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I Tried the Prius and Didn’t Like It

It’s not often that 21st century gets in my face.  Computers and computer networks blend seamlessly into work and home and social life; since my first encounters with online games 35 years ago, my reaction has usually been one of degree rather than kind.

But last week, when I rented a car, a Prius was delivered to my control.  A 2009 Prius.  I put in the key — oops, as Prius drivers know, it’s a dongle — and off I went.  After driving it around for a while, I decided that I didn’t like it much. 

The car went as fast and as quickly as I wanted to it to go; it stopped where and when I wanted it to stop; it handled cleanly; it didn’t break down; and of course it cost relatively little to fill up with gas. 

But it wasn’t much fun to drive.

I hesitate to characterize my reaction as a “problem,” since the Prius has been a driveaway success.  Still, I am nagged by the unavoidable sense that I wasn’t driving a car at all, but a simulacrum of a car:  four wheels, a motor, a steering wheel, etc., but (and this is the key) very little mechanical (dare I say, analog?) connection between me and the road. 

The hyperreality of the Prius is, in fact, part of the program.  The Prius is drive-by-wire.  The gear shift device is a joystick.  The smooth and the quiet are essential to the Prius experience.  It is a car but not a car.  It’s a computer that moves.  That’s great!  And it doesn’t pollute so much.    But I could have been a character in The Matrix or — worse and more sinister — in Sleeper.

Is my sense of automotive authenticity a social and cultural construct, shaped by my teenage experiences driving a ’63 Rambler (no power brakes, no power steering!)?  It’s been years, of course, since even “conventional” automobiles were constructed as purely mechanically as that old car.  As I noted at the outset, the Prius seems different only and partly in the sense that it represents the 21st century in my face, as well as under the hood.  Or was Woody Allen on to something deeper about the character of human engagement with the world?