Six Interesting Ways That Cars Are Like People

Cars are a favorite metaphor and mirror for us humans, from their vroom for the young to the creaks and breakdowns for the aging. The comparisons would seem to have been exhausted, but I keep running into new ones. Here are a few.



Some car comparisons occur to us because we can say that under certain circumstances, cars “die.” Atul Gawande discusses one aspect of how they do that in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, although he mentions cars only once. He is explaining why genetics has little to do with how long we will live.

The classical wear-and-tear model may explain more than we know. Leonid Gavrilov, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually. As engineers have long recognized, simple devices typically do not age. They function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant. [But complex systems with thousands of parts are engineered with layers of backup systems. And so are we.] We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth.

Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.

And then there’s oxidation. Here’s an excerpt from a booklet, Circumin: The 21st Century Cure, by Jan McBarron, MD, about anti-oxidants and the health benefits of a component of the spice turmeric:

Think about the rust on the bumper of a car. Rust is caused by oxidation or damaging oxygen molecules that corrode and eventually destroy the structure of metal. These same corrosive oxygen molecules…are found inside the human body…and contribute to the deterioration of cells.

The idea of a living car is cute Disney but unappealing otherwise, since it is the human driver who brings it to life. (

The idea of a living car is cute but unappealing otherwise, since the attraction of a car is that it is we ourselves who bring it to life.

Number three: Biologist Ursula Goodenough brings up car engines to make the point that while some random changes in the genes of organisms may work to our species’ benefit, those genes that set up the basic processes of cell assembly and maintenance have been humming along in all living things for billions of years. So organisms keep these efficient “housekeeping genes,” as she calls them, just as they are. “Changing them is like randomly modifying a carburetor or a timing belt after it’s already in synch with the rest of the engine: the usual outcome is that the car fails to run properly and often, as we say, the engine ‘dies’.”

I don’t remember where I read the idea behind number four: cars are like people in that both result from gradual processes of selection. For cars, the selector is not nature but the competition of the automotive marketplace. Any particular trait of a car or an organism will endure only if the versions that carry the trait succeed sufficiently to be widely reproduced.

Another evolutionary similarity. Cars are made to move. For humans too, motion has shaped us. Our oldest claim to organic uniqueness is that we walk on only two legs without a tail or feathers for support. Six million years ago, our ancestors clumsily rose up from four feet to two in order to get a better look as they walked across the savannah. The change helped trigger changes in our eyes, hands, legs, and brains. We, like cars, are made to move, and moving, in turn, made us.

Force and focus behind the wheel (

At the controls

Finally and more philosophically, the driving experience echoes the way that we experience ourselves as a mind inside a body. Cars give us an opportunity to be a heightened version of our brain-in-a-body selves. Most of the time we might feel like just a mishmash of thoughts inside a squishy physique. But put us in the driver’s seat and we’re a bigger, sleeker animal and a laser-like self.

The comparison goes further. We humans construct many entities besides cars that we can get into or put on—and in some sense “bring to life.” They include not only planes, trains, and ships but also clothes, buildings, novels, and even gods. In each of these, we position ourselves to be protected and enhanced and can readily identify with or personify the thing itself. We build and live in our protective houses and decorate them to make them reflections of ourselves. We “live” in the novels we read (or write) and imagine the living characters. And most strangely, we build gods and heroes by animating them with powers, passions, and virtues that we wish we had. All of these are cars of sorts, to transport and intensify us.

From: the Brain. Subject: Mission and Function of Head Quarters

It’s come to the attention of Head Quarters that clarification is needed about the roles of Head Quarters and the relation of Head Quarters to other segments of the Unit. Unit terminology about itself has become lofty in an unhelpful way. Terms such as Intelligent, Passionate, Amazing, Self-Aware, Idealistic, and Virtuous distort the processes by which Head Quarters coordinates functions throughout each Unit for the benefit of the Unit. The following update might contribute to a more realistic, less hyperbolic understanding of Head Quarters and the Unit.

