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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