Robots Ate My Road Trip

David Brancaccio
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David Brancaccio Chris Monroe

First, they offered to take our money at the self-serve pump. Then the E-ZPass robots took over the tollbooths and the red-light cameras wrote robot traffic tickets. I wanted to know if technology has become so pervasive that a person could drive across the United States, Atlantic to Pacific, dealing only with machines, no humans.

To help seal myself into a cocoon of technology, I'm taking a car that does it for a living: Automobile Magazine's Four Seasons Audi A7. This A7 is a rolling Internet hot spot. It has a color driver-information screen, not quite as large as the flat panel on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise but, at seven inches, enough to dominate the straight-ahead view. Radar beams scan in front, should the Klingon in the lane ahead jam on his brakes.

My starting point on a breezy, clear spring morning is Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the nearest bona fide Atlantic Ocean beach. After sifting some ceremonial Atlantic sand into a plastic water bottle, I take my sidekick for this tech-only journey out for a stroll -- Wilson the robot "dog." This is my first mistake. Wilson is cute, and cute attracts humans. A sweet little kid with his dad just wants to play when he spots my silver plastic travel companion ambling down the boardwalk. I have to shrug silently like some grumpy neighbor, turn away to the car, and get rolling.

It's not just the dog. The car itself attracts attention with its furrowed, LED daytime running lights and fastback lines reminiscent of an early 1970s Aston Martin. The tragic reality of this journey is setting in early: here I am, about to travel thousands of miles in the sleekest car I may ever drive, while denying myself the opportunity to use its sex appeal to make new friends. But I'm also aware that life could be worse. A high-school pal on Facebook contrasts my cushy ride to his own cross-country adventure. He was taking ownership of a balky 1993 Ford F-350 diesel pickup with 323,000 miles, a busted radio, and the inability to start without a dose of ether. He'd bought it for $4000 -- or, he points out, 65 cents a pound. This A7, sticker priced with options at $78,680, works out to $18.65 a pound. And unlike my friend's truck, it fires up at the touch of a silver button, every time, no ether. Plus, if I want to tweak the driving experience, I just call up Audi Drive Select on the eight-inch infotainment screen and dial in more aggressive or more relaxed steering, transmission, and throttle calibration.

At Mile 135, I get a new taste of lost opportunity. At the Miniature Village roadside attraction in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, a sign reads, "Be prepared to see more than you expect." Sadly, to get in requires payment to a human, which would violate my tech-only pledge. A day later, I face the same problem in Roanoke at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. In that case, my consolation prize is a short break alongside Locomotive 1151, a hunk of old tech that is oxidizing into oblivion just outside the museum.

The technological development that has made this drive a possibility is the robot hotel desk clerk. Hyatt Place hotels have put in kiosks where travelers check in with a credit card and proceed to their room with no human interaction involved. When Hyatt strung these kiosks across the country close enough to be reached in a long day's drive, it got me thinking about a tech-only road trip as part of a series I was doing for American Public Media's Marketplace radio program on how robots are eating our jobs.

But I have to find the first of these hotels. It's pushing 11 p.m. in an oily downpour, and the Audi's navigation system has just taken me on a pair of six-mile loops around but not to my hotel. My smartphone won't lock onto a GPS signal. My portable TomTom GPS (into which I had inserted a digitized voice of my wife in case the solitude got too overwhelming) also has no clue. But as a belt-and-suspenders sort of a guy, I have a fourth GPS with me, inside my iPad. This takes the blue ribbon in the navigation derby by pointing out the last couple of blocks to the hotel. After several suspenseful swipes, the credit card finally takes and the robot receptionist squeezes out a passkey to the room.

What about food? Self-checkout lanes at supermarkets along the route. For added zest, I'm schlepping a microwave oven in the cargo bay under the A7's expansive rear hatch. The oven is proving to be dorky and clumsy but effective. First night -- a nuclear banquet of chicken tetrazzini. Then I realize mistake number two: bringing just three beers for a cross-country drive. What kind of fool forgets that you can't buy alcohol at self-checkout without a human inspecting your ID?

Another sobering discovery: without humans, it's tough to get change. $20 bills are readily available from the nearest ATM, identified by the car's 3G-networked nav screen, but anything smaller is out of reach. That presents a moral dilemma at the hotel: leave a full Andrew Jackson to tip the human cleaning crew or leave zilch. I suppose I could track down a Laundromat with a change machine, but that would mean leaving piles of quarters in the room, which would be lame, or leaving several dollar coins, which would be unconscionable. So lame quarters it is, with the full knowledge that in a string of hotels across this great land, there are chambermaids cursing my existence.

Another lost opportunity comes on Day Three, Mile 1111, in Memphis. I get within the aroma of Rendezvous, one of the great barbecue places on earth. But it lacks a robot BBQ dispenser, so the place is off-limits to me. Instead, it's lunch al fresco along the Mississippi. Under the hood, the A7's 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 offers some toasty metal, only partially obscured by a small decorative shroud. Inspired, I try to heat a frozen pizza right there on the engine. After twenty minutes at idle, the cheese melts to the foil wrapper, and what should have been crust remains a flaccid disappointment.

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