The mission at Head Quarters is to keep the Unit functioning and to prepare a replacement Unit to carry on after the present one becomes inactive. Different parts of the mission are carried out in Head Quarters’ various departments. Head Quarters continuously interprets streams of data that come in from around the Unit’s Network. It receives detailed data from the hands, mouth, and tongue. Data about external sounds and light sources arrives from the two pair of audio and visual receivers located adjacent to Head Quarters. Other data is handled routinely in round-the-clock monitoring of the Unit’s internal conditions, including levels of fuel, water, waste build-up, oxygen, and blood flow. Together with Lower Quarters, Head Quarters coordinates the processing of food intake. Head Quarters also tracks the position of the Unit’s appendages at any given time in order to coordinate movement.

Brain functions (AWMG.INFO)

The data is stored in Archives. Frequently retrieved data is easily accessed. Older and background data can be difficult to access clearly and accurately, if at all.

Also, Head Quarters is essentially closed for business about a third of the time in order to perform such functions as offline consolidation, re-sorting of Archives, waste removal, and resource replenishment. The Lower Quarters don’t seem to need anywhere near as much downtime.

Head Quarters implements certain Conditions—C-States—that bring on mild or intense sensations in the Unit for various length of time. Such Conditions encourage or force behaviors that are considered to support the Unit’s well-being in the short or long run. Such Conditions might involve energy levels, Unit temperature, and internal tension level. They are triggered by changes in the Unit’s surroundings, often by the presence or behavior of other Units.

Examples of common C-States include:

C-Joy, an energized state, short-lived but recurring, often activated by and reinforcing successful interactions with other Units;

C-Sadness, a low-energy condtion in which the Unit tends to withdraw from activity to recover from a setback;

C-Pain, a distressing state in part or all of the Unit that signals injury or dysfunction;

C-Arousal, the set of conditions leading to copulation; and

C-Anger, an energized state in anticipation of physical conflict with hostile Units.

Head Quarters' perspective based on where its detailed data comes from (Wikipedia)

The Unit as experienced by Head Quarters according to the concentrations of sensory and motion nerves. (Wikipedia)

Equally as refined as Head Quarters’ internal monitoring is its tracking of other Units. Some Units have exchanged signals with Head Quarters for a very long time and have full records in its Archives. Other Units are encountered frequently but briefly and are less familiar. And all Units, whether known well or only briefly, singly or as groups, are assessed for their monitoring of this Unit. Assessments in both directions concern whether another Unit seems friendly, trustworthy, indifferent, a possible sexual partner, higher or lower in status. For reasons of safety, other Units are roughly divided between friendly and potentially hostile ones. In general, Head Quarters views the formation and preservation of alliances as a significant contributor to Unit well-being. For this reason, on many occasions, the smile expression and the laughter sound are important signals in such extra-Unit interactions.

Beyond such basic expressions and sounds, Head Quarters is extremely skilled in arranging visual components—lines, shapes, colors—and different sounds to exchange information or even C-States with other Units. The most widely used exchange method is a complex sound code rapidly acquired early in every Unit’s functionality. The code is in almost constant use between Units about items regardless of whether the items are physically present or out of sight or in the past or anticipated in the future. Such topics include strategies for food procurement, the behavior of other Units, and the expressions of various C-States such as C-Anger. The code is compelling and often runs silently within Head Quarters itself.

As for a visual version of the code, it is being used and demonstrated in this communiqué.

The code includes identification markers for all Units. If a Unit is present and participating in an exchange, such signals as youand we are common. In addition, early in their functionality, each Unit receives a set of two markers, one that indicates its Unit group, the other indicating the Unit itself and its gender. An example is Petersen, the group marker, preceded by Mary, a female member. The Mary Petersen Unit identifies itself as Mary Petersen as well as I and me depending on the situation, and the Mary Petersen Head Quarters continually reviews the Mary Petersen past, the assessments of Mary Petersen by other Units, and the optimal plans and coming schedules for Mary Petersen. Cumulatively, these processes result in the formulation of and the belief in what are known as Mary Petersen’s self and her life.

The multiple and multi-level processes coordinated by Head Quarters are demanding. They entail almost continuous assessment of past events, present circumstances, and future possibilities. It is pleasant, even liberating, to relax those processes for periods of time by narrowing the attention to immediate sensations such as breathing and slowing the frenetic assessment of input.

But while the Unit functions most fully in the present, it must function partly in the past and future as well. Head Quarters functions primarily as a forward-looking instrument—flexible, capable, in constant adjustment as the present moment changes and changes again. For the Unit, no single time frame is secure or complete without consideration of the other two.

That concludes this introduction to Head Quarters.  Questions may be submitted below in the visual code.