Take Your Car and Drive It

An uneasy rider races against the speed of change

In a futuristic scene, an aging Chevy burns rubber on the highway

Are you sure you want to do this?” the Whippersnapper asked. “I mean, honestly, at your age —”

“At your age,” I cut him off, “I was pulling bodies out of the World Trade Center and taking care of your mother, too.” Obviously not at the same time, but I didn’t need to give him the satisfaction of seeing me correct myself.

The Whippersnapper looked offended. Hah! If anybody should have been offended today, it was me. Mostly offended by myself. At what point had I become the geezer who said things like Whippersnapper, anyway? What next? Would I be wearing trousers instead of pants? Have stuff in the icebox instead of the fridge?

Speaking of pants… I reached into the pocket of mine for the keys. Not in the right pocket. Not in the left one, either. Dammit.

I could feel his eyes on me, mockery and concern in equal measure. His mockery I could handle. That’s the right of generations, to mock each other’s foibles, one forgetting the days when they thought they knew everything and the other secure in the misbelief that that they always would. But the concern? Not so much.

That was the problem, really. Everybody was so concerned. Concerned about accidents. Concerned about liability. Concerned for me, as the overly casual and desperately young Road Traffic Coordinator had said.

Tough luck for her. The only one who needs to be concerned for me is, well, me.

I pulled the keys out of the front right pocket of my coat, where I suddenly remembered telling myself not to forget that I had put them. They jingled comfortably, cheerfully, with their own unique sound. I swear I could always tell who had walked in the door by the tangled clamor of their particular set of metal necessaries and accessories, back when they had been mostly metal.

The key to the apartment in London where Cheryl and I had lived for a couple of years — the key for our last house — was obnoxiously large and old-fashioned looking compared to its petit American cousin. It slung on a keychain from some long defunct charity event that I’d gone to before the disease was cured by nano-med. And with me for this ride, like a talisman, was the key to my first-ever very own car, handed over to me by my mother on my 16th birthday, kept because, well, freedom.

That key had meant everything to me back then. The open road. Going to a girl’s house whenever I wanted. Sneaking said girl out of said house and just driving around. Well, and probably a bit more than that. Definitely. A lot more. I could drive to school. I could get to work. I could… well, I could anything, everything.

Now that car was probably long gone. I hadn’t been the first owner and had sold it on when I realized that I didn’t love being that guy who works on his car every weekend because some gewgaw had cracked its thingywhatsit.

Who the hell says gewgaw?

Last under my fingers, the key to my current ride, the crux of this whole night.

“Look,” said the RTC, “you don’t have to do this. You have nothing to prove. You’ve been doing it for years, and it’s not your fault that you won’t be allowed to do it anymore. And besides —”

I cut her off.

“I do have to do it. Somebody has to. And I pick… me.”

She shook her head, glancing at the Whippersnapper, exchanging a look that screamed, “What can you do with old people?” Oh, dear god, were they flirting? That might explain why she was dressed like she’d just taken a selfie for a dating app. I had to get out of there.

“OK,” she said. “I can’t stop you. At least for,” she shook her wrist and glanced at the swirling holding pattern of her mPlant as it came to life, “another 15 minutes.”

“Damn skippy,” I said and pressed the remote to open my aging Chevy, made before Google bought not one but all Big Four automakers and Elon had died under mysterious circumstances at the Rosewood hotel in Palo Alto.

Damn skippy? Really?

On both sides of me police cars sat, lights flashing, Tesla plants purring gently, a single Traffic Assistance Monitor in the passenger seat of each one, already bored with the night, staring at the projection screens of their mPlants. They were there for my safety, they had told me, since I refused to connect to Highway 101’s Traffic Authority Server.

I didn’t have to. So I wasn’t going to. Somebody once had a plaque that read, “Freedom — I won’t.” Damn skippy.

I slid into the old rig, looking the Whippersnapper in the eye and grinning as I pressed the button to roll up the window. He looked a little hurt. So did the RTC. They were both about the same age and just weren’t used to people not understanding how awesome they were and how the world they ran was just, well, so awesome — and so much safer for everybody — products of a generation of apps and services that had made their lives unbearably comfortable. So they really didn’t understand why I would do this. They were just concerned, after all.

I grinned harder at the Whippersnapper and gave a little salute to the RTC. She had the grace to blush a little as she yelled, “Twelve minutes, Mr. Rourke. Then these officers will escort you to a safe off-ramp, and you’ll have to get a ride with them. Your car will be towed to your house.”

“I’ll be over in the morning to take you to the dealership; we can check out those new six-wheelers,” said the Whippersnapper, voice muffled and ultimately drowned out by the sound of my own engine. He tried to add “Be care — ” so I gunned it.

I actually peeled rubber. I had never done that before. Cool.

Cool. Now that was a word I was happy to use.

