Robots Ate My Road Trip

David Brancaccio
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David Brancaccio Chris Monroe

Back behind the wheel, most of the tunes on the drive are from a robot radio, courtesy of Pandora downloaded onto the iPod I've clipped to the car's $5900 Bang & Olufsen sound system. Pandora is an online music service where you put in a favorite song or artist and an algorithm then serves as your personal, automated DJ. "Beck" is working great, but strangely, "Neil Young" veers toward Creedence Clearwater Revival and stays there.

The audio book for the trip is the second in Isaac Asimov's robot series, The Naked Sun, from 1957. In the novel, elite humans of the future like to view each other through high-resolution technology and feel like puking when forced to meet someone in person. Asimov hammers away at viewing second-hand versus seeing first-hand. Staring at that navigation system on this car with its animated, three-dimensional Google Earth view of the terrain, I get the point. While I should be experiencing first-hand the richness of this vast country, instead I am viewing way too much of it digitized in miniature. It's like being strapped into a simulator for days on end.

Mile 1333, in the featureless darkness of I-40, the car flashes a warning -- Adaptive Cruise Control "unavailable." Dead insects on the sensor, I'm thinking. The next day in Oklahoma City, I locate an old-school car wash, coin-operated. The ACC is fixed without the need of a mechanic.

At an exit onto Cheyenne land, the neon sign says $3.74 a gallon for regular, the best deal so far. The A7 takes premium, so I've been paying more than $70 for a fill-up. At least the Audi has been averaging close to 24 mpg. Filling a nearly twenty-gallon tank gives me plenty of time to consider one of the most mundane robots, the one that takes your money at the self-serve gas pump. A robot manufacturer once told me that automation at the point of sale frees up human employees to offer customers more sophisticated service elsewhere on the premises. But looking at the credit-card slot and the touch screen on the pump, it's clear that what we have here is a service-eradication device. This machine doesn't volunteer to top up the oil, warn me about the weather, or tell me that I have a taillight out. That's OK because this kind of treatment is what I signed up for on this solo Mars Mission and because this particular car does all that checking for me. But don't tell me pay-at-the-pump is about more service.

By the end of Day Five, I am dying for some nonautomotive recreation, but still no human interaction is allowed. The Pinball Hall of Fame, in a strip mall in downtown Las Vegas, awaits -- aisle upon aisle of vintage pinball and early electronic arcade machines with no entry fee and, critically, a change machine. Nothing like a round of Asteroids as an antidote to 2699 miles spent staring at a navigation screen.

In Vegas, the Hyatt Place is a no go. Turns out that the hotel had removed its robot check-in clerk. Hyatt would later confirm that only two percent of its customers are using the check-in kiosks, so the company is now ripping them out. In the battle between robots and people, humans are winning at least one skirmish.

I could probably sleep happily in the A7's nougat brown leather interior, but one thing the car doesn't offer is a shower option. Instead I have a Plan B. The Element hotel, Westin's hipster brand, has a flat-panel screen on a pedestal at the reception desk. Unfortunately, the device either forgets to display my room number after I swipe my credit card or flashes it too quickly. When I try to log in again, the system demands the room number that I don't yet have. This brings to my lips some special words in Neapolitan, but after a few minutes of low-blood-sugar frustration, I get it sorted out.

In the end, a new hotel chain is a blessing. My last four rooms at the Hyatt were identical or mirror images, and I was getting the freaky sense that I was stuck on some sort of Moebius strip of a highway where I drive hundreds of miles yet keep ending up in the same spot.

Day Six, Mile 3001. Time to take stock. Among the successes, I've been able to transact all my business with machines alone. On the other hand, there was the tragedy of insufficient beer supply. And I must admit that there have been some run-ins with F&Bs (flesh and bloods). When I tried to scan an ear of corn in Virginia, the human overlord of the self-checkout section descended on me in full customer-service glory. And checking in with a robot receptionist in Oklahoma City around midnight, I could not dodge the Wizard of Oz. The night manager, by the name of Oz, had recognized my name from the computer, knew my work, and wanted to shake my hand. What could I do, hand him a slip of paper saying "sorry, I no longer speak with my fans"?

With two hours to go, driving north through the fields of California's Central Valley, I realize with rising horror that I've neglected a detail: To get to my final destination by dusk, I need to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. To do that, there's the matter of a toll plaza. What if California's FasTrak toll robots do not accept my E-ZPass? This would mean handing four dollars to a human. That, in turn, would mean bitter defeat less than fifteen miles from my destination.

I opt to "test" my East Coast E-ZPass transponder by cruising through the FasTrak-only lane. If there's a penalty, I'll pay online later. (For the record, E-ZPass does not work at the bridge.)

Two minutes after sundown, I swing in next to a graffiti-covered surf van parked along Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I jog down to the water to scoop some Pacific sand. At that moment, Wilson the robot dog develops a brand-new superpower. Its eyes begin to glow, strangely matching the brooding headlights of the Audi, still idling in the purple, fading light. Final mileage: 3260.

Across the highway, at the Beach Chalet, a beer awaits at the bar. The drink is courtesy of the first human I would hang with in six days, my flesh-and-blood California pal, Barry. Man cannot live by technology alone.

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