What It’s Like to Design Autonomous Vehicles for a Lil Nas X Music Video
What is it about the idea of autonomy that captures storytellers’ imaginations? From flying carpets, to love bugs, to Johnny cabs, autonomous travel—and the freedom and promise it represents—has become a staple of fictional worlds in writing and film.
In Ground Truth’s latest series, “Poptonomy,” we’re going to get to the root of autonomy’s world-building allure by speaking with the creative minds behind some of the most influential representations of autonomous technologies in pop culture.
For our inaugural column, I spoke with video director Mike Diva and producer Josh Shadid, the minds behind the music video for “Panini,” musician Lil Nas X’s smash follow-up to his world-dominating debut single, “Old Town Road.” When they first heard from Nas, the world knew him mostly as a cowboy, playing with historic tropes of the Wild Wild West. For his next project, Lil Nas X wanted something more forward-looking—so he teamed up with YouTube auteur and cyberpunk enthusiast Mike Diva to create the autonomous vehicle-filled urban landscape of “Panini.” I chatted with Diva and Shadid about cyberpunk’s parallels to noir, falling asleep in history class, and taking the long view of history.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Josh Shadid: Hello! I just got back from the big mineral and gem international show in Tucson. My mom makes jewelry so I was visiting her.
Ground Truth: Amazing. From gems to autonomous cars.
Josh: I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with futurism, but from a very amateur perspective, you know what I mean? I’m always digging into scientific articles, and being like, what does this mean? Where do we go? What’s happening in quantum computing and autonomous vehicles? How can I be part of it and stay engaged with what that future looks like?
Ground Truth: Mike, how did you get into science fiction and cyberpunk in the first place?
Mike Diva: I think just growing up with Blade Runner, honestly. That’s the simple answer. I’ve always been a futurist, just in every sense, so much so that in history class, I would fall asleep because I don’t care about the past. But the future, that’s what’s interesting to me. Which makes me inherently doomed to repeat the mistakes from the past, I guess.
GT: How did this obsession with sci-fi and futurism play out in your life?
Mike: I’ve always been obsessed with future technology, and specifically robots and AI. I used to want to be a robotics engineer, and then I realized that I’m too dumb, and you have to be good in math, and I’m not, and I hate it. So then, I decided the next best thing would be just to be able to direct videos with that kind of thing in it. So where it plays out is just being able to tackle it from more of a visual media standpoint—to fake it, really.
GT: Josh, how does being a “futurist” play out for you?
Josh: I take it the other way. I’m always reading articles, I’m just obsessed with what will happen next, and what that means for the world we live in, and what we can expect from the technologies around us. I’ve been kind of obsessed with autonomous taxis for years now, and just thinking about how that would change the landscape of a city entirely. Instead of having circling cars and Ubers or Lyfts all the time, if you have autonomous vehicles that park in their little hub garage, and just dispatch based on demand and requests, you wipe up all of the standing traffic and cars in the city, and you create this very, really clean and efficient transportation model. I mean, ultimately I wish they would just take Santa Monica Boulevard from Western to La Cienega and turn it into a Third Street Promenade-esque walking and bike riding path with restaurants in the middle.
Stay in touch.
GT: It sounds to me like you kind of have a belief that technology will fundamentally simplify and streamline?
Josh: That’s the optimist in me. I think it will in some regards, and in some cases it creates a devastating mess behind it. So, you have to constantly be looking at the power versus responsibility curve.
Mike: The “Spider-Man Curve” is what it’s called. Power over time over responsibility.
Josh: There’s that math again.
GT: How were the two of you approached for this project? And how did the concept for the video come together?
Josh: We’re friends with the guy that was running the project on Lil Nas X’s end, and he approached us.
Mike: I think he approached us to do it because it’s very, very up my alley with all the futuristic stuff and cyberpunk and whatnot.
Josh: We got a notes app printout of what Lil Nas wanted to do, in terms of his creative vision.
Mike: Yeah, he had like a whole rough kind of outline with the story and the structure that he’d made in his notes app. We had to basically take the bones of his idea, and then make it make sense and work and bring it all together.
Josh: He had just done Old Town Road, and he wanted to create a new world. And he was like, “Hey, I was a cowboy. Now I’m going to the future.” And so he gave us a couple of references in that regard, but ultimately the visuals and the aesthetic, that was Mike’s creation.
GT: What were the aesthetic details that you latched onto for this one? Why this city, why this autonomous ride?
Mike: I’m pretty sure the self-driving car was his idea. But the rest of the world, it’s full of advertisements that are overwhelming you, and you eventually get beaten back by positive technology, I guess.
GT: A lot of depictions of cyberpunk have a dystopian element. They show hyper-advanced technology that has the potential to streamline, but also has the potential to make things much more complicated. Can you talk to me a little about the dystopian depictions of the future in this video, and kind of why you think that’s a recurring element of a lot of cyberpunk futures?
Mike: Yeah. I just felt that cyberpunk inherently is dystopian. There’s that darkness of corporations running everything, and just the kind of apex of capitalism. It’s grungy and kind of gross…
Josh: It’s always raining. Always carry an umbrella.
GT: You never see the sky.
