Scenes From An Autonomous Record Lot

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
scenes from an autonomous record lot

I got the call at about 6 p.m. last night. It was Greg Ledet, one of the fellows who partnered in our infamous April Fools’ Day cross-country hoax.

“I’m heading out to meet Alex Roy at a Tesla Supercharger near Dayton and clear traffic for him between here and Columbus. You want to go?”

“I’d love to,” was my unconvincing reply, “but I just had a bunch of screws drilled into my left tibia and every moment I stand up is an exciting battle between nausea and vertigo. However,” I added after a moment’s pause, rifling through my nightstand for the bottle marked Morphine EXPIRED!, “I could meet you south of Columbus for a few minutes.” Hopping down the stairs on one foot, I grabbed the keys to my Accord before anyone could object. “All I have to do is use this gimpy leg to push the clutch once in a while!” I yelled, while backing out in hop-skip-and-jump fashion.

Five minutes later I was back, tears streaming from behind my tinted-lens ProDesign frames. “If anybody wants to drive me to Grove City,” I conceded, “I’m buying dinner.”

“I hold several cross-country records,” Carl Reese said to me, as we twiddled our thumbs at the Supercharger station just south of Columbus, Ohio. Then he detailed them to me. I didn’t understand some of them, but they ranged from the Official Single Motorcycle Rider On Brock’s Original Route to his newest accomplishment, Coast To Coast In A Tesla, In Under 59 Hours. While the Grove City Police Department, singularly unused to any reason for standing in a parking lot besides “crystal meth” or “affordably-priced sex work”, patrolled ostentatiously back and forth behind us, Reese gave me the simplest reason possible for his obsession: “I picked up a Guinness Book Of World Records when I was a kid, and I thought to myself, I could be in this.” Now he is, although I don’t know if he’s in the actual printed paperback or not.

If he is, he’s right there next to Ed Bolian, whose indifferently-documented ride to glory on a leaking bedpan mounted to a buy-here-pay-here AMG Mercedes has managed to simultaneously set the cross-country bar too high to get over and too low to get under, if you catch my drift. There’s a relatively close-knit community of people who are interested in cross-country record-setting and over the course of the past ten years they’ve managed to increase the computational power brought to bear on the topic even as the public grows progressively less interested in the newest times and specific conditions. In that sense, you can think of the hobby as prog-rock, with Brock Yates as Roger Waters, Roy as Geddy Lee, and the current group of enthusiasts as “Pendragon” and “Spock’s Beard”.

The newest electric-car records, however, are throwbacks to some of the original American coast-to-coast attempts. While there’s certainly a bit of disrespect for the law involved, there’s far more respect for technology. To set the original Tesla record, Carl and his co-drivers had to map out the locations of every possible Supercharger station across the country, figure the optimal amount of recharge to apply at each station, and relentlessly war-game potential routes to figure out what would work best.

To reset the record, Carl tweaked every potential variable yet again, then he added the Tesla’s newly released Autopilot feature. “We timed this to coincide with the release of Autopilot, so we’d be the first people to take full advantage of it.” For the vast majority of the cross-country drive, the Tesla’s three-person crew kept their hands off the wheel and let the Model P85D run at 90 mph hands-free. Alex, in particular, was infectiously enthusiastic about the potential of Autopilot, arguing with the Twitterati about the Tesla’s merits for the entire duration of his run and occasionally resorting to his hashtag while doing so.

“Maybe the next record won’t require a human driver at all,” Roy smirked, discussing how the P85D had the uncanny ability to hold the road in the dead of night at speeds above the top posted limits in America. And then we all basically stood around for a while, because part of setting a Tesla record is waiting around at Supercharger stations and doing nothing. There was something about the enforced inactivity that perfectly symbolized the modern cross-country record. Can you imagine Dan Gurney just standing around next to a Ferrari Daytona while it charged up? There’s nothing less cool.

That being said, there’s something fundamentally admirable about driving from LA to NY in under fifty-eight hours and letting the car do most of the work for you. It’s cool in the techno-hacker sense, of doing something with technology that isn’t the subject of a specific page in the owner’s manual PDF. If Cannonball Baker is really up there in some idealized heaven, I think he’s smiling on Alex Roy. Maybe for the first time.

