My Big Fat Self-Driving Road Trip

I was not prepared to fall head over heels for the Cadillac Escalade. It’s not my kind of car — or, at least, it’s not supposed to be. The Escalade is one of the largest, heaviest, least efficient and most expensive S.U.V.s on the road. It is also among the most unembarrassedly decadent — the ride of choice for Manhattan bigwigs and reality-TV housewives, the sort of car that rappers, movie stars and professional athletes buy for their mothers after making it big.

Aesthetically, financially, environmentally and perhaps even morally, everything about the Escalade felt poorly suited to someone like myself, the bookish newspaper columnist who frequently rails against the cultural dominance of cars and so on.

And yet here I sit, pining for the 2021 Escalade in Dark Moon Blue Metallic that I drove during a two-week, 2,400-mile family road trip through Arizona and Nevada over the winter holiday.

I’d chosen this Escalade because it’s emblematic of a trend sweeping car design: It has been stuffed to the gills with technology. Among other things, much of the dashboard is composed of a sweeping, 38-inch curved touch-screen display. The stereo system has 36 speakers. Cameras mounted pretty much everywhere allow you to pull up views of the car from every angle. Microphones set around the car can amplify voices through the speakers, creating a kind of in-car intercom.

These many tech-enabled comforts and conveniences turn the Escalade into something more couch than conveyance. I imagine cars like it functioning as a kind of “third space” in the daily routines of the upper middle class — a very nice home theater, home office or den that happens to be on wheels. Plus, sometimes, it can pretty much drive itself.

Credit…Jesse Rieser for The New York Times

I fell for these digital charms. I have driven many faster and more fun cars than the Escalade. I have definitely driven cheaper and more practical cars. But I have never been in a car that makes being stuck in a car as comfortable and effortless as this one.

The market seems to agree: The Escalade’s tech-heavy 2021 redesign sent sales surging by 65 percent. Escalades start at around $80,000, but after piling on upgrades, nearly half of the owners spend over $100,000. The one I drove, which The New York Times paid to rent from a fleet management company that handles G.M.’s press-review cars — and which had most, but not all available options — carried a sticker price of nearly $109,000.

But mine is a troubled love, a guilty love, a love whose implications confuse and alarm me. The digital transformation of cars won’t stop with luxury S.U.V.s. Many of the features that I found so compelling in the Escalade will eventually make their way to its lower-priced Chevrolet cousins, the Tahoe and Suburban, and probably to every other car.

Wha’s so terrible about that? I have argued before that we can’t solve problems caused by cars — among them climate-warming emissions — simply by building better cars. Research has shown that even with more efficient electric cars, Americans will have to drive much less and walk, bike, and ride transit much more in order to meet climate goals.

The Escalade’s comforts defeat that goal; many times, I found myself driving more, longer, because driving the Escalade was so totally easy. If most cars become as comfortable, convenient and luxurious as this one — while growing ever larger — what hope is there that we might ever reduce our dependence on these monstrous machines? Also, should I plan to lease, or to buy?

To see why I’m so taken with the Escalade, let me tell you about Super Cruise, G.M.’s autonomous driving system, which is among the industry’s most advanced. Many cars now offer some version of driving assistance, but most manufacturers’ self-driving systems, even Tesla’s Autopilot, requires the humans sitting in the driver’s seats to keep their hands on the steering wheel while the car is piloting itself. Super Cruise dispenses with the wheel touching.

After engaging the system, you can twiddle your toes and put your hands in the air like you just don’t care. The car will steer, stay centered in a lane and adjust its speed to keep pace with the traffic around you (up to a set maximum speed). When you tap the turn signal, it will search for a safe spot and change lanes. Sometimes the car encounters a problem (for instance, the road’s lane lines are too faint for it to pick out) and it informs you to take over.

The car does not navigate by itself — that is, it won’t follow a route to an address — so you’ve got to enter and exit the freeway manually. But if you’re going to be on one road for a long while, you can turn it on and, for the most part, do nothing while it keeps chugging.

All the car asks is that you keep looking forward, in the general direction of the road. A small camera mounted on the steering column watches you to make sure. If you look away for more than a few seconds, or cover or block your eyes while eating, reading, texting and the like, the car will issue a series of warnings for you to pay attention. If you fail to heed the warnings, the car will eventually disengage Super Cruise and begin to slow down. Ignoring it isn’t easy; there are angry red lights, a buzzer in your seat, a stern voice scolding you, and I, for one, was quick to obey.

Super Cruise’s main limitation is geographic. Unlike Tesla’s system, which can be activated on pretty much any road, Super Cruise can be engaged only on the few hundred thousand miles of American roadway that G.M. has mapped. In practice, this means it works on most state and Interstate highways. I wasn’t keeping track, but I’d estimate it was available on about two-thirds of our trip.

The system takes some getting used to; there’s a bit of nervousness the first few times you turn it on — you keep your hands on the wheel just to be sure that it’s really driving — but it wasn’t long before I began to trust it.

What does one do in the driver’s seat, if not drive? It’s basically like being a passenger. For dozens of miles at a time, the car asks nothing from you. Freed from the drudgery of driving, you can let your eye wander across the scenery and your mind contemplate the mundane and the profound. It’s not that you’re completely distracted — even lost in thought, you can keep situational awareness of the road ahead — but the reduction in stress is significant. With Super Cruise, I could drive much farther in a day and feel much calmer afterward, almost as if I hadn’t done anything at all.

What all of this amounts to, after a while, is an inflated sense of confidence, a feeling that your car can take you anywhere more or less hassle-free. Super Cruise let me drive farther than I could otherwise, with less stress. (And the Escalade’s many screens let my kids sit longer in the car than they would have otherwise, with less whining. My son, who’s 11, spent much of the trip playing Xbox on the back-seat display.)

A snowstorm rolled in when we were in Los Alamos, N.M., and if I’d been in another car, I would probably have waited for the snow to pass before I set off out of town. But the Escalade had me hopped up: Because I suspected self-driving in the snow would not be all that much more of an annoyance than self-driving in clear weather, I’d chosen to keep driving in potentially dangerous conditions.

This is exactly the sort of thinking that urban scholars say promotes sprawl. America’s first wave of urban sprawl, which took off after World War II, was fueled in part by the plummeting price of cars and the development of the Interstate highway system. The artificial intelligence researcher Carlos Ignacio Gutierrez argues in a recent paper that autonomous cars can produce a similar effect: If self-driving an hourlong commute is as easy as manually driving a half-hour commute, an owner of a self-driving car may reasonably decide to move to more affordable housing further away from city centers. And moving further away — that is, creating sprawl — intensifies car dependence by making alternative forms of transportation like walking or biking more difficult.

At this point this is only a theory, but it’s a plausible one. Some research has already shown that people who use advanced driver-assistance systems drive more than those who don’t.

And self-driving systems will keep getting better. G.M. has already announced an update that will be available on some 2023 vehicles that will “enable hands-free driving in 95 percent of all driving scenarios.”

But how far does this go? As the cars get better at driving themselves, as the screens get bigger and the speakers louder and the seats more comfortable, what role will cars come to play in our lives? They might become our new living rooms. They could also become our very luxurious prisons.

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