Anything that takes guesswork of ordinary commutes can only be a good thing. More often than not, driving is a pain in the seat.

When pictures of the Google autonomous car prototype started flashing through my feed on Tuesday night, I immediately thought: This is it. The car of my dreams has arrived.

It wasn't because of the design. The prototype looks like a Tamagotchi, or, at worst, some kind of futuristic suppository. And it wasn't because of the minimal performance details that Google announced. Twenty-five miles per hour is school-zone speed, or empty-parking-lot speed. When I think of autonomous cars – and I think of them a lot when I'm in stalled highway traffic, two miles from home but 30 minutes or more from a cold tall boy – I like to imagine that they can at least approach current highway velocity.

As for the no steering wheel, gas pedal, brake, or gearshift, well, that sounds fine to me as well. Anything that takes guesswork of ordinary commutes can only be a good thing. More often than not, driving is a pain in the seat.


Neal Pollack is the award-winning author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including Alternadad, Stretch, Jewball, and Downward-Facing Death. His journalism, essays, and humor pieces have appeared in Vanity Fair, Wired, GQ, Esquire, Slate, Salon, and just about every other English-language publication except for The New Yorker. When it comes to cars, he's definitely an industry outsider, but he enjoys writing about them. He lives in Austin, TX, with his wife and son.


Google self-driving car

If you want to feel the thrill of downshifting, you can always sign up for a track day, or take your kids to K1 Speed on a Saturday afternoon.

Not everyone agrees. In a Car and Driver blog post this week, magazine Editor-In-Chief Eddie Alterman wrote, "those too timid for the dust and heat of the open highway have finally created the perfect device with which to torment the self-determined. The autonomous automobile is here to steal our freedoms and turn us into soft-brained, incapacitated jelly people on the road to an Idiocracy event horizon."

That's the predictable response. For the dedicated gearhead, one who's delusional enough to believe that the "heat and dust of the open highway" actually constitutes an essential non-dystopian human experience, I can see how this new Google toy might constitute a worst-nightmare scenario. It began in the mid-90s when the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight appeared on the event horizon. They were vehicles that were more like efficient computers than machines to be tinkered with and retrofitted. They weren't fun to drive in the traditional sense, but they were fairly easy to operate and inexpensive to own. Then came the Nissan Leaf, which furthered the Pokemon-ing of automobiles, followed by a brief reprieve with the Tesla Model S, the new-era car that even car guys could love.

But now, with these published photos of the Google autonomous car, and with the overwhelmingly positive public response, all the driving nuts are waking up screaming. For them, this is worse than the ending of Brazil, where the dystopian bureaucrats permanently brainwash and rob us of our freedom. For the rest of us, it may be more like that movie's dream sequences, where we fly free, unencumbered by life's soot and garbage, at last. Could it really be happening? Finally?

The real revolution here doesn't involve the end of driving, which can be really fun in a controlled scenario, even if it's still supremely dangerous. Rockcrawling in a big-ass truck is a great weekend leisure activity in an off-road park. If you want to feel the thrill of downshifting, you can always sign up for a track day, or take your kids to K1 Speed on a Saturday afternoon.

Google self-driving car

But this Google car heralds something potentially much more exciting: The end of near-mandatory car ownership.

Having a car is a huge, expensive hassle that daily puts you in contact with some of the worst aspects of humanity. You find yourself in the thrall of intractable government bureaucracies, at the mercurial whims of law enforcement, and at the mercy of insurance companies. You're constantly at risk of getting ripped off by untrustworthy mechanics. The average driver spends hundreds of dollars a month on gas, the definition of a limited, wasteful commodity. A survey just came out that said that accidents cost us nearly $900 billion a year, and that's just money. There are still nearly 35,000 deaths every year on the road.

This Google car heralds something potentially much more exciting: The end of near-mandatory car ownership.

When you're in a car, you have to deal with other drivers, who are distracted, or tired, or incompetent, or, worst of all, intoxicated. You play a huge game of chicken every day, strapping your kids into a 4,500-pound bomb on wheels to get them to soccer practice. It's a necessity for most people, but often a massively stressful one. Traffic is a major hassle that makes us all sick in the head. Is this something you really want to romanticize?

Instead, let's look at the world that Google posits: You don't own a car. Instead, you summon an autonomous vehicle when you need one. It arrives. You pay a small fee, punch in your destination, and it takes you there in a reasonable amount of time. You can do whatever you want during the process. Then the car goes away until you need one again. Beep boop beep boop. There are no added insurance costs. You don't have to pay for repairs, or haggle with a sleazy dealer over options packages, or set foot in the DMV ever again, or buy gas, or take a stupid online "comedy" driving school because you got caught going seven miles over the limit in a poorly marked one-block school zone, grumble grumble.

In his Car and Driver entry, Alterman says that in Google car land, "your life will become exponentially worse." But that doesn't sound worse to me. It sounds like heaven. As a friend of mine in Austin put it on Facebook: "One day, I will stumble drunkenly down the middle of 6th Street as self-driving cars quietly move around to avoid me. I eventually make it to my own self-driving car, and tell it 'Whataburger. Taquitos. Now,' right before I pass out in the couch in the back seat. I wake up the next day in my driveway with lukewarm taquitos waiting for me. The future is beautiful."

