In Defense of Stupidity
Our cars have gotten too smart.
Mr. Musk, abandon Twitter. Forget about SpaceX. For the love of all that is holy, turn your attention to a more pressing matter. Please, Mr. Musk; build me a stupid car.
I don’t mean just kind of dumb, like it won’t drive itself to Whole Foods and cook me a nice beef bourguignon on the way home. I mean flat out stupid, dumb as a box of rocks. I don’t want my car to tell me when the tires need air. I will know it when they are flat. Or even what the temperature is outside. If I can’t remember what the weather was like when I got in, I probably shouldn’t be driving anyway.
One of my teenagers just wrecked my family’s 2017 Chevy Traverse. (He’s fine. The Traverse is not.) That car was already way too smart. My wife and I had to go find another one and, gadzooks, things have gotten way worse over the past six years. Mr. Musk, or anybody else out there with a factory, listen to what I say; if you follow my suggestions here you will sell at least a billion cars in the next year. And quite likely save democracy in the process.
Don’t even bother designing a new vehicle. I don’t care what it looks like. Get the specs from a 1974 International Scout, a 1978 Monte Carlo SS, or whatever. Make the engine lighter so it gets better mileage. Or hell, make it electric. I don’t care; I’m Catholic. (Yay, Laudato si'!) For the body, use something that doesn’t rust out in six months. (Boo, 1974 International Scout.) Throw in some seatbelts and airbags and then—
Nothing. That’s all.
What would such a car cost? Maybe $10,000? Twice that? Fine. Put me down for two.
Part of my plea stems from my age. I am 50 now, and I shake my fist at more things every day. So having an iPad build into my dashboard is annoying. If it is cold in the car, I want to turn a dial to make things warmer. One dial. Not fifty-eight buttons and a different zone for each person. I have nine kids. (Yay, Humanae vitae!) They are accustomed to being ignored.
Worse, I am cheap. The Traverse made it six years before my kid demolished it, but we only had it for about a year before an obnoxious light on the dashboard started screaming at me about the tire pressure system. My mechanic informed me that a sensor was bad and fixing it would cost $300. Are you kidding me? I could outfit each of my kids with an old-school tire gauge and press them into service like some kind of indentured NASCAR pit crew for way under $300. So I refused to get it fixed—or the other fourteen things the stupid dashboard lights were soon complaining about. To be honest, I think there is a good chance my poor kid demolished the car because he was blinded by the glare from all the warning lights I refused to address.
Several years ago we lost a set of the fancy, super-smart keys, and lived in constant fear of losing the other ones. A new set, complete with the fob, cost $300. Everything on the car, it seems, cost $300. I was prepared to hot wire that bastard before paying $300 for a key fob.
Everybody has their own consumer preferences, of course. I don’t really care what you drive. But you should be aware that your preference for a smart car will only hasten the arrival of a bleak dystopian future, in which busy-body authoritarians will decide where you go and when.
Bloomberg recently reported that “Ford Motor Co. has filed for a patent on technology that could remotely shut down your radio or air conditioning, lock you out of your vehicle, or prompt it to ceaselessly beep if you miss car payments.” The report adds, “Ford said it has no plans to use the technology.”
In that case, carry on. I couldn’t get the Traverse to stop telling me to spend $300 on a sensor I didn’t want. But sure, add a ceaseless beeping feature. How long until I am driving to the local beer distributor for a thirty pack of Hamm’s and the car tells me, “Hey, sorry, your wife says that you should go to the gym instead”? Or perhaps I will be trying to get to a Megadeth concert (I told you I’m 50) and the car will say, “Sorry sir, but Dr. Fauci mandates that you stop off at this vaccine clinic along the way. Don’t mind the beeping, sir; we can proceed once you put down that donut.”
It all sounds crazy, but not really. People across the political spectrum have issues with America’s car culture, but all of them agree that it stems, at least in part, from our desire for independence. Tom Wolfe was one of the first to highlight the notion that “the car symbolized freedom, a slightly wild, careening emancipation from the old social order,” in his seminal 1965 Esquire piece, "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson". Yes!
Got that? Cars are slightly wild. And careening. Not collection agencies for Ford.
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If Red Dawn has any power of prophecy (and surely it does) someday soon one of my kids will have to remove the radiator cap from my car and pee in it to cool the engine while escaping from Russian paratroopers. Or maybe it will be Chinese tanks. Either way, I don’t want Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping calling the shots, remotely steering them back to certain death in town, any more than I want an American politician shutting off the ignition because I am heading to a protest they don’t endorse.
But mostly I just want a car that costs $10,000 and doesn’t beep at me, incessantly or otherwise. And I am more than happy to check the tire pressure on my own. Heck, I’ll even drive it.
Come on, Mr. Musk, save America. Make me a car that’s really stupid.