Driverless Cars and the Great American Road Trip

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Photo by Doug Kerr via Flickr

I went back to Williams this past weekend for a rugby reunion. Lately when I go back, I like to fly into Boston or New York (vs. Albany which is closest), and tack on an extra day to see friends. In theory this is about making the trip from the West Coast worth it by seeing more people, but in reality it’s just as much about the drive.

The Taconic is one of my favorite stretches of road. The first time you drive it you can’t quite place what makes it feel so different from other roads. Then it hits you: there are no shoulders. Two feet to the right is a curb, and then grass. It makes for an incredible feeling when driving, so little separating you from nature.

Something amazing happens when you take a drive like this. Your mind has to focus just enough on the road and how fast you are driving (because OMG the Taconic is cop city!) that the rest of your mind is free to wander. To drift off into neglected corners, resurface long-forgotten memories, and offer up weird ideas, steered only by the sights out the window, the soundtrack playing, and sheer freedom.

And it got me thinking: what does a driverless car future mean for the Great American Road Trip?

I have taken dozens of road trips throughout my life. The cross-country trips during college from Massachusetts to California and back. The trip that only lasted 10 miles before my Jeep’s engine melted in a freeway-side fire. Down and back up the East Coast visiting friends. The trip where we spilled a bottle of cleaner the first day, ensuring that our Vanagon smelled Fantastik® the whole week. The 15-hour trip from Chicago to my summer internship in Florida where I needed to drop off my stuff at an apartment then get to the airport to fly to a Williams reunion, only to miss my flight by ten minutes. I-40. 70. 80. 90. And I swear I will do the 10 at some point.

“It’s about the journey, not the destination” is often applied elsewhere as a metaphor, but in the case of the road trip, it’s literal.

It’s about stopping to check out the miniature donkeys you just saw a sign for. It’s about finding that great local diner. It’s about just once admitting when checking into a motel that you really have six people, not four – and they offer you a room with three queen size beds side by side!

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And when it’s just you, it’s about putting your playlist on shuffle and letting each song unlock and replay an old memory.

So, as much as I’m excited for the time when driverless cars mean I don’t have to sit in traffic or endure a tedious commute, I don’t want to lose the magic that only a long drive can bring.

There is value in letting your mind wander. There is value in spontaneity. And there is value in being present for the actual, literal journey.

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