New car

I woke up that morning as though it was Christmas morning, even though it was a day in late June. Far too early and with excitement and anticipation running through me like a high-voltage electric shock, I didn’t sleep much the night before. It didn’t matter, though, because tiredness on a day like that was never going to matter.

The appointment to collect it wasn’t until 10.15, so I had a few hours to kill. I’d pored over pictures of it almost every day for months beforehand, so it was never going to be a surprise to see it for the first time, but the thought of swinging those doors up to expose the cabin, before climbing inside for the first time to drink it all in and start it up, was infectious. So looking at some pictures again was the easiest way to drift back into that particular daydream.

McLaren Special Operations will paint your car any colour you like. If it can be reproduced in paint — hey, some colours can’t yet, we just don’t have the right natural or man-made dyes! — they can put it on your car. They’ll even never use that colour with any other customer in the future, so that your car will be completely unique. For the right price of course. So I’d picked a dark blue, almost black, but under the right light and looking at just the right spot and angle, the reflected blue was an irresistible sea blue. Hilton Bora Bora sea blue.

There’s so much on a car like the 2021MY MSO HS that you can customise, right down to the colour of the stitching on the leather, or the direction of the weave of the carbon fibre exposed on the seat backs. Monogrammed stitching inside the glovebox? No problem. Custom message on the screen when the in-car computers wake up? They can do that for you. Special thickness of the Alcantara that covers the steering wheel so help you grip it just so? Of course, sir. Oh, you want it a certain colour to match the headliner? All you have to do is ask.

All of that used to happen at the dealership with the salesperson, flicking through page after page of options and paint swatches while walking around an already made car in someone else’s configuration. Just imagine that the burnt orange paint colour is the dark blue with the Bora Bora flip. The human imagination is incredibly powerful, but the mind’s eye has its limits. That doesn’t matter though; it’s 2020, so these days you just slip on an AR headset and walk around the same car, letting the AR system change how it looks right in front of your eyes while you get to touch and feel it and drink in the sensation of your car being right there. Slip the AR system off and the dealer configuration reappears as if by magic — and let’s be honest, it is magic. Slip them back on and you’re transported to looking at the your car.

Shit, is that the time? It was a half past nine and I still hadn’t left yet, lost in my favourite daydream, punctuated by watching the Evo review on YouTube and wondering whether it was going to win eCOTY at the end of the year. It had to. It was the best thing to come out of MSO since the 688bhp HS in 2016, and easily eclipsed the new Ferrari 499. So I grabbed my house keys, debated whether I needed a jacket, and then jumped in the car and headed to MTC in Woking to collect the HS. Eagle-eyed readers will stop here and wonder how this piece of poorly-written fiction can stand up from this point on. How do you collect a car by yourself by driving there? Coin toss to close the tab? Have faith, we can do this together. Hold my hand.

Miraculously, the M25 was traffic free. We’re not talking easy miracle here, like actual Jesus in Luke 17:11 where he cures ten lepers without even being there. The M25 was last traffic free just after the sacking of London in 61 (yes, AD 61, not 1961) by Boudica, back when it would have been a tiny sliver of Devil’s Highway, yet I made it to MTC with a couple of minutes to spare despite being late to leave. It’s almost as if I made this entire thing up and it never really happened, but I got there on time.

Being the future, Alexa had told MTC I was on my way without me even knowing and I was met at the gate precisely as I arrived. “Welcome, Mr. Sommefeldt, how was your drive?”. “Really, you set off at 9.30 and still made it here on time? That’s a verified miracle”. Told you. “Yes, it’s ready for you, but first, would you like a cup of tea?”. “Yes, of course that can wait until after, we understand you’re excited to collect her. Let’s take a walk through MTC to the collection area where I’ll walk you round and show you it”.

I felt extremely guilty that I was leaving even invisible footprints on their pristine polished floors. MTC appears to be the cleanest place on Earth, a reflection of the engineering put into the cars, and reminder to the employees that their work is one of precision and attention to detail. If there was dust on any surface at MTC, it was solely somewhere on me. The last ghostly door almost inaudibly slid shut behind us, and I started intently at the centre of the room. It was empty, of course, because even though I earn good money, I can’t afford a real 2021MY McLaren MSO HS.

My guide — let’s call her Portia, because I’ve never met a Portia before — beckons me to the middle of the room and hands me the same AR system I wore months ago while specifying the car. Then there was a real one in the room, to help me fall in love with the physical manufacturing and engineering poured into the HS, to help me hand over a small fraction of that to commit to buying a virtual one. You see, in 2020, the vast majority of us don’t buy real cars any more. That’s been relegated to people who by happy accident live on top of large deposits of oil, or rich tech people cashing in on another dodgy IPO for their useless thing that does pointless stuff. As a service.

Instead, regular people like me now take autonomous cars everywhere, driven by code, not feet on pedals and hands on wheels. Elon Musk got it right, as he tends to do, and I just ask Alexa for a car to wherever and a Tesla arrives a bit later. I climb in, fasten my seatbelt, and read a book, the car driven by a computer somewhere else, probably not even in the car any more. What I’d bought wasn’t a real HS. I’d bought what we call a DPR. No, not Dread Pirate Roberts from that site where you used to buy drugs. No, a Digital Physical Reconstruction.

Technology has advanced so quickly in the last few years that I’ve just made up, both in VR and AR and the simulations you can experience in the newest systems, that you can buy DPRs to use in them. Objects that are yours and belong to you, that are desirable to have while you’re in, but that don’t exist physically. Portia would guide me round my HS using the AR system and talk to me about how the engineers at McLaren had configured my DPR HS to my exact requirements. That’s the value of what you’re buying.

The DPRs you can get, like the car I was buying, aren’t just stock models with some colours changed in code somewhere. No, because you can also change the shape of what you’re buying — but not in a way that would violate the physics of the simulation you use the DPR in, so I couldn’t for example spec my HS with body panels only microns thick to save weight, because they were still made of a real carbon fibre in the simulation, just accurately simulated rather than real — someone has to model the changes. And because the DPRs are so complex, that takes time and money and real effort from a human, just like the company in Italy that dyes the leather they use for the interior in the real thing.

Portia handed me a USB stick with my car. I had that tea she offered me, and then I giddily hopped back in the summoned Tesla and promptly sat in normal levels of traffic on the M25 to get back home. It took 4 hours. If you scan back, you’ll notice I only took my house keys, not car keys. Fooled you. You can let go of my hand now, we did it.

I could write about popping the USB stick into a computer and driving my MSO HS in some future revision of Gran Turismo (probably still GT Sport, because Polyphony haven’t released a GT on time since I can remember), virtually, pointing out the uniqueness of my DPR and how other folks in the simulation can see the uniqueness too, but not have it, because of DRM, and then segue into how people manage to remove the DRM from the DPRs in virtual worlds and “steal” them, blah blah, but I’m not Neal Stephenson and I don’t know how to write science fiction properly.

And of course it wouldn’t happen in 2020. The world is ending in 2017, haven’t you heard, so it’ll take centuries for civilisation to return to that level of technology and be able to offer it to me. Being serious, and Trump-led destruction of humanity withstanding, it’s a future I think will happen at some point. Self-driving cars; people buying special unique stuff to use purely in simulations, rather than the real world, via a tailored experience which is just like the real thing. All so you can feel connected to the object and it happens in the real world, just without the real car keys or whatever at the end.