Mercedes-Benz S-ClassHyundai Genesis
BMW i3

The privately owned combustion-engine vehicle will eventually combust, and so will all the sleazy businesses and government agencies it supports. It can't happen soon enough.

This magnificent cold-taquito evolution is happening. Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and BMW all have driverless cars in the pipeline. Many high-end cars are already featuring beginning versions of the tech. Driving the Mercedes S-Class (above, upper left) barely takes any effort at all. At the first drive of the Hyundai Genesis (above, upper right) last month, I took my foot off the pedals, and even the steering wheel, for several minutes. It was great, but not enough. I wanted to drive even less.

I got a little pre-evolutionary taste of what that world might be like last fall, when I participated in the first drive of the BMW i3 (above, bottom) in Amsterdam. The car was compact, made totally from recycled materials, didn't burn a lick of gas and operated with a one-pedal drive that meant I had to use the brakes twice in about six hours. It also came equipped with a fully-integrated suite of smartphone apps that could tell me when traffic was getting too intense, advise me to pull into a parking spot where the car could be charged, and give me directions that would allow me to take public transportation or even, God forbid, walk instead.

The i3 is a car you have to own, and a premium one at that, so some of the usual hassles apply. But it gave me a partial glimpse of an in-vehicle world that was quiet, cozy, and simple, far beyond the noisy, cluttered, stupid, dangerous and depressing driving scenarios we face now. It was a hope for a more modern, less expensive and less polluted future.

Whether or not the Google car ends up becoming the world's dominant vehicle – the mammals munching on the dinosaur eggs – or a more traditional manufacturer takes over the reins, its time has come. We're due for a massive transformation of the way we get around. Cars are fine, but the car-industrial complex is not. The privately owned combustion-engine vehicle will eventually combust, and so will all the sleazy businesses and government agencies it supports. It can't happen soon enough.


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  • 192 Comments
      rbnhd1144
      • 9 Months Ago
      The End of driving! Why not take a bus cab or train???.
      carnut0913
      • 9 Months Ago
      What about that intro was supposed to interest me into reading further? -and I haven't
      Joeviocoe
      • 9 Months Ago
      Resisting the Automobile Opposition Much of the rural opposition to automobiles was waged chiefly at touring motorists. Farmers claimed tourists posed a danger to stock, horsedrawn traffic and even crops. Opposition to automobiles ranged from plowing up roads, barbed wiring roads making them impassable to boycotting car-driving businessmen who attempted to conduct business with farmers and even refusing to support politicians who owned automobiles. While most horsebreeders were put out of business by the horseless carriage, blacksmiths, carriage makers, and livery stable operators might adapt their operations to accommodate the new machines. This blacksmith converted his shop to an early service station of horseless carriages. Reconciliation began when the unparalleled service the automobile provided during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 served to entrench its usefulness and relative reliability in the mind of American society. 200 privately owned motorcars, a caravan of motortrucks led by Walter C. White, and 15,000 gallons of gasoline donated by Standard Oil were all part of the relief effort in post-quake San Francisco. Dr.Williams in his car Physicans were one of the first professions to widely adopt the automobile. The more reliable and faster auto ensured that housecalls, particularly to rural patients could be easily undertaken. For example, Dr. Thomas Williams (shown at right), who was the first pysician in Palo Alto to own an automobile, drove a 1906 Autocar. Ford's Model T introduced the automobile to a wider American buying public. With the introduction of this hugely successful car, opposition to the automobile, already in decline, virtually vanished . http://www.moah.org/horseless/horseless.html?KeepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=600&width=850 ======================================== Sound familiar?
      Gorf
      • 9 Months Ago
      Sweet, Now when the NSA sees "suspicious" phone activity (or anything against the goverment) your car will drive you to prison and park in a cell block.
      Ryan
      • 9 Months Ago
      Everyone remember the Steeri? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf1xR2kX3rU
      David Nguyen
      • 9 Months Ago
      I'm a huge car and racing enthusiast. I also can't wait for semi-autonomous and autonomous cars because I'd rather be on the road with those, whether in one or not myself, than with the human drivers we have now. As for driving, I enjoy it most when it's a) on the track and b) not in traffic. If the manually driven car goes the way of the horse and buggy we enthusiasts can still get our kicks. Equestrians still have plenty of places to ride these days even if they don't tend to use horses on the road.
      raughle1
      • 9 Months Ago
      Get off my lawn!
      Ryan
      • 9 Months Ago
      The killer app for this is to turn it on for those long drives across Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, or out West... If you can go 60 mph over the night while you sleep in the car, you will be much closer to your destination in the morning.
      Skean
      • 9 Months Ago
      Well then you might as well shut down this website. How about them apples Neal?
      Firefly
      • 9 Months Ago
      I'm just sitting here enjoying the comments! LOL!
      Cursethedawn
      • 9 Months Ago
      Welcoming our Google overlords.
      Ross
      • 9 Months Ago
      Well, if the end of self-driving cars is coming, then the end of car enthusiast community is not far behind...and if that's the case, Neal prepare for unemployment because without this community you'll be looking at unemployment in no time. Additionally, signing up for track days is out of question for many car enthusiasts, many of us want the enjoyment of driving embedded into our hectic lifestyles.
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