I remember reading a book where the Author described an aliens point of view of how absurd it was that people transported themselves around in metal boxes that were much bigger than what they needed. The description may also have referred to traffic queues.

I though that it might have been from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and related to the M25 but I have not been able to find anything online.

Any suggestions?

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    Not what you are looking for but related (from Over the Hedge): RJ: That is an S.U.V; Humans ride in them because they are slowly losing their ability to walk. Penny: Jeepers, its so big! Lou: How many humans fit in there? RJ: Usually, one. – Skooba Jul 3 '17 at 12:43
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    As soon as you mention the M25 I think of Good Omens, but can't see an obvious quote in that. H2G2 talks a lot about bypasses. – Jeremy French Jul 3 '17 at 12:52
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    A related joke in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the name of the character Ford Prefect. He's an alien who mistaken belief about the dominant life form Earth led him to chose to name himself after a car in order to blend in. This something of a trope. The National Film Board of Canada animated short What on Earth! is framed as a documentary made by aliens about dominant life form on Earth, the automobile. – Ross Ridge Jul 3 '17 at 22:09
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    @JeremyFrench Thanks for the Good Omens tip, it led me to finding this quote in the book: "Cars, in theory, give you a terrifically fast method of traveling from place to place. Traffic jams, on the other hand, give you a terrific opportunity to stay still." This is a bit related to what I am looking for. – JasonMcF Jul 4 '17 at 22:02
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    Reminds me of the saying: "Ancient humans used to bang drums and make noise in the belief it would cause it to rain. Modern humans honk horns and make noise in the belief it will fix a traffic jam." O.o – Ditto Jul 5 '17 at 14:15
up vote 17 down vote accepted

This sounds a lot like the opening couple of pages from Ben Elton's "Gridlock" - more of a comedy/satire than sci-fi. By way of an introduction it supposes a race of hyper intelligent aliens who have been watching humanity and have figured out all their most intractable problems (the middle east conflict, the rules of cricket) with ease but find themselves utterly perplexed by traffic.

Obligatory Wikipedia summary:

The novel depicts a near-future London in which traffic congestion has reached almost critical levels, such that accidents in a few key places could bring the entire city's traffic network to a halt. The government is aware of the problem and plans a major new road-building program to relieve the pressure. The alternative, heavy investment in public mass transport systems such as railways, is ignored because it clashes with the government's ideology. The author argues that this is a highly misguided policy since, in his view, more roads have historically tended to simply generate more traffic and so create an even bigger problem in the long run.

The climax of the book sees shadowy, possibly government-backed forces deliberately instigate the necessary simultaneous accidents which do indeed bring the whole of London to a standstill for several days. The resulting chaos is used as an excuse to press ahead with the road-building scheme.

See also this capture from Google Books.

  • Thank you, Ben Elton's "Gridlock" is the answer. Part of the quote that I could remember and which I read in the link to Google Books was: "they're all going in the same direction, travelling to much the same destinations and yet they're delberately impeding the progress of each other by covering six square metres of space with a large, almost completely empty tin box?" – JasonMcF Jul 4 '17 at 22:14

Robert Heinlein had a long rant about cars in The Rolling Stones:

Despite their great sizes and tremendous power spaceships are surprisingly simple machines. Every technology goes through three stages: first a crudely simple and quite unsatisfactory gadget; second, an enormously complicated group of gadgets designed to overcome the short-comings of the original and achieving thereby somewhat satisfactory performance through extremely complex compromise; third, a final proper design therefrom.

In transportation the cart and the rowboat represent the first stage of technology.

The second stage may well be represented by the automobiles of the middle twentieth century just before the opening of interplanetary travel. These unbelievable museum pieces were for their time fast, sleek and powerful - but inside their skins were assembled a preposterous collection of mechanical buffoonery. The prime mover for such a juggernaut might have rested in one's lap; the rest of the mad assembly consisted of afterthoughts intended to correct the uncorrectable, to repair the original basic mistake in design—for automobiles and even the early aeroplanes were "powered" (if one may call it that) by “reciprocating engines." A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second. Much of the heat was intentionally thrown away into a “water jacket” or “cooling system,” then wasted into the atmosphere through a heat exchanger.

What little was left caused blocks of metal to thump foolishly back-and-forth (hence the name “reciprocating”) and thence through a linkage to cause a shaft and flywheel to spin around. The flywheel (believe it if you can) had no gyroscopic function; it was used to store kinetic energy in a futile attempt to cover up the sins of reciprocation. The shaft at long last caused the wheels to turn and thereby propelled this pile of junk over the countryside.

The prime mover was used only to accelerate and to overcome “friction”—a concept then in much wider engineering use. To decelerate stop, or turn the heroic human operator used his own muscle power, multiplied precariously through a series of levers.

Despite the name “automobile” these vehicles had no autocontrol circuits; control, such as it was, was exercised second by second for hours on end by a human being peering out through a small pane of dirty silica glass, and judging unassisted and often disastrously his own motion and those of other objects. In almost all cases the operator had no notion of the kinetic energy stored in his missile and could not have written the basic equation. Newton’s Laws of Motion were to him mysteries as profound as the meaning of the universe.

Nevertheless millions of these mechanical jokes swarmed over our home planet, dodging each other by inches or failing to dodge. None of them ever worked right; by their nature they could not work right; and they were constantly getting out of order. Their operators were usually mightily pleased when they worked at all. When they did not, which was every few hundred miles (hundred, not hundred thousand), they hired a member of a social class of arcane specialists to make inadequate and always expensive temporary repairs.

Despite their mad shortcomings, these “automobiles” were the most characteristic form of wealth and the most cherished possessions of their time. Three whole generations were slaves to them.

