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Robots Ate My Road Trip

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.

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.