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  • -Nate -Nate on Oct 28, 2015

    I hate the dope (shattered spine , broken neck & skull) , the damn Doctors don't like to let you stop it and the pain is a good thing because it stops you from moving about too much before the bones knit properly . Chronic pain sucks beyond belief , I have discovered that meditating on the pain is a good way to deal with it but one has to be careful as you might do a foolish thing like get a deep infection in your jaw from a simple bad tooth... (oops) . Anyway , this cross country thing is interesting , I prefer to enjoy my travels (? travails ?) and so don't speed all that much . RE ; rolling stop signs : 50 years ago those were called ' milk stops ' and are always a bad thing as in time you roll through the intersection not noticing the other idiot JUST LIKE YOU who's speeding and cannot possibly stop in time.... I grew up Down East and spent many years in Mass. , there's a reason they're called ' MASSHOLES ' . I -do- understand the benefit of bending the rules a bit to improve traffic flow but that's rarely what they're doing the self centered assholes . I see those Tesla charging stations but never anyone charging up . -Nate

    • VolandoBajo VolandoBajo on Oct 29, 2015

      Hello again, Nate. In all seriousness, once again some real world realism from a man of solid experience. In reverse order, I haven't even seen any Tesla charging stations in the Philly suburbs. In south Jersey the quick left at a light is quite common, helpful to overall traffic flow, and seldom if ever complained about. Just a mass response to the lack of availability of left turn lanes. Driving around the Boston area the fall and winter of the great East Coast Blizzard (around 95) was a scary thing. Never once saw much intelligent driving and a whole lot that wasn't. Ironic given the high concentration of top level universities. Never heard the term milk stops before. And I always factor in the change in velocity of the car on the cross street. If I don't see signs of a South Philly stop, that is if I see signs of merrily running the stop sign, I take the full stop, just in case. I tend to speed just as much as I feel I safely can (accident-wise and ticket-wise) in order to save some time. It also keeps me more alert, and less subject to highway hypnosis. Plus I can more easily position myself away from packs of traffic. Re: chronic pain...everything you say is true. What I have to try to teach my son, repeatedly. Good to hang tough, but you need to know when it stops being manly and a hardman, and when it becomes a case of neglecting to get needed medical treatment. And the doc who put me on Oxy's back around 2000 was happy to introduce me to them, and to keep on upping the dose, until it was time for him to shut me down. Then he wanted to go from eighty to zero in record time, so to speak, and I was hurting more ways than one, literally, for a while. Now when I need pain relief for severe pain (in NJ it has to be called chronic and intractable to get an Rx, unless you are dying), I opt for other choices, as effective and less addictive, though of course they all pull you in. ("Just when I thought I was out, they pull me right back in.") As you note, mind control can go a long way, but you have to be careful that you are not just letting a chronically declining situation get worse. But there have been times that I know of when meds were given too freely, and other times when one was left to suffer because the doctor was more concerned about risking his DEA narcotics license than he was about making sure that the patient didn't suffer needlessly. But that is another whole Bill Crystal says "don't get me started..." The Metropolitan stories were interesting. Though of course some people only care about straight line acceleration. To me, though, a really good sleeper should handle both straight line shots and canyon carving. My lightly tweaked 76 Rabbit, with intake/exhaust mods and suspension mods, could embarrass whaletail Porsches in the hills of Vermont. Probably not a nice thing to do, but psychologically satisfying when I was younger and trying to impress women who liked thrills and adventures. Yeah, I hope you can make it out this way. You are always welcome. And there is a small chance I might get out your way in the next year or so, but too early to tell now. My best friend for decades lives in the Bay Area and spends the winters in Baja California, and recently has taken to driving down and back. I may run down with him next fall, and fly back to the East Coast a couple of weeks later. We would be coming right through the SoCal area if I do. You sound like the kind of person I am glad to know is in the world. Where I have been before, the phrase is "good people". Take care and have fun.