The escort vehicles were caught off guard, and it took their Intel whatever-generation processors a gratifying few seconds to process that I was way ahead of them already. A few seconds more were lost (or, from my perspective, gained) as they ran through their menu of automatic control options before accepting that all of their intricate coding and Wi-Fi broadband broadcast technology meant nothing to my straight-eight engine, originally bored out on a Detroit assembly line back when that city was still habitable and Mexico wasn’t our 53rd state.

I used that time to hit play on my Road Trip playlist (already queued up), sat up straighter, and gripped the wheel tighter as the Eagles kicked things off with “Hotel California.”

I wasn’t a philistine. I was an early iPhone adopter, and I even ran a blog back when we still thought to say, with words, “doubleya doubleya doubleya dot whatever dot com” when talking about a website.

I wasn’t even a car buff. The best car maintenance I could perform myself was filling up the window cleaning fluid. But I was old enough and had enough money that now I could do things just on principle. Somebody else could fix the damn thing. I just wanted to drive it.

So this new law was too much. I wasn’t going to sit with folded hands while my car made decisions for me. Not as long as 12:01 a.m. on January 1 hadn’t happened yet. They were calling it ND-Day, the date no human-driven cars would be allowed on the roads. I’d be the last one.

The law was mostly moot because over time self-driving cars had gradually become the norm, just as automobiles replaced horses and automatics replaced manual transmissions. And with concern over fatalities (which had steadily dropped, if I was being fair), driverless cars were finally going to be the law.

Christ, seatbelts and helmets really had been a slippery slope.

One advantage for me now was the lack of formal speed limits. Because when traffic flow is an algorithm designed by Stanford geeks in their dorm room startups, nobody wanted an artificial limit to stand in the way of optimization. Speed limits had been changed to advisories and eventually disappeared. People just pre-programmed in their destination, turned on their mPlants, and tuned out the world flashing by at whatever speed the computers told it to. I hoped to god that people at least surfed porn while being passengers in their own lives, otherwise all hope for humanity really was doomed to a living hell of cat videos and memes-of-the-day.

My needle moved to 80, then 85.

The escorts eventually caught up, one keeping station on each side, hoods lagging just a little behind mine. I like to think they were choosing to give me space. It felt like a nice, safe distance, so probably not.

An amplified voice blared out, just audible over my music, “Take it easy, Mr. Rourke; you don’t want this to end badly.”

I felt my grin get wider. The cops literally could not pull me over. I was violating no laws — human-controlled vehicles were legal till midnight, and I could go as fast as I wanted. I waved jauntily at the officer outside my window. The cop in the car on my passenger side, being in the passenger seat of his own vehicle, was blocked from view by the black box of the command console. For her benefit I tooted my horn.

* * *

Almost 90 now. And I could feel the deep throb of the engine vibrate through all my bones. I was an early Tesla investor, but damn, gas power felt good!

Thematically, Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” kicked in on the stereo, and while I wasn’t going to be supersonic anytime soon, I was sure going to do my best in the few minutes I had remaining.

I thought about a line from a character in a book I once read, maybe even on an e-reader. “Sometimes,” said the character, a former soldier still fighting Vietnam decades after it was over for everybody else, “you gotta fly the black flag, take off the safety, and your only gear is wide open and full speed ahead.” Or something like that.

I pressed down the gas. Eight cylinders sucked up biodiesel like a drunk with a big straw and a bottle of Jim Beam.

Ninety solid now.

Ninety-five.

About a minute left. Cool.

One hundred.

The escorts now actually lagged a bit. There was no more need for their cars to have the Interceptor package, when they could broadcast a kill code to virtually any car on the road.

One hundred five.

Up ahead, I saw more flashing lights. I guessed that was the “safe” exit I was going to be shepherded onto. There were several cop cars, and a few media drones hovered at regulation height, getting this last ride out to the masses.

I rolled down the window. The cool wind that rushed in at that speed made me gasp, but it felt good. I stuck my arm out the window and flipped the whole damn group the bird as I soared past. I wondered if it would trend.

I didn’t know how long until they could figure out how to get me to stop. Somebody probably had some of those spike strip things they used to use to stop cars that were being chased, or something.

Who cared?

What were they going to do, take away my license?

I had a full tank of gas, a kick-ass music mix, and an empty road ahead of me.

Then I saw the concrete blockade that would force me to slow down about a half-mile ahead. The Whippersnapper must have figured it out, or maybe his new swipe-right girlfriend was smarter than she looked. The barrier would be easy to route a computer-driven car around; it’s just part of the algorithm. But a human driver would have to slow down.

Wide open and full speed ahead. I realized in that moment that it was a motto, a prayer, a way of living — and maybe more.

Hell yeah, let’s make this last drive last forever.

I revved those eight cylinders until they screamed and sped straight on.


Joshua Ramey-Renk headshotJoshua is an organizational development professional and freelance writer living on the San Francisco Peninsula. His work has appeared in a variety of markets and small-press anthologies, and he also has placed articles in professional publications such as HR Magazine and Coaching World. Joshua holds an MBA from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and loves to hear reader feedback.
San Francisco Regional Mensa | Joined 2016