Remember driverless cars? Right, well, they’re still around, even if the media’s gaze has mostly moved on. They’re still being tested on the streets of Pittsburgh, for one, and they’re still being touted by the companies and investors that view them as a bridge to the future of basically everything.
But for all the Jetsonian elevator pitches involved, the books built around this automotive space race have remained very short on futurism and very long on real-world corporate palace intrigue.
Enter Patrick McGinty.
The Pittsburgh author and Slippery Rock professor who penned a famous takedown — my word, not his — of the connected nonfiction subgenre has now added a work of futuristic dystopian fiction to the mix.
It’s his debut novel. It’s called TEST DRIVE. And it’s uniting people who dig driverless cars and those who really don’t dig any cars at all, he explained.
We talked to McGinty — on a break from grading finals — about the book, “cargasm” culture, the sci-fi label, and the existential crises of contract work.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
PA Local: Hi Patrick. Please describe the entire plot of your full-length book in a single tweet [280 characters or less].
McGinty: In TEST DRIVE, test drivers decide that skimming parts from their driverless car company is an insufficient response to alarming climate and housing conditions. The plan: steal and gut a driverless car in a city whose climate and tech sector are putting the squeeze on workers.
PA Local: Thanks. Are you comfortable with the sci-fi label?
McGinty: I don’t personally view it that way. I kept trying to write it contemporaneously but things just kept changing in the driverless car sector and I finally just kind of threw up my hands and decided to throw the proverbial ball ahead thinking ‘they can’t catch me out there.’
And once you’re in the future you can have some fun with it. But if people read it and they’re like this is sci-fi, that’s great. It doesn’t bother me.
PA Local: How’s the autonomous vehicle space race going in 2030 Pittsburgh [which serves as the backdrop for the book]?
McGinty: The biggest business pivot that has happened is the climate situation has gotten so bad with wind and rain — these events called surges — that the companies have started saying ‘Our cars are going to be safer than humans driving out in this weather.’
But I’m just sort of using driverless cars as a work environment to think about some of these issues [climate change, housing, capitalism].
And for the most part the tech actually works pretty decently in the novel. Like, infrastructure is a much bigger problem, and I don’t want to spoil anything but most of the really bad sh— that happens in the book is because of infrastructure.
PA Local: How many cargasms are there?
McGinty: You could say the whole thing is a cargasm. There’s certainly a lot of driving in it. And I welcome anyone I’ve made fun of in the past for their writing about driving to, you know, mercilessly dunk on me, although I think I'm pretty measured.
PA Local: You helped develop a national college-level curriculum that's all about looking at autonomous vehicles more holistically. What else prepared you to write this book?
McGinty: I've written about tech almost exclusively for two or three years.
I’ve never done [autonomous vehicle] test driving work but there is a whole lot of this book that’s been influenced by my 10 years of experience as an adjunct professor at the absolute bottom — doing contract work, going on strike while my wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and losing our health insurance for a few days.
I’ve also done a lot of reading about driverless vehicles and a lot of observing of driverless vehicles.
My grandpa was a steel worker and he was also a painter. I’ve got paintings of deer and pheasants from him all over my house. And when I would doodle with him he’d say 'don’t draw what you think you see, just draw what you see out in the world or in your mind.'
And so when I’m looking at our country, I look around and I see tech. I see it. I’m sitting in front of it. My students are talking about NFTs. Driverless cars are coming down my alley.
—Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
Hear more from Patrick McGinty on this episode of Autonocast.