Her car lost cell service, and Kari’s trip came to a halt
Should your car need an Internet connection to start, or even just to unlock its doors? Most sane people would say “Of course not”—but in our Brave New World where you’re expected to commute from your AirBNB to your gig-economy contractor job via a car-sharing service, connection to the Internet is rapidly becoming as mandatory as the old standby troubleshooting steps of fuel, air, and spark.
Consider Kari Paul’s experience this past weekend. Kari is a tech reporter for the Guardian and part of the so-called “Blue Check Mafia” that is believed to regulate and police tone and content on Twitter and elsewhere. Those of us who are stuck in the pre-Internet mindset (or, in the case of your author, in the 1985-ish mindset where you use a VAX terminal to communicate via newsgroups) probably can’t understand the pride with which she and her compatriots call themselves “Extremely Online,” meaning that they look to the Web first when doing everything from dating to ordering meals.
When she decided to take a trip up the California coastline, Kari did the Extremely Online thing: she grabbed a Prius from GIG Car Share. I can’t understand the appeal behind calling something “GIG”: twenty years ago that word connoted a chance to make a hundred bucks playing bass guitar at a prom, but now that means a job where you are instantly replaceable at a moment’s notice by another non-employee. The “gig economy” is a place where your financial future is decided three hours at a time. Regardless, Kari must have liked the idea, so she grabbed a Prius off the street using her app, and off she went.
GIG’s website says that users can “Take a Gig to parts unknown. Request a Gig Card to lock/unlock a car in areas with spotty cell service.” Why would that be necessary? It’s simple. GIG uses the Internet to unlock and activate their vehicles.
Forty years ago, a car-sharing service would have operated via the use of “one-time codes” that would be programmed into the car at its manufacture and then sold to users—but forty years ago, humanity hadn’t degraded to the point where a car-sharing service seemed terribly necessary. To the extent that it was, it operated via “rental counters” at places like “Hertz” and also “Avis,” which was apparently the second-place competitor but, as a necessary consequence, had to try harder. We also had “taxi drivers,” who had the nerve to either own their own vehicles or to expect employment on a daily basis regardless of how many people used an app. It seems difficult in retrospect to see how we avoided being eaten by dinosaurs.
Anyway, Kari didn’t request a Gig card, because part of being Extremely Online is to assume that the whole world is online with you. She drove up the coastline. At some point, her Prius lost connection with GIG. So the next time she turned it off, it stayed off. Which led to some entertaining Tweets, because her phone had better cell data service than her car:
“apparently in 45 minutes to an hour a tow truck will come to move us three miles down the road where there is cell service so we can start our car the future is dumb”
“six hours, two tow trucks, and 20 calls to customer service later apparently it was a software issue and the car needed to be rebooted before we could use it”
“I can’t even express in tweets how insane this has been but we are safe! after @GIGCarShare told us to sleep in our car on the side of the road and try again in the morning we called a tow truck on our own and made it back to our Airbnb. TBD on whether I’ll be refunded for this.”
In the end, this appears to have been a combination of events: The car lost connection during a required update. You know how your computer asks you not to turn it off in the middle of an update? It’s true for cars as well. Without a GIG card, Kari couldn’t start the car, although it isn’t clear whether the card would have worked during an update. After being towed to a place with enough juicy data signal to update the system, Kari was able to get it started. But wait, there’s more:
“also we were able to turn the car back on somehow but now we are afraid to turn it off because it may not start again and Gig told us we used our “allotted restarts” of the car so we are on a literal endless road trip through California now”
No word as to whether this resulted in what endurance-racing teams call a “hot fuel stop,” where you fill the tank without switching off the engine. As amusing as Kari’s story was, some of the responses to that story were even funnier—and more than a few also expressed the legitimately frightening viewpoint of “eh, it works in San Francisco, what else would you need or want?” This has been a pretty short pop-culture trip from “See the USA in your Chevrolet” to “If the GIGCar works in downtown San Francisco, that’s really enough.” What about those pioneer spirits who want to visit Oakland? What if your internet-connected car knows the way to San Jose, but doesn’t feel like going there?
This is far from the first time that a member of the media has experienced this; The Atlantic recently told a story of a car-share user who got stuck in the bottom floor of the parking garage at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Internet may feel omnipresent, but it is very much not omnipresent.
Perhaps the true lesson of this is not technological, but human. It’s been proven again and again that car-sharing operations are a great way to turn a large fortune into a small one; ask Daimler-Benz and BMW, who opened Car2Go with great fanfare a half-decade ago only to see it fail in virtually every market. Later on this month, the joint venture will withdraw from North America in what has to be the most embarrassing German retreat since the Soviets liberated Minsk. Yet the appeal of car-sharing appears timeless; every potential investor has a romantic delusion that it will be different with me.
What is so engaging about this idea? What makes the depersonalized, internet-enabled use of interchangeable vehicles as exciting to investors as a new Ferrari 488GTB would be to a lottery winner? Is it a deep desire to be part of social re-engineering? The certainty that individuals shouldn’t have the chance to own and operate their own vehicles everywhere from Key West to Seattle? Or maybe it’s the certainty that this individual ownership will eventually become illegal and the spoils of war will go to the companies which are already on the ground when the Great “Red Barchetta” Confiscation begins?
In the long term, this feels like a nightmare for those of us who love the automobile and the personal expression. Right now, however, I’m not too worried. Any car-sharing service which can be defeated by a few trees or hills isn’t going to take over the world any time soon. As Kari noted in a tweet:
“the future is dumb”