  • -Nate -Nate on Oct 29, 2015

    Good morning ! . " Milk Stop " was from back when Divco milk trucks were every where and you'd let up off the ' Stand N Drive ' pedal and jump out , the truck would apply the brakes and coast to a stop as you were 1/2 way up the walk.... I greatly miss Divco trucks , sturdy and well built , modern right up to the end , they had Ford OHV i6 engines when bad management killed the profitable company . Knowing how to drive helps a lot no matter what you're driving ~ I don't need / care about stop light to stoplight drags 'cause I'm no longer 15 years old . Yes , I speed pretty much daily but no , not in close traffic as I don't ever want to maim nor kill anyone by my actions . The Met was made of MG Midget suspension so upgrading it was dead easy and cheap too , plus they were good and fun drivers when new if a bit slow in the top end , easily rectified . Being of my age I watched almost all of my Childhood chums die behind dope issues ~ often simply too high to realize they were about to be shot or whatever , those to me are still ' drug deaths ' . This is why I hate dope so much . After my fatal Moto accident , they kept me looped on morphine so much I had to threaten to kill the damn Nurse , she'd come into my Hospital room and say ' are you feeling okay ? want some more pain meds ? ' ~ I'd croak out " ! NO DAMMIT ! " and she'd go ahead anyway . I was fairly graphic about what I'd do to her once I was able to get out of the damn bed , next thing I knew there was a worried Doctor there asking me if I really was planning to kill the Nurse and I told him " only is she keeps giving me dope I don't want , I'll let you know when I can't handle the pain " . I'm no tough guy and I couldn't handle the pain but talking to guys I know have been dead for 40 years , wasn't any fun so NO DOPE DAMMIT ! . Anyway , do stop by if you're anywhere near L.A. Metro area , the first drink is on me , I'll have coffee . BTW : sleepers are the best !~ I love driving and those who run with me know to lead or follow but never get in my way , if I'm riding your bumper and flashing/tooting it's because you've already passed safe places to allow me to pass so speed up or move . -Nate

