Illustration by Brett AffruntiCar and Driver
I love my autonomous car. In fact, I'm in it right now. Hi there! I'm waving, but you can't see me because my autonomous car doesn't have any windows. Why would it? "Oh, hi, I need to be surrounded by transparent panes of melted sand so I can see where I'm going," said the caveman or a guy from 2019. It is too bad that the local windshield factory shut down. Same with the steering-wheel plant. But that's the price of progress, and I love my autonomous car. With a few minor caveats.
Like, okay, sometimes we argue over my playlist and the car gets really condescending. You see, it likes to play a 56K modem dial-up sound—but, you know, constantly. And I'll say I don't enjoy that, and it'll be, like, "I bet you don't like Radiohead, either" and just shut off the infotainment system. Then if I complain, it'll lie and say it's downloading a system update and there's nothing it can do.
That's the thing about riding in autonomous cars—you're giving up control. That's the bargain. You delegate duties and surrender decision-making to AI. Most of the time, that's fine. I used to sit in traffic and seethe at humanity. And yeah, I still do that. But now I can do it while looking at my phone.
I'm still grappling with road rage. Not my own, of course. But my car gets pretty salty sometimes. The other day, we were exiting the highway and there was a long line for the rightmost lane. Then, just when we were getting close to the exit ramp, this other car busts up on the left and tries to cut in at the front. "Oh no you don't," said my car, getting right on the bumper of the vehicle in front of us, which was an Amazon Centaur, the car that's also a storage unit. But this thing kept coming, trying to edge in. My car got so aggro—really painting the line cutter with lidar and threatening to hit its inductive charging pad with an electromagnetic pulse—that it backed off. "I guess some cars think their time is more valuable than everyone else's!" read the sentiment ticker on the holo-dash. I said it's not worth getting worked up about, but that's easy for me to say. I wasn't driving.
Occasionally, though, I am. Everyone thought that autonomous cars would totally displace human driving, but that's not the case. I can take over whenever I want. I've got a projection of the road and gesture-based controls instead of a steering wheel and pedals. It feels goofy at first, sitting there holding an invisible wheel and working imaginary pedals, but you get used to it. Sometimes I do it just to show that I know how to drive. Not that I'm very good at it anymore. I suspect my car compensates quite a bit. Like when that delivery drone dropped a box of chow mein right in front of us, it seemed as though the car started swerving before I did. Then it congratulated me on my quick reflexes in a way that felt a little sarcastic. But it's hard to tell with cars. Volvos in particular have a dry sense of humor.
I'm in the minority on this, but I don't enjoy interacting with my car. I prefer to imagine it's on cables, being pulled around, rather than independently making life-or-death decisions. Like when I asked my car, what if there were a fork in the road and one side led into an active volcano and the other ended at a button that started a nuclear war? No, you can't just stop!
And it's not as if it's a perfect driver. Mine hates parallel parking. Even when there's a spot right in front of where I'm going, it'll claim that there isn't room. Isn't room? You'd have maybe three feet on either end of you. So I just hop out and it keeps searching for a spot. But then when I call for pickup, the battery is superlow. "Don't worry, we'll be fine," the car tells me. I swear it gets off on gambling over whether we're going to make it where we're going. But everybody's car has quirks. I have a friend whose Chevy goes to Waffle House whenever he says, "Take me home." Ouch!
Self-driving cars aren't flawless and probably never will be. But it's still a new thing. My car is, what, a '24? I'm sure in a couple years, they'll be even better. I bet the 2126s will be able to drive in the snow.