Holding onto adventure in the age of the connected car.
“Why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Cars were once a means of losing ourselves in escape and adventure. Packing our bags and jumping in the car meant speeding off into an exciting and unknown future.
For all its promise, the increasing connectivity of our cars also threatens to diminish the surprise and serendipity of the driving experience. If we always know exactly where we are, who is near us, and what is around the next corner, can we still find the feeling of freedom that our cars once promised us?
Ten years ago I drove across the United States — paid little more than gas money to relocate a car from Tampa Bay, Florida, to Toronto. As an Australian, the United States was a new world to me. I had no idea where I was going, nor what I would find along the way. I had little more than my mind to keep me busy on the drive. Heading out of Tampa I stopped at a Wal-Mart and bought a Rolling Stones CD. Mixed in with local radio, this would become the soundtrack that accompanied me on my journey north.
I guided myself with the help of road signs and a paper map. I stopped at roadside diners for food. Wendy’s, Cracker Barrel, and Waffle House became my window into the fascinating world that existed just beyond the highway. At night I pulled off the road into unknown towns to find a place to sleep, guided by the hotel coupon booklets I had picked up at the last rest stop.
I have many memories from that drive. Speeding through Orlando I saw highways snaking out across Florida under a full moon. Sometimes I would take a detour off the I-90, choosing my path northwards based on whichever exit ramp name sounded the most romantic. I saw white picket fences and rocking chairs in Georgia. I saw my first snow coming out of a long, lonely tunnel through the Smoky Mountains in South Carolina.
I had no smart phone or other distraction to take my mind away from the amazing world that was unfurling in front of me.
As our cars become more connected, will adventures like this still be possible? Fast forward 10 years from now and I am likely to be dining at whatever hip restaurants my car finds for me along the way, chosen based on my preferences collected from dozens of social media feeds. I know where to stop to sleep before starting the day’s drive. I know what sights to “find” along the way well before seeing them, with recommendations informed by the journeys of others like me. In this future, I will never be alone. Friends and relatives will dial-in along the drive, rescuing me from my own wandering mind. I will listen to any music I want.
My journey will be optimized to meet my own needs, preferences, and desires. But will it become optimized away from the very adventure I seek? With so much connectivity available, I would never have stumbled across such a beautiful church in South Carolina. I would never have listened to “Gimme Shelter” so many times that, even now, I still know all the words.
I am not yearning for a simpler time of ignorance and bliss. I love the benefits that connectivity brings. I simply do not want to say goodbye to the excitement and freedom that our cars have long given us. Sixty-five miles per hour is a fantastic speed at which to discover a country.
In truth, we do not have to say goodbye to these things. As cars become more connected, they offer us new experiences that previously were not possible.
This year, Lyft and Uber both offered $3 rides to promote their new ride-sharing services across San Francisco. With nothing better to do on a Saturday night, my fiancée and I decided to barhop the town, ride-share style. With the cost of getting to the next bar now less than half the price of the next drink, we had ample reason to explore different niches of the city that had previously been hard to access. We found great new dive bars. We rode with people who gave us tips and invited us to parties. We found corners of San Francisco we never knew existed.
A year ago we could not have done this. We could have taken cabs, or driven our own car, but neither of these options would have given us the same spark of adventure. Technology gave us a new model for using our cars, and a new way to explore our city.
I will never have another road trip like the one I had driving north from Florida. It is becoming more and more difficult to jump in the car and truly lose oneself out on the highway. But hopefully, perhaps even in ways we have not yet imagined, the freedom machine will live on.
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Michael is an Associate Strategy Director in frog's San Francisco studio. As part of frog's Venture Design team he works closely with startups and entrepreneurs to help them bring incredible products and experiences to life.