    • VolandoBajo VolandoBajo on Oct 31, 2015

      Good evening/morning, as the case may be for you. We seem to have a lot of things in common, Nate. Ditto for me, first one's on me. More likely to be a Coca-Cola for me, unless the coffee is really good. Just not Starbux, please! Jackie Mason was right "the coffee is not dark roasted! Their coffee is BURNT!". We have enough in common that we could have gone to different schools together, as the saying goes. Never heard of or saw a Divco truck, though I am old enough (plus by virtue of places I have lived) that I remember milk delivery trucks, as well as seltzer bottle trucks. I too have seen and known of too many dead from dope...usually H or downers, but other ways as well. I don't consider herbs to be dope, and especially don't think they should be locking people up for it. But Neil Young's song about the needle and the damage done pretty well sums up the other stuff. I have an Rx for a bit of M for chronic back pain, but only take enough to get a night's sleep when my back is bothering me badly. And after my experiences with Oxies after a severe accident, when they were new and the doctor assured me that they weren't very addictive (he either lied or was horribly misinformed) I will never take another one of those. I suspect that if you were in S. Philly when the main drags were bumper to bumper, and the local streets ALL have four way stop signs, going for miles, you might be tempted, not so much to floor it between stop signs, as to make the rolling approach to the sign, in essence going from 5mph to 15 or 20, back down to 5, etc., rather than hitting full stops. I have seen people get T-boned in DC even when making full stops, waiting their turn, and then having some bonehead either run their sign or stop, then try to speed up to intimidate someone else into stopping even though they have the right of way. Had a taxi drive do just that to me one time, in my Thunderbird. The accident was totally avoidable, and I suspect he must have been looking for a workman's comp claim (can I still say workman in America?). My best friend, who is the guy who cycles between the Bay Area and Baja California, and I used to run in the fast lane of life when we were in and around college. We lost touch for a variety of reasons, and got back in touch three or four years ago. Ironically, both of us had stopped doing things to ourselves that will remain unnamed here, as well as giving up the bottle. He stopped drinking about eight years before I did, is still with the same wife he had way back (I didn't settle down though for another twenty years), and he too has one son, though his is eight years older than mine. My best sleeper was a 76 VW Rabbit, purchased new. The EPA said the cat converter could go, along with a leaner main jet, .15 => .125. Problem was, the car skipped like mad around thirty five in third, around 55 in top. As you would expect, when you reduce backpressure and then lean it out further. Since this involves some diciness as to procedures, let me just say that somehow it ended up accidentally get a Dasher .175 main jet instead.`Since this was during one of the great gas shortages, my car got lots of crappy gas from the Brooklyn gas stations, where the rainwater ran down hill for blocks, and then into the stations' tanks. So I had a lot of practice doing teardowns and rebuilds of the carbs anyway. So I must have accidentally taken a larger jet out of my toolbox, as it would have been illegal to knowingly do so. But the car no longer skipped, AND the mpg went up about 2mpg. So, being a rational man, I was forced to conclude that I must have found the jet the EPA intended for me to have. However, now the car would backfire like a two stroke motorcycle every time I downshifted when the revs were up a bit. And I mean LOUD backfire...the kind that people looked around, and war vets would start to dive for cover. Obviously that would never do. Turns out the legal cat delete left the wider diameter pipe in place, leading to the backfire. So one time when I was in northern VT on vacation, I asked about replacement downpipes, and was told that the Canadian Rabbit downpipe was a straight pipe. Since it was legal to install in Canada, my backfire disappeared shortly thereafter. After that, I could and would run my then boss down Lex Ave in Manhattan on Saturday mornings, when we left work after any of our halfday workdays. Road went from three lanes to two about a quarter mile from where we would park on the street. His new Beemer just couldn't come near to keeping up...didn't know what to say when I swore, truthfully, that there was nothing but VW parts in my Rabbit. I added front and read anti-sway bars, and the car would corner like crazy, as well as having some wicked thirty to fifty and fifty to eighty times. The story is a bit on the long side, but I figured you might appreciate the engineering details. Those carbed Rabbits were some of the best cars VW ever made...easy to maintain, fast, good mileage and fun to drive, once you put sway bars on them, got the cat converter legally deleted, and then fixed the remaining issues. And I too have told docs and nurses to stuff their plans, when they started using me as a guinea pig...had one doc, a real pill pusher type, who tried to put me on high blood pressure meds in my thirties, with a BP of 140/80, when I was under a lot of job stress. The side effects are nasty, the high BP was likely to go down once I quit that stressful job, but the company was pushing the treatment, and the doc was going along with the plan. But not a second opinion, changed jobs, and my BP came down to 120/70 w/o the severe and long-lasting side effects. My brother in law, who is an MD, says they even have a name for this, "old geezer syndrome", old geezers like me who only seek medical help when something is seriously and obviously wrong. Though I do make one exception...get routine physicals to be on the lookout. But my doctor doesn't reach for the prescription pad any and every time I come to see him about something. Which is one of the main reasons he is my doctor. My passing strategy is similar to yours...first pull up a few car lengths behind the guy crawling in the left lane. Then a couple of left turn signals, like the old M-B autobahn commercial. Then a couple of horn toots, and finally a couple of headlight flashes. If none of those budge the dinosaur, I cautiously move right, then pass, assuming there is a right to move to. Though thankfully most people aren't THAT oblivious. Still, they exist. I never knew the Metro had an MG suspension setup. Must have made for a lot of interesting possibilities. Another nice sleeper I used to see around, many years ago, was a very stock looking '40 Ford coupe. Only it had one of the 190 advertised HP Jaguar engines in it, mounted so cleanly that it looked stock. The actual HP was much higher, which is why swaps like that were popular in the old Gas class at the drags. The guy cleaned up at the strip and at the shows. But nary a sign that it had been hotrodded. Wish I weren't almost completely retired...I would love to beef up my 97 Grand Marquis. Still, it is fun to drive stock (but with a tuned chip...old habits die hard.) Hasta la vista...hope our paths cross IRL. --Volando

  • Chiefmonkey Honda just cuts too many corners. There's no reason why the base Accord should have a 4 speaker stereo lol. It's a $28,000 midsize sedan, not a Mitsubishi Mirage! Not to diss the Mirage it's a great car for what it is. And what's up with Honda's obsession with the dullest most spartan looking black cloth or leather interiors? Literally every other automaker I can think of offers two, three, four possibilities. If I order even the top trim accord in the blue paint, I am limited to a black interior...why???? Strangely, if I order the white paint, the possibilities expand overwhelmingly to two: black, or dentist's office gray (which clashes with white.) There's zero rhyme or reason to it. Just a cheap, corner cutting company.
  • Dartman It was all a scam just to gin up some free publicity. It worked. Tassos go back to sleep; no ones on your lawn. Real ‘murricans prefer hot dogs to gyros.
  • ToolGuy I plan to install a sink in the crawl space soon. After that I plan to put washer and dryer hookups on my roof.
  • ToolGuy "That power team adds an electric supercharger"YES!
  • Cardave5150 UAW is acting all butt-hurt that their employers didn't "share the wealth" when they had massive profits. They conveniently forget that they have a CONTRACT with their employers, which was negotiated in good faith, and which the Remaining 3 are honoring, paying them exactly what they negotiated last time.