A little blue-and-white smart car, illuminated by street lights, zooms through Austin.
This particular car had its beginnings in a factory in Europe, a land where streets are narrow and all cars are small. It boarded a boat to cross an ocean, bound for a place where streets are wide and some trucks merit their own zip codes. Cars do not usually think, and this car was at the beginning just as naïve as any other. And for the sake of its mechulinity, that was probably just as well. The not-so-smart car might have developed an inferiority complex once it got a look at Austin vehicles, since it could have fit inside some of them with plenty of room left over to pick up some groceries.
Any hopes the car might have had of finding a nice home with a young couple and a pretty garage were dashed when it was accessorized with all sorts of fancy locational devices and then released to the care of the general public. At least it would never get lost, although if it had been looking forward to quiet drives in the park or occasional time to itself, those plans were on permanent hiatus. The car now served at the pleasure of the hip and trendy.
Some days the car carried serious people in suits. The car noticed that they were hooked up to electronics all the time, much like itself. Perhaps they also were prone to getting lost. They never had any interesting messages on their phones for the car to read, and to judge by the local paper (and the car did not), they never gave anyone else anything interesting to read, either. They did a lot of shouting about words that sounded like ‘duck’, ‘shell’, and ‘dam’. The car certainly had cause to admire their concern for aquatic life.
Then there were people who wore a lot of orange and carried heavy backpacks which were also orange. The car had no measuring devices, but it had a hunch that the backpacks weighed almost as much as the people carrying them. One day one of them got in and the car amused itself by reading her texts while she punched numbers on the GPS and muttered something about “go, cod”. She zoomed off as if she had seen the green flag and ignored the GPS until just after she missed her stop. And then she started yelling about ducks. Once the car delivered her to her destination, she stormed off and left the door unlocked. The car had to send a call downtown for help to get its doors locked, so it had plenty of time to ponder Austin citizens’ remarkable awareness of the plight of smaller animals.
Sometimes grey-headed people would drive the car as though they wanted to make sure it had time to take in all the sights of Austin. They said things like “Oh, my” whenever a stoplight turned yellow, but did not seem to be interested in ducks. They did not shout, although other people often shouted at them.
The car was unaware at first that it had started thinking. Little things, like passengers leaving him in the sunlight or dropping their trash on his floorboards, started to annoy him. He tried sending polite messages via the GPS system, like “Please refrain from driving as if you were at Indianapolis,” or “The next passenger does not wish to sit in a seat covered in McDonald’s grease”. No one ever paid attention when he tried to speak to them. Sometimes they laughed and talked about the programmers having some fun with this car. So he went for a more passive-aggressive approach, like switching between his automatic and manual transmissions mid-trip, to alert passengers that they were displeasing him. He also noticed, after a while, that he was never in the vicinity of water when people started yelling about ducks. Considering how little regard his passengers had for his own well-being, he suspected that they were not as enamored with marine wildlife as he had once believed. He puzzled over this for a while, then gave it up as one of the great quirks of humanity.
And his passenger this night is really confusing him. The kid stumbled up to the car a few minutes ago as if he had tripped over something. It took him two tries to scan his card and punch in his code. He smells fruity, but not in a good way, like the time someone left a bunch of grapes under the seat for a week.
The car doesn’t like this passenger. He’s using every stunt in his arsenal to irritate the kid enough to take his orange-shirted self elsewhere—he even turns himself off at stoplights—but the kid responds by screaming about ships, pounding the steering wheel, and driving faster. The car gives up trying to reason with this kid and sends out a distress signal in case someone is watching who can call for help.
The kid speeds up again and swerves around a truck in front of him. The car feels a strange sensation: gasoline burning faster than usual. He is confused: What is this kid doing? He enjoys the rush, and that adds to his bewilderment. Is he supposed to go this fast? There is nothing he can do but wait for help, so he decides that if the kid is going to drive like one of the Andrettis, he may as well have fun while it lasts.
The lights on the freeway come at him like a rope of white. Other vehicles beep and honk as the kid swerves, speeds up, slows down for a second, then whips around. The car enjoys the rush of gasoline and the pulse of the road beneath his tires. It is every car’s dream to go to Indianapolis, but this feeling is a good substitute.
High-pitched wails come up behind them. Blue and red lights stab through the darkness. The young man screams again and speeds up. I called the police, the car thinks. That was dumb. This is really fun.
But the kid doesn’t stop for the blue and red lights. The swerving and zooming continue. What had been a game for the car now frightens him. I’m going to fast, he thought. He tastes his oil burning. Gasoline spurts through his system, making him whine. “I’m going too fast!!” he says through the GPS. But the kid doesn’t look down.
The car is terrified. He is doing over 80 now, faster than he is supposed to be able to go. The kid takes a flyover. Is he trying to get away? the car wonders. “I have a GPS! They can track me!” the car shouts. The kid still doesn’t notice that the car is talking to him.
His tires skid on the road as the kid takes the first bend too fast. They swerve, recover, speed up again. His lights illuminate a second bend up ahead, and the car sees what will happen: He will crash through the guardrail, his tires will lose contact with the road, and he will fly off into open air. There is nothing he can do to stop it, because for all his newfound consciousness, he is still not in control. He sends a final message through his oily tears, an instant before the impact will render him forever mute: