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?

6 thoughts on “I Tried the Prius and Didn’t Like It

  1. More to the point, I think you’re quite entitled to feel a bit put out by the intermediation of the code.

    During the early 20th century, the Arts & Crafts movement offered a counter-aesthetic to mechanical modernization. The early 21st century, I suppose, might find an appealing aesthetic in preserving the intelligible and tangible machine in the face of the virtual black box.

    I personally am still annoyed that I can’t fix my own car because it only talks with the dealer’s computers.

    http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/06/is-a-right-to-repair-law-needed-even-mechanics-cant-agree/

    p.s. Biella Coleman makes an interesting connection between FSF code and hand tools:

    http://gabriellacoleman.org/blog/?p=1108

  2. You are protesting too much… in point of fact except for that gearlever, the Prius is no more “drive by wire” than any other car. The steering is normal and it has normal hydraulic braking circuits.

    I agree that it is not “fun to drive” in the conventional sense of cornering on two wheels etc etc. But I have found it much more engaging and much more fun that the Subaru I had before, because it supplies the driver with so much more information. and with a fuel economy so far of 58mpg(UK) and £15 annual tax it has much to commend it.

    Any competent mechanic can service it, not just the dealer. A CAN scanner can be had for $100 these days

  3. Jerry — I’d certainly be protesting too much if I were criticizing the Prius. I haven’t driven one yet, and I’m just reading reports from others like Mike. So my complaint about fixing my car isn’t a complaint about the Prius generally. And yes, I’m all for hyrbid technologies and fuel savings.

  4. Jerry,
    Reasonable people will differ, I’m sure, regarding the engagement and fun. In my view, the screen-based data quotient is very high, but the experiential feedback quotient (the sensation that I’m engaged with a machine) is remarkably low. As Greg suggested (indirectly), it’s like driving a videogame. A lot of people like the information-rich videogame environment. I do, too — when I’m playing a videogame.

    When I’m driving a car, I don’t care so much about that data. I’m used to it feeling like a car. A ’63 Rambler takes that sensation to an extreme; I’m not looking for *that* experience any time soon. But I’ve driven everything from a classic Bentley to an 1974 AMC Gremlin to my current Ford and Honda, and I like my feedback through the wheel and the shifter.

Comments are closed.