There's nothing more emblematic of the American spirit than the road trip. It's the most authentic expression of the feeling of Manifest Destiny that doesn't involve, y'know, murdering people. Few things in life do more to clear your head and revitalize your soul than a lonely drive through the desert or up and down a mountainous coast. Road trips are the best...but we might be the last generation to truly enjoy them.
Google wants robots to drive our cars. This is nothing new. The search engine has been playing with autonomous vehicle programs for a while. Their fleet of self-driving robot Priuses have already travelled more than 140,000 miles in California. And now Google is lobbying Nevada to legalize self-driving cars. And to amend their ban on texting-while-driving.
While autonomous cars seem far-fetched now, the technology is already at a very advanced level. It's conceivable that the first commercial self-driving cars aren't more than a few years away. So what does this mean for the road-trip?
One of Google's big plans is to make an extensive 'car sharing' program feasible. The company believes it could reduce the number of cars in the US by up to half. And while that's all wonderful for the environment and gridlock, it raises worrying questions about the road trip's future. A future where fleets of autonomous 'zipcars' take us to work and ferry us about our day means an end to the 'open road'.
High gas prices already threaten to put an end to the sort of highway roaming my generation grew up with. Autonomous cars make driving very clearly about moving from Point A to Point B. It changes cars from instruments of total freedom to another less-cramped form of public transit. Our great stretches of winding interstate will soon be populated only by semi trucks and a sad, small contingent of road warriors fighting to remember the old days.
At least, that's one possibility. Self-driving cars may also prove to be a renaissance for the road trip. Lower gas prices and improved safety will bring people back to the highways and side roads of our great, sprawling countryside. With a robot handling the real work, passengers will be free to appreciate the scenery, lean back in their seats, and maybe even polish off a beer or two while they watch the thunderstorms roll in over New Mexico.
This brings up another interesting question. Will self-driving cars lead to the end of Highway Patrol cops as we know them? Or are we on the cusp of a terrible new era of half-robot police?