Chapel Hill writer Jason Torchinsky is a Car Guy – capital C, capital G.
As senior editor of the auto-biz website Jalopnik and a producer with CNBC’s “Jay Leno’s Garage,” he’s made a career of talking, writing and thinking about cars. For Torchinsky, it’s not just the (literal) nuts and bolts; it’s the unique place that car culture holds in the American psyche.
Torchinsky’s new book, “Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving,” is a rigorously researched and surprisingly funny exploration of the past, present and future of automobiles in America. Self-driving cars are the next big thing, no doubt. But is that a good thing?
“It’s going to get weird,” Torchinsky tells The News & Observer in an interview.
As a veteran industry journalist, Torchinsky has a lot of informed insights on the topic. As a former standup comic and sketch comedy writer, he has an engaging style of writing. And as an all-around restless thinker, he’s got some interesting points to make about the impending arrival of self-driving cars.
“A car is kind of a prosthetic, really,” Torchinsky says, sitting in the cluttered basement office/workshop of his Chapel Hill home. “You take physical action and the mechanical systems of the car magnifies that action. You wear it, really, and there’s an element of fashion to it. When you take the act of driving out of the equation, everything changes.”
The relationship with cars
Torchinsky’s basement is a sight to behold. An inveterate tinkerer, he’s got 50 years of resurrected technology piled on various desks, tables and shelves. An original Atari 2600 system sits across from an ancient vector-graphics video display. A refurbished arcade console leans against one wall. Every surface is stacked with Legos, action figures, models, books, notes and arcane peripherals from mysterious electronics.
Torchinsky, who graduated from UNC in the 1990s with an art history degree, returned to Chapel Hill from Los Angeles just a few years ago. The slower pace and calmer vibe opened up time to write the book, which he’d been thinking about for years. Autonomous vehicles might be more efficient – maybe, eventually – but sometimes newer isn’t better.
“When the car goes from being a prosthetic to another mobile conveyance, like a plane or an train, it represents the death of the journey,” Torchinsky says. “You’re no longer engaged with where you are. The world becomes point-to-point. When you’re driving, you have to be engaged the whole way. You’re in the environment. You’re seeing landscape change. Were going to lose all that. And it’s an important thing that we’re losing.”
Torchinsky’s book is filled with ruminations like these, informed conjecture on the underappreciated aspects of this massive change on the horizon. Most writing on autonomous vehicles tends toward discussion of technological or economic concerns. Torchinsky looks a little deeper.
“People have relationships with their cars,” he says. “Even people who aren’t into cars, when they have to get rid of one, they have an emotional reaction. There’s a bond there. We don’t treat cars like we treat other things.”
Torchinsky predicts that autonomous vehicles will fundamentally re-thread something crucial in the American fabric of modern life.
“For so many of us, our identity is tied to our car in a lot of ways,” he says. “Like, I won’t drive a boring car. I just won’t do it.”
A man and his cars
A trip upstairs and outdoors proves the point. He’s got a half-dozen vehicles parked around his small house — quirky rides he just can’t bear to let go. There’s his around-town, 50-horsepower Nissan Pao, a tiny right-drive car only sold in the Japanese market. He’s also got a 1990 Yugo, the famously weird Yugoslavian import.
“You could buy these for about $4,000 when they came out,” he says.
Then there’s his stylish ride, the Reliant Scimitar, a British sportscar manufactured sometime in the 1970s. He’s also got a classic VW bug and a ramshackle RV he drove back from L.A.
If Torchinsky has a hard time letting go of his vehicles, it’s understandable. Each has a story. In fact, Torchinsky has lots of stories. There was that off-road rally in India, or the time he organized an endurance race for cars under $500.
Working with Jay Leno’s show, Torchinsky expanded his already formidable array of California contacts and spent time chasing down some of the world’s wildest and weirdest vehicles.
“It’s great because I get to help figure out what he’s going to drive,” he says.
Torchinsky’s a natural-born storyteller, and his book is filled with historical oddities and industry analysis, but it reads like an Italian sportscar — fast and fun. The book strikes a careful balance between conversationally funny and genuinely informative. It’s a hard style to sustain, especially at book length, but Torchinsky pulls it off.
“It’s tricky because some of this stuff gets dry,” he says. “And I’m a dork, I can go painfully deep into anything that I’m interested in. But regular humans don’t want to read that. My rule is that each sentence has to be either interesting or funny. Ideally, both.”
In any case, Torchinsky says he’s happy to be back home in North Carolina, and glad to have found an agreeable destination – writing about cars for a living.
“I’m always thankful that I have this gig,” he says. “I’ve had some terrible jobs. I don’t ever want to forget how lucky I am to have a job where I can write about things that fascinate me.”