It is not often you get to do something you have never done before. That is an argument made by a close friend, who has been urging me to take on everything uncomfortable and difficult during what is a personal transition. He often reminds me that being uncomfortable is what has kept me moving forward, evolving, and perhaps improving. So, after some misgivings, internal anxiety, and lots of fears, I embarked on a new adventure today.
I took my first driving lesson today. (In a somewhat ironic turn of events, someone else took their first driverless robotaxi ride in San Francisco.)
Driving hasn’t been a priority for me. I grew up in Delhi and learned how to ride a scooter and motorcycle. It was enough to get around, and more importantly, that was all my family could afford at that time. My parents taught me to live within our means. It is a lesson that isn’t easily forgotten even after all these years.
Even though I had friends with cars who would have readily obliged, I didn’t feel comfortable asking them to teach me. Nevertheless, I could remember roads and quickly navigate, which landed me some navigator gigs in car rallies. I still never drove myself. Later, when I moved to New York, I found no need to drive. MTA was a godsend. Even in San Francisco, I found myself taking public transportation and later taxicabs. Uber solved many of my mobility problems.
Owning a car, the carbon footprint of a car, and just dealing with the bureaucratic complexity of ownership made me not bother with driving. Even today, I would rather be part of a collaborative transportation system,
However, as my passion for photography has increased, I have found myself constrained by the limitations of on-demand transportation. I have often missed the morning light because I couldn’t get to the desired spot in time. My friend, who encouraged me to take on the challenge, reminded me that I could drive to destinations that opened up more photography opportunities.
I honestly (and perhaps naively believed) in technology to bring driverless self-driving cars to the masses and that I would never have to learn to drive. Let the machines do what is clearly a highly complex task.
Despite Elon Musk & Co.’s best efforts, the recent launch of Cruise’s driverless robotaxis, and all the hype, it might be some years before a driverless future becomes a reality. That doesn’t mean that I doubt the future — the chips, the lasers, the software, the networks, and everything else is improving exponentially by the day.
However, should I wait or take matters into my own hands? The answer was pretty obvious. And for the first time in my life, I sat behind a steering wheel, and in the company of a driving instructor, I drove for about three miles on roads with actual traffic. Most of the session was about learning how to find the delicate balance between accelerating and decreasing speed. The accelerator and the brakes are two sides of the same coin, really, as long as you can find the right balance. I suppose in time, and with enough experience, you start to find harmony. It will perhaps be an excellent way to measure how far I have come along on this journey.
So how were my first two hours behind the wheel? Nerve-wracking, to say the least, even though my instructor thought I was relatively calm. I got back home and exhaled — drenched in sweat and relieved that I had passed the first hurdle.
As I sat down and replayed the two hours in my mind, I could start to see my specific challenges and driving challenges in general. I gripped the steering wheel too hard, and that made sometimes keeping in the lane a bit tough, as my tension made the car twitch a bit. I need to learn to breathe easier behind the wheel, and perhaps they will allow me to hold the steering easier. It is what I need to start to develop trust in the machine itself.
More importantly, the whole process made me confront myself — I like to have everything controlled and managed, where I have enough time to deliberate and make decisions. That is part of the analytical approach that has become part of my daily rigor. Driving is nothing like that — it is almost the exact opposite. You need the staid approach of a grownup with the reflexes of a teenager in order to be an alert and efficient driver.
Even though it was my first attempt at driving, it was evident that driving is not about being the perfect driver. Instead, driving is about being intelligent and agile enough to deal with the imperfection of the world around you and assuming the human ability to do irrational things.
You have to pay so much attention to multiple data streams entering your brain when driving on the road. It is a bit overwhelming, and more than anything, makes you appreciate how vital self-driving technology will be for mobility. It also made me appreciate the complexity that all these automation systems will have to deal with, reinforcing the importance of data collected by these self-driving companies. You also start to realize the vital edge Tesla has over its rivals when to all the training data it has collected and algorithms it has crafted as a result.
While self-driving and its proponents come under intense criticism — and why not, they do overhype things too much — we can’t but be excited about the possibilities. I was not fortunate enough to be around at the birth of personal computing, but I did see the rise of commercial internet from a courtside vantage point. The same was true for the rise of mobile computing.
Self-driving and automation are new kinds of computing environments, and their journey is exciting for me as a technology enthusiast. I have been following the emergence of new kinds of chips and technologies. As an investor, I have invested in Veniam, which enables the networks that power this automation.
And as a student driver, I will do my best to get my driver’s license. I am not sure if I will even buy a car. All that is in the future, as is the time, when I can say: hey Tesla, drive me to Hawk Hill!
November 13, 2021. San Francisco.