For many people, buying a new car is a culminating adventure. It reflects all the best we see in ourselves. Marketers want consumers to believe that cars are sexy. That is an amazing sales job. Really. What would make a Jaguar sexier than a BMW or a Ford Focus? Is it the sleekness of the body? Probably not because lots of the world’s sexiest women have curves. Is it their perfume? Is it their come hither headlights? Is it their dazzling bling festooned as trim? Is it those dizzying hubcaps? Is it the manly pose or those virile engines, growling their way out of the showroom looking for a fight? Is it their sense of adventure, with their four-wheel drive, charging off to the wilderness with conveniences unavailable to the grant rajahs when they traveled the Silk Road? Of course, given the number of four-wheel drive vehicles sold these days, if we all go to remote places, it will get very crowded very fast. And there will be nothing to do once we get there, except to compare each other’s trim packages and all-purpose gear racks.
Sure, one can buy a car for its sexiness but I ache for something more practical and less prone to harassment. I mean if you’re sexy, people (and maybe other cars) are going to appreciate you less for your brain and more for how good you look even if those looks come at the expense of plenty of visits to a factory trained mechanic. In any case, after driving my 2006 Toyota for 250,000 miles and almost ten years, I decided to buy a new car. Because of technological advances these days, a lot happens between the old model and the brand new one. It is like going from driving a tricycle where finding the bell is obvious and the gizmos are simple to commanding a B-52 bomber where access to the radio is cleverly hidden behind a series of branching commands and where pushing the wrong button gets you ejected from your seat over North Korea.
My new car is a Prius Prime. It is much sportier looking than I am; no matter how much I try to dress like a hipster. We are style-wise a serious mismatch. My car looks like a Batmobile would if it cared about fuel efficiency and I am more like a sub-subcompact sedan.
I understood these differences when I bought the car and harbored some reservations about the incongruence of me in this car. Would my friends think, “Uh oh, mid-life crisis” even though mid-life is just a distant memory for me?” Would they think, “Uh oh, she forgot to look at the front of the car to see that the grill actually looks like it is growling and the curved back looks like someone got stuck in a yoga pose gone wrong?” I am tired of conversations with friends who say they couldn’t live with “that car” in their driveway. It is sort of like introducing your bad new boyfriend to your family when you know that they are thinking, “I need to check this guy out on Google to see what sort of criminal record he has. This will never last.”
So, I accepted that the style of the car and my own were in conflict. What I didn’t comprehend until I drove the car for some time was that we were intellectually, spiritually and romantically at odds as well. Over the first few months together, several encounters made this clear. For starters, I have a lovely friend named Janet. She is nearly twenty years my junior, always nicely dressed, mannerly and exudes a cool intelligence. If someone guessed she was a professor of American Studies, you would nod, yes, of course. Janet visited me about a month ago and I was driving her back to her car, showing her my car’s cool features. Things went well until I was demonstrating the voice-activated commands. It is supposed to be possible to direct commands to the car for help with directions, phone calls, weather reports and other tasks. I pushed the activation button and said, “Directions to Home Depot.” Instead, she suggested Italian restaurants. Wrong. I tried again doing my best to enunciate HOME DEPOT, the way one would address a friend with new hearing aids. She asked me to lower my voice. I turned off the feature before I said something obscene and potentially abusive, which may have been reported to the Cloud as mistreatment. I know we (the car and I) are supposed to be developing a relationship and that the voice activation system needs to get used to my voice. Understanding that, I didn’t want say something I would regret for the rest of our lives. More important relationships have been destroyed by less.
So we decided to have Janet try. “Directions to Home Depot,” she asked pleasantly. The car replied “Home Depot. There are several in your area. Which Home Depot do you want? Please say the number.” And sure enough a list of Home Depots appeared on the screen for us to choose from. Easy. No problem. Now, there is no question. Janet is prettier; she is smarter (she has the better degree); she is younger; she has a non-identifiable accent. All that can be stipulated and agreed upon. But, really? Telling me to lower my voice and then throwing me over for someone the car has just met? Really? This is driver friendly? Seriously?
My partner and I have taken some long trips with the Prius to see how well she knows her way around. We are getting used to the ways in which she understands the world. At her very core, the Prius is a worrier. When I activate Navigation, in addition to providing turn-by-turn directions, she warns, “Twenty miles ahead on the route, stop and go traffic.” “Five miles ahead on the route, slow traffic.” Too much information, for me. I don’t know how much of this advance notice I want because once you reach that location twenty miles down the road, actually the traffic moves well after all. All that worry for nothing. Maybe, this is a way to build more gratitude into our lives. I don’t know. I do think about how helpful this technology would have been earlier in our history. “Flooded river and washed out bridge ten miles ahead on the route” or “Twenty miles ahead on the route, the cavalry has been wiped out by a flank of marauding Huns” or “The Ice Age is about to descend. Recalculating the route.” Or maybe dispense with all the traffic information and share instead some wisdom accumulated over the years, like “you will find in your life’s journey, many blessings disguised as problems,” some Eastern philosophy, maybe. It is a Toyota, after all.