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    @Malandy Drive by wire systems would be the big one. Although the wheel and pedals are still operated the same way, they aren't mechanically connected to the axle, so muscle power isn't being used anymore. That's the improvement that's already in regular use. But electric cars are on the market, which eliminates the heat engine issue, and self-driving cars are under active development. That last one's particularly useful, since while we may have improved cars a lot, the drivers still have all the flaws he mentions. – Ray Jul 3 '17 at 22:13
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    @Malandy Heinlein describes steering and braking as unassisted. Not strictly true even back in the day, although power assisted steering and braking were either luxury features or optional equipment - likely not common on the overwhelming majority of vehicles as they are today, and ABS wasn't even heard of on cars back then (although appearing on aircraft). Although far from ubiquitous, stability control, lane keeping assistance, semi-automatic parking, adaptive cruise control, and GPS are all modern advances and automation in what is still a car. – Anthony X Jul 3 '17 at 22:26
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    @AnthonyX I was mainly referring to the "exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second" bit. Yes, there's still a heat engine somewhere, but you're no longer powering it by a constant series of tiny explosions inside your engine, which is probably the most absurd part of the entire mechanism. – Ray Jul 3 '17 at 22:46
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    @Ray Let's not be too quick to judge. Have to research this, but Heinlein may not have had his facts straight regarding the relative efficiency of discrete vs continuous combustion. Depending on how its done, the "constant series of tiny explosions" may be more thermodynamically efficient than a continuous alternative. Let's not lose sight of the fact that the point of Heinlein's writing was to establish the perspective of his future-world character as looking back upon a much more technologically primitive past, and may have taken more than a little prosaic license in the process. – Anthony X Jul 3 '17 at 23:21
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    IMO, all the ABS, power steering, sort-of-auto-controls and even hybrid engines in modern cars fit firmly into Heinlein's second stage of a group of gadgets added to overcome the original design limitations. Fully electric cars like the Tesla are getting there, but they are not exactly common. – Whelkaholism Jul 4 '17 at 9:56

It's a fairly common trope. For example, here's an extract from "Flatlander" by Larry Niven.

It seems there are people who collect old groundcars and race them. Some are actually renovated machines, fifty to ninety percent replaced; others are handmade reproductions. On a perfectly flat surface they'll do fifty to ninety miles per hour.

I laughed when Elephant told me about them, but actually seeing them was different.

The rodders began to appear about dawn. They gathered around one end of the Santa Monica Freeway, the end that used to join the San Diego Freeway. This end is a maze of fallen spaghetti, great curving loops of prestressed concrete that have lost their strength over the years and sagged to the ground. But you can still use the top loop to reach the starting line. We watched from above, hovering in a cab as the groundcars moved into line.

"Their dues cost more than the cars," said Elephant. "I used to drive one myself. You'd turn white as snow if I told you how much it costs to keep this stretch of freeway in repair."

"How much?"

He told me. I turned white as snow.

They were off. I was still wondering what kick they got driving an obsolete machine on flat concrete when they could be up here with us. They were off, weaving slightly, weaving more than slightly, foolishly moving at different speeds, coming perilously close to each other before sheering off — and I began to realize things.

Those automobiles had no radar. They were being steered with a cabin wheel geared directly to four ground wheels. A mistake in steering and they'd crash into each other or into the concrete curbs. They were steered and stopped by muscle power, but whether they could turn or stop depended on how hard four rubber balloons could grip smooth concrete. If the tires lost their grip, Newton's first law would take over; the fragile metal mass would continue moving in a straight line until stopped by a concrete curb or another groundcar.

"A man could get killed in one of those."

"Not to worry," said Elephant. "Nobody does, usually."


(The narrator, Beowulf Shaeffer, is an albino, hence the jokes about turning white as snow.)

This is the closest I can find from The Hitchhikers Guide. IT is more about the absurdity of bypasses and excess travel than the size of cars though. (Cars were in general not nearly so big in 1980)

Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what's so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what's so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be. - src

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    Which vaguely reminds me of my brother's comment about public transit: "It's a great way to get from Point A to Point B. Assuming you live near Point A and you have some reason to get to Point B." – Matt Gutting Jul 3 '17 at 13:36
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    @MattGutting But the way public transport works is that point B is an interchange with routes to points C, D, E, F, and so on. It's packet switched not circuit switched. – Mike Scott Jul 3 '17 at 13:50
  • The last sentence is a nonsequitur. A perusal of an actual source reveals that in the original, it is preceded by (a paragraph break and) the sentence “Mr. Prosser wanted to be at point D,” which is missing from the wikia page for whatever reason. – Emil Jeřábek Jul 3 '17 at 14:27
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    @MikeScott Not necessarily; it depends on the transit system. But that's not really a comment on this answer. – Matt Gutting Jul 3 '17 at 14:41
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    Got rid of point d – Jeremy French Jul 3 '17 at 14:44

I think this is it:

Southbound On The Freeway

A tourist came in from Orbitville, parked in the air, and said:
The creatures of this star are made of metal and glass.
Through the transparent parts you can see their guts.
Their feet are round and roll on diagrams of long
measuring tapes, dark with white lines.
They have four eyes. The two in back are red.
Sometimes you can see a five-eyed one, with a red eye turning
on the top of his head. He must be special--
the others respect him and go slow
when he passes, winding among them from behind.
They all hiss as they glide, like inches, down the marked
tapes. Those soft shapes, shadowy inside
the hard bodies--are they their guts or their brains?

By May Swenson

Dunning, S., Lueders, E., Smith, H. (1996). Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle...And Other Modern Verse. NJ: Scott, Foresman and Company, p. 82.

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