Midnight in the car park

I think it’s because I grew up around manual cars. A car with no one in it should be quiet and still. It is inanimate. These things, with their hum and their lights that can flash at any moment seem oddly awake and alive. And not in a good way…read more

My stomach sinks as I get off the train. I saw it from the train window as we were pulling into the station. There are only two cars in the car park. Mine and one other. This never used to bother me. It does now. I’m not sure what they were thinking. It’s a black car. They often are. Its parked under the lights. They always are. I get me keys out of my bag before I even get close to it.

My car is a manual-that means –it’s not what it used to mean. It means I have to drive my car physically. I have to concentrate and steer and indicate and all sorts of physical things. It doesn’t drive itself. It can assist in parking but not much else. I like it that way even though I have to clean it myself. Remember those car washes, all gone now. Most cars have a self cleaning system. I’ve no idea how it works, plus they are all ‘dirt resistant’- Oh and did I mention you can choose the smell of the soap it uses when it washes itself. You can have the sweet smell of rubber tyres on tarmac overlaid with forest glen soap suds. It’s all a bit silly. My car is not clean. I can’t remember the last time I washed it. I don’t care. The other car in the car park, the black one, parked under the lights, is shiny and clean. Too clean if you want my opinion. Suspiciously clean- if that is a thing. It probably isn’t anymore.

Alone in a car park at night with a self driving car is a whole other ball game no one has thought through. It is parked nearer to the station than my car so I have no choice but to go past it. That’s typical too. It’s for its safety, not mine. No one else got off the train. The motor of this self driving thing is running-well- not running, but there is a constant low level humming like a computer but not quite like that. It is waiting for a command. Constantly. Just a low hum like your computer when its just waiting for you to type something in. Its weird. They do have a sleep mode but often in car parks, they are perpetually ready to move. Like a dog sitting waiting, head forward, ears up,  waiting to be called by its owners. That can be unnerving.

I think it’s because I grew up around manual cars. A car with no one in it should be quiet and still. It is inanimate. These things, with their hum and their lights that can flash at any moment seem oddly awake and alive. And not in a good way. You can be walking past them and suddenly they are on. Silently gliding off onto the road beside you. Its unnerving and of course now there are a lot of trips made with no one in the car. Forget going to pick someone up, just send the car. There are just lots of cars on the road with no one in them. It never feels right or safe. It makes sense that there would be wholly empty journeys but nothing prepared us for the reality of it. How it feels to have a completely empty car slide past you on the road? It’s kind of weird, At first it wasn’t permitted, because people kept watching and crashing, but now it’s everywhere.

The car is parked in such a way that I have to walk past it. That’s deliberate. It has probably moved around the car park to be near my car for safety reasons. Its safety as I said, not mine.  The sensors on it are broad and wide. I take a moment and look at it. There is no way I can get to the driver’s side of my car without it sensing me. I could conceivably try the passenger side but even then I will need to walk around and wide to avoid being ‘sensed’. My car is forward facing and so is it, just one space to the right and closer to the station. Its lights will shine on the vacant parking space next to my car. It is unavoidable. It feels ominous. It already knows I will come and now I am here.

I swallow hard. I never used to be worried about cars parked in car parks in the night. They used to be just cars.  I walk on towards my car and try and pretend not to care, but there have been stories, lots of stories. What is to stop the car sidling up to me and trapping me against my car. What then? I am at the owner’s mercy. The owner could be watching me as I walk, from somewhere else. I walk across in front of it. I have to. I walk. Deliberately. Bravely. It senses me. How much data is it collecting about me. Its lights come on. They light the parking space where I am standing by my car door. It knows I’m here. That is meant to be helpful but it only scares me more. I jump when the lights first come on. The lights would be blinding if I turned toward them, but then it dips them down. How does it know. I don’t know how it knows. But the lights dip anyway. I hold my keys firmly. It’s humming. Still humming. Always humming. It is not meant to be menacing but somehow in the darkness when it’s just me and it and my car- it is.

I put my key in my car door and turn it. It makes a noise, a comforting noise. It can only be seconds that my person is within the range of the sensors but it will know what I look like, that I am female, maybe it has tapped into my phone to register who I am in case I steal it or scratch it or drive into it. It knows who I am. Its owner can know who I am. The police can know who I am. The manufacturer can know who I am. The list of people who can know I was getting into my car in a car park in Suffolk in the middle of the night is endless. All of it, from just a few seconds in front of the sensor of someone else’s car. Is anyone interested? I hope not but I can never know. There have been people charged with collecting these images, distorting them, using them. There was even an art show, that was weird. It’s private, this act of getting into my car. I am privately getting into my car in a train station at midnight in Suffolk but now it is public. I have no choice. I parked my car here. That car is parked there and it is done. It is public. I have no right to get into my car in a car park in Suffolk in the middle of the night privately anymore.  

I ease into the seat of my car. I switch on the ignition and my lights. It’s lights are still on. I look in the side mirror. I can still see it. It’s just sitting there, waiting, ominous. Where is the owner? I’ve no idea. There’s that story, maybe he’s in my car? I check the mirror. There is no one in the back seat. I want to check the boot. I don’t. I am being silly.

I turn on the motor. What if it follows me? It can do that. It can just follow me and there is nothing I can do. Just an empty car following me home. Is it going to follow me? It wouldn’t be the first time? The thing is to keep driving in circles around the block until it figures out you have figured it out. It’s costly in terms of petrol but it does work.

It’s a new kind of stalking, empty cars following people places. Driverless cars, it gives you a sense of not being responsible but they still found a way to make them do things they shouldn’t. There’s the model they had to recall when several owners used it to follow home school girls flashing the car lights and hooting the horn all the way-that one was a disaster some tech head hadn’t thought through. Then there’s the whole locking system, once you’re in, you’re in and there is no way out and even the emergency alarm hasn’t managed to save anyone. Had to be modified following the odd murder where the victim simply couldn’t escape. That was after the insurance claim of course. It’s like no one applied their brain to it. Self driving cars it turns out are much more popular with certain men than others. Most women like me, like a bit of parking assistance but not much else.

I drive away, out of the car park. I look in the mirror. It is still sitting there, alone now-can a car be alone? Its lights still shining on the vacant spot. Its probably still humming and I am overcome with compassion for it. It’s still inanimate I tell myself. But now it’s like a lost dog at the dogs home where someone else has adopted every other dog. I feel bad. I feel terrible. I have left it alone in the car park. These cars, these driverless cars, they are a minefield, an emotional minefield. It’s a car not a dog I say out loud. But I still feel bad, as I change gears and steer towards home. My car is loved.

2 thoughts on “Midnight in the car park

  1. Thank you, that’s really lovely. I generally just hope I am wrong and that self driving cars are generally fab but I think the idea of a car without a driver on the road next to you will be really unnerving for awhile.

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