When I got the car, it took me a long time to get used to the new technology. Push buttons and dials must be old-fashioned and fifties retro. Everything is touch-sensitive. It took me a week to figure out how to turn on the radio and another week to learn how to turn it off. I spent another week trying to learn how to turn on the rear window wipers and then found out that there were no rear wipers, after all. The back window is too curvy for wipers, I guess. The glove compartment is jam packed with manuals—one for the car, one for navigation and another couple just for fun. The manuals are so poorly indexed and so clumsily written that they are virtually useless. They are as obscure as the Bible in Aramaic and I fear I will die before the easier to read King James Version of the user manuals are written. I pulled out the instructions to learn how to plug in the car to charge it. It actually is one of the easiest things to do in this car. The charging cord has two ends, one goes into a three-prong plug and the other goes into the car. This process was explained in twenty pages and if I had read the instructions, I would have never been able to connect my car to the charging post. It was so full of warnings about inadvertent electrocution that the manual should be used to deter criminals from capital crimes.
It should also be noted that technologically we are in a transition period. As the digital acolytes would console us, the machine-human interface improves all the time. We don’t understand our computers and they don’t completely understand us, either. At this point, the Prius talks too much for my taste in situations where silence and rectitude would be the best measures. She tells me when I am stalled in traffic, not always right away, but right about the moment when I am about to ask her, “Why the heck did you bring me this way?” If things get really trafficky, she does offer “Traffic up ahead. Do you want me to re-route this trip?” But she never tells you ahead of time what that means until after you agree to let her have her lead, sort of like trusting that the horse knows his way back to town. Suppose my car’s computer has been hacked and I am being led to a den of Russian spies or worse yet, a worse traffic jam or to a platoon of Humvees, organizing and eager to run over tree-hugging environmentalists like my car and me. To reach a compatible relationship, I accept that I have to trust her decision-making and she has to trust mine as well, which I sense she is less and less impressed with all the time.
So, sometimes there’s too much information but there are also instances when she is silent when she should speak up. This is exactly like when you are driving with your partner who is giving you too much advice and you suggest that when they are driving, they can be boss of the damn road. Then, they get sulky and instead of warning you that are driving off a cliff, they simply shut up for revenge. Then when you ask why they didn’t warn you, they simply say, “If you are so smart, you don’t need any help from the likes of me.” This silent treatment is illustrated by another encounter with a friend.
So about a month ago, I was driving a friend back to her car. My car was showing off, pointing out directions and being very accurate and trustworthy. Actually, over-involved, I would say. We were talking and I turned the wrong way down a one-way street. My friend didn’t notice but I did. I screamed at the car, “Hey, why didn’t you say something?” and banged the control panel. She remained silent for a minute and then said, as she has many times before, “Recalculating the route.” No apology. No sense of the potential harm done. Sometimes she repeats this so many times, I am pretty certain she is in a trance, reciting this mantra until she regains her composure. (I might do the same when I really mad as well.) I have no proof of this but I am pretty certain I detect in her voice that she is arching her left eyebrow and shaking her head in weary disbelief. I also know that the computers in the car are connected to some cloud where the vehicle and headquarters transmit information back and forth to each other—mainly about me, I suspect. I know that her assessments of my driving behavior are landing up in some big database or being written to my car’s little black box. There is no way to challenge this secret channeling of information. I have mentioned to the car that I have due process rights to confront my accuser but she pretends not to understand my point.
The car also has “safety enhancement features—the lane departure notice, the crash detector, and the pedestrian alert system.” These are handy enough. You can easily de-activate these with a simple command although imagine explaining to a judge that you hit the pedestrian because you unplugged your warning switch. “Your honor, in a gesture of recklessness, this faulty human deactivated the pedestrian warning system, with the obvious motive of striking my client.” If you have all these systems, warning you all the time, beeping and flashing and applying the breaks, pretty soon you are ready to hand over the driving reins to the car itself. And, of course, that’s where we are going, of course. It may be that my Prius is not that into me but we can find a way to co-exist. Either she needs to develop social skills or I need to be a better driver. No way that is going to happen. And, I must admit, if my 85 year old self can climb into my car and have it take me to the opera without my supervision, all well and good. I can be a backseat driver with her fully in control, as into each other as machines and humans can comfortably be.