We were driving from Phoenix to Tuscon when the car passed over the body of a flattened skunk. This was a long, straight Arizona road and it cut across the desert like an arrow. We didn't know it was a skunk at the time, but we found that out soon enough. There was a few seconds' delay as the air from the intakes made its way through the cooling system. Then it hit us.
After that I steered wide of roadkill whenever I saw it coming, and as a result I suppose I became more aware of just how much of it there was. The road was like a suicide strip for small mammals. The desert was anything but deserted.
At the end of every day's driving, I'd have to clean off all the splattered bugs that had baked onto the windscreen. There were a lot of those, as well. Some of them had hit like bullets but most of them were just there, a silent accumulation like so much airborne plankton. They weren't just on the glass, they were all over the front end of the car.
It seemed like a shame.
And it felt like a waste.
Because that's when I started to think: wouldn't it be great if the car could make use of all that protein? I mean, it's out there and it's free and it dies anyway. Combustion engines have been around for barely more than a century, and already they've sucked half of the oil out of the planet. Living things have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and they just renew and get more numerous. Look at Birmingham.
I'm telling you, this is the way ahead.
It'll need some bright spark to come up with a functional design, of course. I picture it as some kind of a scoop at the front of the car and a big, flexible bag underneath, for digestion. It would have to be flexible because roadkill comes in all kinds of awkward sizes. Once it's in the bag, we could get really tricky and imagine it being broken down into endless complex molecules fuelling micro-engines throughout the vehicle's body. This would call for corrosive stomach juices made by designer enzymes, self-renewing, and some kind of a teflon lining to contain the process.
Or we could leave that for future generations of carnivorous cars and concentrate for now on getting heat out of the material. A TV documentary on Spontaneous Human Combustion showed that with one Coronation Street fan and a careless match you can generate intense heat energy over several hours, if the body's wearing surgical tights and a cardigan. Experimentation with our teflon lining should lead us to reproduce the 'cardigan effect' and before we knew it we'd have a road monster with real fire in its belly.
I'd give the scoop some maneuverability and the car a rudimentary predatory intelligence, so it could spot targets and react to them. I'd see this as a matter of simple humanity; a rabbit caught by the edge of the scoop and flung to the roadside is a life wasted. At the other end of the system, the exhaust pipe would be replaced by a rectum that would open and close like that gun barrel in the opening credits of the Bond movies. Waste products would probably be minimal and could be returned to the land, after the teeth had been sieved out.
All this is fine for places where the roadkill's thick on the ground, so to speak, but what about the UK?
Well, probably nothing much will change. While American cars are being fuelled by moose and coyote, we'll be puttering around in our little hedgehog-and-pigeon runabouts. But why restrict our thinking to roadkill? Apart from an obvious use for household scraps and leftovers, there are all those mad cow carcases and the entire European beef mountain to be used up. Not to mention hospital waste.
The petrol engine would be history. Who'd pay for expensive fuel when you could run down wildlife for free? But this is where the scenario starts to darken. Human nature being what it is, I can imagine plenty of people who'd think nothing of grabbing next door's cat when they thought no-one was looking, and stuffing it into the intake for some free mileage. Anyone out walking the dog had better be ready to dodge and run.
Then, as time moves on, hitch-hikers become fair game. Police speeding to the scene of any big road smash find passing motorists fighting over the bodies. Deceased relatives are fed to the family car with cries of, "It's what he would have wanted."
Meanwhile, those predatory instincts begin to evolve through successive generations of design. You keep 'em fed, or they turn on you. The wheel spins in your hand at the scent of a pedestrian. It's a race to make it safely out of the garage at the end of a journey.
Then late one night on a lonely road, you hear a rattle coming from the front of the car. It sounds expensive, so you stop to take a look. You crouch down in front to take a look. You find nothing... but it's already too late.
I'm telling you. It's a Mad Max future for us, whichever way we go.
First published in T3 Magazine