The Internet Taught Me to Drive
One Friday afternoon just before Halloween I was in stop-and-start traffic on Sunset when a thirty-something woman in a VW Beetle rear-ended me with enough force that her airbag deployed. We were both unharmed, although she seemed convinced she was about to die from a massive heart attack. It took me ten minutes to coax her out of her car (now causing a significant bottleneck) to the relative safety of the sidewalk, during which time I studied her Ms. Pac Man seat covers while passing commuters heaped abuse on me.
I reassured her that her chest pains were just a trauma response to having her texting interrupted by the untimely appearance of my rear bumper. The paramedics she insisted on summoning said something similar. After another half hour of emotional labor (I see you, ladies) I managed to extract her insurance information and interest her in mine.
The damage to my Honda Odyssey was extensive. I faced more than a month-long wait for parts. So began an odyssey of a different sort.
I borrowed my wife’s Tesla. There are many everyday experiences that cause me disproportionate irritation; somehow Los Angeles traffic isn’t one of them. Except when I’m piloting that Tesla. S-3-X-Y as the expanded Tesla lineup may be, my wife’s Model X is an ancient 2016. Something about the cryptic “error messages” that pop up on its big display screen makes me feel like I’m trying to batch print mailing labels or import Excel macros while getting the kids to soccer practice. When I first popped the hood, I stared down at an uncanny reminder that car companies have been hiding the motor from customers for over six years now. Instead of the expected hoses and valves and other sundry parts, you’re confronted with the eerie blank of a Ken doll’s crotch. How long, I wondered, before that tackle box of yore will be forgotten altogether?
I found myself shifting gears – to my 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser, a dinosaur so arcane I felt a surge of vitality just from slipping behind the wheel. It lacks heat or air, it’s finicky at best about starting, and the gas mileage is abysmal, but its (once) powerful innards are still on display for all to see. Did I know what they did? No. But it felt nice to know I could learn.
And so I did learn, a little. Driving an old car in 2022 inducts you into an extensive online society of others who own that same exact car. When I needed to remove and clean the idle air control valve, a fellow FJ2 owner showed me. When I needed another fix – I kept stalling out at stop lights – another compatriot taught me to patch any cracks in the intake hose with duct tape. There were cracks. I patched them. Green, once again, meant go.
It was a modest win, to be sure, but enough to make me feel a part of what motor philosopher Matthew B. Crawford calls the internal combustion engine’s “singular story of engineering progress.” The internal combustion engine, he writes in Why We Drive, is
the beneficiary of the most sustained and widely dispersed project of practical experimentation in human history, the ultimate wiki. Today’s state of the art is the result of more than a century of back-and-forth between trained engineers and shade tree mechanics, illicit street racers and environmental regulators, high-dollar motor sports and cost-oriented automakers.
The ultimate wiki. I wanted to go deeper. The rabbit hole dutifully led me to Alex Muir’s elegant How a Car Works. What started as a collection of illustrated articles, still available for free on the website, has evolved into something much more comprehensive. You can watch Muir take apart a Mazda MX5 Miata, model it out in 3D, and then put the whole thing back together. The 14-hour video course, on current offer at $25 for “lifetime access,” patiently takes you through every conceivable facet of automotive engineering.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C. Clarke, which might explain why those modern-day shamans known as car mechanics are so adept at making our money disappear. To the ignoramus, even the basics look like sorcery. It can’t hurt to pick up a few tricks of our own – before our tech odyssey ends in the experts hiding the rest of our world behind Ken’s crotch.