From the June 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Car manufacturers know you’re stressed and bored. To calm and amuse you, some offer spa-like audio tracks and peaceful animations across their ever-larger screens, and at least one provides games, karaoke, and fart sounds. If repeatedly making it seem like your passenger just ripped one gets old—I suppose it’s possible—try entertaining yourself with the suggestions in the in-car navigation.
Many modern nav systems have a list of points of interest (POI). I always assumed it was just restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and maybe major tourist stops that everyone already knows such as Disney World or the Everglades gator show, but internet connectivity means that infotainment systems can offer a broader, constantly updated list of nearby attractions. Recent exploration of the POI list in a couple of cars surprised me with quirky suggestions. On a trip through Mojave, an Audi RS7 suggested the Tehachapi Loop, an engineering marvel of railroad technology, where a train can be seen passing through a tunnel and then up and over itself. Far off the beaten path, it’s not at all a mainstream attraction. Closer to home in Los Angeles, a BMW M8 offered up a Victorian carousel and the Wildlife Learning Center, where I got to hold an owl. It also listed Weedology Tours and a surprising number of escape rooms. Quite a day you have planned for me, Bim.
It’s almost the automotive equivalent of a friend who knows the area and says, “Oh, turn down this street; there’s a bush shaped like a dog on the next corner, and it’s really funny,” or “At the top of that hill, there’s a hiking path that leads to an abandoned Project Nike missile site.” Brands should lean into it, add more detail, get even weirder. In my perfect infotainment system, there would be a menu option that says R U Bored? You’d press it to get a list of oddities in the area, from cellphone towers that look like giant pineapples—I think it’s supposed to be a palm tree—to that one house in the neighborhood that has all those naked David sculptures in the yard.
The technology to do this already exists. One of my favorite websites is Atlas Obscura, whose What’s Near Me? button has led me to a slot-car-racing venue in Brooklyn, a bunny museum in Altadena, a self-taught topiarist in Bishopville, South Carolina, and a Prohibition museum in Savannah. The Prohibition museum’s interactive tour ends in a bar, as all the best tours should. For drive-by experiences, Roadside America lists all the Route 66–type classics, from neon signs to 25-foot-tall muffler men. If your tastes skew to even more esoteric and possibly less legal adventures, there are numerous urban exploration forums, with instructions on finding holes in fencing to explore “sunken cities” and boarded-up haunted mansions. “Warning, possible murder by restless spirits,” the car would say, in the same font it uses to tell you to check the back seat for forgotten children.
Until someone on the Ford Sync team makes use of this supergood and not-at-all-likely-to-result-in-lawsuits idea, I ‘m just going to have to continue finding weird adventures the old-fashioned way—by looking out the window while I drive and getting lost a lot. Really, the secret to a good time auto-exploring starts with the same words any racing driver will tell you: Eyes up. Look far ahead. Things are bound to get interesting if you make a left here where everyone else is making a right.
I understand that occasionally you actually have to be somewhere by a certain time, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be out of the escape room by then, especially not if you started at Weedology Tours. Still, I recommend adding a mini road trip to your weekly driving routine. Take a new route. Roll down all your windows and look at what’s outside. Ask your car what’s cool to do. Become the kind of person who can tell a visitor to your city, “Oh, turn here, there’s an SR-71 Blackbird on a stick just down the road and an abandoned miniature golf course where you can still see the freaky clown.” Just try not to anger the ghosts.