which as a near-term goal means cars with a self-driving capability that is twice as good as a human driver (rather than 10 times as good, per the second master plan). By November, Musk was telling investors that the actual goal was to get the system simply on a par with a human driver and that that might require a more powerful computer in the cars, which Tesla would swap in free if necessary.
My theory is simple. In our capacity as humans, we have three speeds at which we operate: crawl, walk and run. In other words: extremely slow, slow and slightly less slow. When we engage with equipment that increases our velocity, we become excited. This excitement applies in all cases, whether we’re talking about an escalator, a moving walkway, a bicycle, a roller coaster, a golf cart or a Chrysler LeBaron.
It is fundamentally thrilling to travel at an unexpected speed. When the enabling mode of transportation is one that permits our excitement to be processed as erotic energy — even if that processing is specifically legislated against — some of us will do that. The distance between “excited” and “stimulated” is, after all, incredibly short. If there were a way to have sex on a bicycle, people would be bike-sexing all the time. It would have its own verb.
Tomorrow, the mag will examine whether Ford can turn itself into a tech company, and on Friday, we’re promised a story on “how to make cars cooperate.”
Car enthusiasts and people who love to drive should be actively engaged in the conversation about the future of transportation—more so than most, we’d argue—so check it out and consider what’s coming.