Ribbons of Vehicles Along the Highway

September 28, 2016

Occasionally I marvel at the expanse of modern civilization. Tonight, as I was driving down the freeway at 65mph, with a dozen other vehicles within sight doing the same, all in unison, turning perfectly with the road, occasionally changing lanes or taking an off ramp, I thought about all the highways across the country and the world showing similar patterns, working remarkably well all things considered. Every day, hundreds of millions of vehicles following the same pattern along similar roads, and nearly all of them safely reach their destination.

And then I wondered what this would look like to an alien species observing us from a distant galaxy. These ribbons of asphalt striped across the planet, with small illuminated vehicles traversing them throughout the night, following the same patterns over and over again. Would they view the vehicles as we do ants, trying to figure out how the social interactions of this primitive species work, how one vehicle leads another to food, how the vehicles alert each other to coming storms such as hurricanes and they all flee in the same direction, how come the vehicles congregate at certain places near the same time after sunrise, and disperse from the same location not too long before sunset? What is the evolutionary advantage of some vehicles being nocturnal, while the majority are diurnal, and how do those nocturnal vehicles adapt?

Or perhaps they would have a good enough view of the planet to see that the vehicles themselves are not the creatures, but rather this bipedal species that enters them, commands them to move to some other location, and then exits them, often for the better part of a day or a whole night. If so, would they ever dare to guess that all these vehicles are manually controlled, when they have their own automated systems, likely millions of times more powerful than ours? Would they have any concept of a civilization advanced enough to master internal combustion, yet with a millionth of the automation, and still confined to its original planet? If they did, would it be anything more than a theoretical possibility? And would they have any history of the time that their species was at that stage of development... and if so, would they believe that they really had at one time controlled all their transportation manually, when it was millions of years in the past, or regard it as a legend or myth?

We may never know, but it is interesting to think about what our species would look like to an advanced civilization from afar. All the more so since technology continues to advance so quickly on our own world - within a decade, the majority of our vehicles may no longer be manually controlled, within a few decades, we may have a footprint on Mars, and within a century, a manually-driven car may seem as antiquated to the average person as riding a horse through a city seems to the average person today. At that rate, is it really likely to take a million years until we could observe another planet in the fashion described above, or might it only be thousands or tens of thousands of years? That, with luck, the human race will discover someday.

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