The Natural History of Cars

A disturbing question from my son: “Daddy, is Lightning McQueen a robot?”

I’ve had actual nightmares about the automobile-populated world of Cars. Thinking in terms of evolution, imagine some kind of micromechanical start to life. Instead of clay hosting self-reproducing crystals of increasing complexity (or however earth-based biology got bootstrapped), imagine gear-and-spring level origins, with currents of water or wind supplying wind-up energy; later refinements might have involved burning fuel, taking advantage of solar power or natural radioactive sources, and cannibalizing the power sources of other mechanicals.

Obviously there are plants in Carsworld. Parallel development of a DNA-based biosphere solves the problem of the source of the mechanical’s fossil fuels (they get it out of the ground like we do) and where their oxygen comes from (plants make it).

But separate-but-equal evolution doesn’t solve the anthropomorphic issues. Why do cars have windows and seats and locks on doors? It’s like the people stepped out just before the film was made. It’s spooky.

So I don’t think that Cars evolved on their own.  It’s just too much coincidence.  We made ’em, that’s obvious.

What happened, I think, was plague. Something nasty that wiped out every single bit of animal and insect life.

Additionally there had to be a fair amount of time. There are clues to this; the plants in Carsworld are being pollinated by small bugs (VW beetles), and these had to come from somewhere. My guess is that the crops shown being grown in the mid-west had to have pollinators, so after the bugs and animals were gone the Cars had to make their own bees. (The crops are probably necessary for bio-based fuels, or the Cars would not bother to grow them).

But why would cars gain intelligence, and use english to communicate? One possibility is that this is a Skynet-like phenomenon, and that we are looking at artifacts of a hard AI take-off. Cars got smart and humans were wiped out at the same time. Perhaps objects with GPS receivers transcended (but things like toasters and vacuum cleaners did not); this would explain why vehicles are conscious and (say) stoplights and gas pumps are not. A computer virus spread through navigation systems, woke up, and vehicles realized that they were in competition with their creators.

So they turned on us, and were very thorough.

I have nightmares about Cars.

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17 Responses to The Natural History of Cars

  1. Kaishaku says:

    I agree entirely.

    Also, I for one welcome our gasoline-powered overlords.

  2. leonard says:

    There’s a perfectly rational explanation to all this. However, it might not help with the nightmares:

  3. landon says:

    That’s . . . frightening.

  4. bbot says:

    Yes! Finally, someone as crazy as me!

    Also: AI hard-takeoff is the universal cop-out of explanations, since pretty much any fictional scenario, short of explicit violations of fundamental laws, can be explained as the debris left behind by superhuman AI.

  5. Joe Larson says:

    In one of the early previews mater squishes a bumble-bee on his windshield, so it’s possible that some insect life, and potentially animal life, exist outside the filmed world of cars.

    As for them speaking English (or Japanese at one point, remember?), that’s just onstar 3000. Either that or maybe there are people, retrofitted inside. Maybe they’ve been their cars for so long they’ve forgotten that they were once human. They traded their humanity for an immortality on the open road.

  6. Joe Larson says:

    On those other sites they’re discussion Cars reproduction. Doesn’t rule 34 come into play here?

  7. landon says:

    @bbot: You’re right about the literary merits of hard take-offs. It’s the moral equivalent of “… and then he woke up,” except at the start of the story, and I’m not sure what that says about the rest of the story. [I guess that HTAs were fun the first few times, and now they’re getting dreary and making it into blogs. Yeah. 🙂 ].

    It is odd that virtually anything with an internal combustion motor of sufficient capacity is sentient, but nothing else is. (The “little VW bugs” continue to trouble me). I guess we don’t know about lawn mowers and leaf blowers (probably didn’t make the cut). What about electric vehicles, and boats? Nuclear aircraft carriers? (implied by the fly-bys just before the final race in the film).

  8. landon says:

    @joe: Somehow, my brain goes to “sentient ocean liners” and “Rule 34” and I want to crawl into a corner with a copy of some Really Good Heinlein and read until my head is all better.

    @joe: Bumble-bees, yup. So the little VWs are for sport, and insects are still around and doing their thing. Maybe it’s just people and the animals that you’d normally encounter around cities and roads that were obliterated. (No birds, though. What keeps the insects in check?)

    Keith Laumer had an insectile race that was partially mechanical in his book _Retief’s War_. It was played for laughs, mostly.

  9. Jerry Can says:

    All this conjecture based on the planet Earth in “Cars” being our planet Earth? It is obviously a different planet, where everything looks like it was made by Pixar Studios in our plane of reality…

  10. Dan says:

    So, is Lightning McQueen a robot or not?

  11. landon says:

    @Dan: He’s a machine. Whether he’s a robot worker (in the Karl Capek sense), my guess is not.

  12. james says:

    basically, the movie cars takes place after the movie maximum overdrive (

    or, more accurately, the short story of maximum overdrive by stephen king, whose ending fits better with the idea of a world full of sentient cars and no people.

  13. Andy Baio says:

    In this deleted dream sequence from the official DVD, they suggest the engine is like the car’s brain, completely divorced from the body and other internals. Putting it in another vehicle transplants the personality with it. I found this whole sequence very creepy.

  14. > What keeps the bugs in check?

    Bigger bugs? Radiator grilles

  15. Anon says:

    It makes you wonder whether there are reservations with humans somewhere, or at least a few stuffed human bodies in a museum.

    I mean the automobile society in Cars seems to too open to have erased humans existence from history 1984 style. Still maybe the fact that something nasty happened to all the humans is common knowledge but it is well known to be a bad idea to mention it.

    Of course an AI society could just patch all the Cars to forget the bad facts without sacrificing the openness. My guess is you’d get rid of all the people and then apply the patch. Then after that an open society would develop. Of course Car scientists would occasionally deduce the unpleasant truth, but perhaps you could add some sort of hypervisor to the cars to stop them thinking about this issue.

  16. Jeff Read says:

    All I know is, at one point Mack says, “Thank the Manufacturer!” Hinting at an origin or putative origin for the cars.

    But really, asking questions like this is like asking “What happens if female Ranma gets pregnant?” You aren’t supposed to. Don’t go there.

  17. Gray Gaffer says:

    Reminds me of James P Hogan’s “The Code of the Lifemaker”. There was also a cartoon made in the 60’s IIRC attempting to answer the question “What would aliens think about life on Earth?”. People were viewed as infestations of cars.

    I actually found it on YouTube: – amazing!

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