Mike: It’s noir in a lot of ways. Most of the time, cyberpunk is noir. Guillermo del Toro had this really great quote about noir: “Noir is the real grittiness that comes out of American realism. It’s the poetry of disillusionment and existentialism. The tragedy that emerges between the haves and the have-nots, and the have-nots are trying to breach their ambition through violence, and ultimately, worshiping a hollow god, which is money. So therefore, it’s literally an exploration of the flip side of the American Dream.”
And to me, cyberpunk is that, but in the future. But what’s funny about Lil Nas is, he wanted to make a cyberpunk thing that was slapstick and goofy, which I had never seen before.
Josh: People kind of thought the video was a love story, when it was never really a love story. Really, it is about being completely over-inundated by something that is being forced upon you, that is bouncing around the city in advertisement form essentially, dancing and promoting this song that he’s creating, and trying to get Panini to accept it, essentially, and she’s just running away the whole time. Until the end when he kind of takes a different form, and obviously lures her into the trap.
Mike: That is kind of cyberpunk.
Josh: It is literally poking fun at itself and music in general, or any sort of commercialization. Nas, I think, was playing with that concept as he put that first thought in. We kind of took and ran.
GT: How on an art and design level did the autonomous vehicle in this video come together? What were the reference points?
Mike: I know I wanted something super clean and sleek and minimalist, and not something that’s traditional cyberpunk aesthetic of hodgepodge and neon, but more refined and luxurious.
Josh: Star Trek not Star Wars.
Mike: I pulled a bunch of references, and then I worked with a concept artist on the initial design of it.
GT: What were your reference points?
Mike: I think one of them was definitely the self-driving cars in Minority Report. I think also, I mean obviously, the spinners in Blade Runner, but also the bikes in Tron, kind of. And then we had a fabricator make the interior out of foam.
Josh: We built that thing in like four days. That was insane.
Mike: The exterior was just kind of a mish-mash of some models found on TurboSquid, which is like a CG model aggregate. And we sort of tweaked models based on the concept art. And yeah, pretty happy with the way it came out.
GT: Did Lil Nas X ever, did he weigh in on the design?
Josh: He was very hands on at the beginning, and then I think he saw what we were doing, how we were doing it. By the time they saw the first cut of that edit, they were pretty much no ‘No’s.’ They were just like, high fiving us. So, that was a fun process.
GT: Would you two say you’re optimistic about the future?
Josh: Mike, do you want to go first, or you want me to go?
Mike: Yeah. You can go first.
Josh: I was like, you’re wearing a mask walking around your own apartment, so how optimistic can you be, right?
GT: To be more specific, are you optimistic about the role that technology will play in that future?
Mike: In general, no, I’m not optimistic about the future. I think that we’ve experienced the apex of humanity, and it’s all downhill from here. I feel this way about ecology, for true artificial intelligence becoming a thing. But above all, of course, the effects of global warming, and seeing that shit actually in real time affect us every single year, and the weather just getting worse and worse. It’s bad.
Josh: I would say I’m not as pessimistic as that, but I do think that most people see about 150, 100 years of a timeline of history that they can actually materially reflect on—about the length of a given leading empire in the world, right? I think if you stretch timelines far enough, we are essentially increasing in most every human progress and well-being indicator. But I think when humanity is kicked on our back and gasping for air and realizing we’ve hit rock bottom, we’re pretty good at finding a solution and pulling ourselves up. So, whether that’s five people going to Mars and starting over, or it’s figuring out how to break carbon down from the air and build building blocks out of it. I have a realist approach to it, I guess, and try to always look more macro.
GT: I heard some undertones of optimism in there.
Josh: I mean, we’re going to survive. What does that mean? I don’t know.
GT: What are other depictions of autonomous technology that you can think of that excite you both in pop culture?
Mike: I think that my favorite depiction as of late has been in the show Search Party. It takes place in the near future, and there’s autonomous police cars, and they’re all Siri-run. So it’s like, “Open door,” and the car is like, “Playing ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles,” or whatever. It’s all this shitty voice recognition, in really dire situations, that is really, really funny. Idiocracy also has some really fun examples of that. I love the Johnny cabs in Total Recall.
Josh: Demolition Man—that was self-driving, because he was mad he couldn’t control the car, and then it got in an accident and then it filled with Styrofoam.
Mike: My good friends at Corridor Digital make really amazing viral YouTube shorts short films, and they did a short called Anime Self Driving Cars. Imagine a Fast and the Furious-style racing story, but all the cars are self-driving, so everyone’s just sitting there, and it’s really ridiculous.
Josh: I’ve been thinking less about art and cinema, what’s really interesting to me is when we start to see a bit more partnering quantum computing and AI together working on autonomous vehicles, and how that could improve the infrastructure of a city. Logistics is one of the hardest computational problems, because it’s constantly evolving with variables from a thousand different directions. When AI can use quantum computing to solve its own problems, I think we’re going to get lapped real fast.
GT: Do you both consider yourselves as early adopters of new technology?
Josh: Definitely. Yeah. Mike more than I. Generally, I want to know about pretty much everything that’s coming out, how it works, how it affects things.
Mike: I am on my computer constantly. My brain is broken. I scroll endlessly, and any time there’s a good new thing that you’ve got to get, I am one of the first people that’s like, “Yes, I need this.”
GT: Argo is about to start a pilot with Lyft in a handful of cities where you’re going to be able to call a cab. Would the two of you be people that you think like, cool, sign me up?
Josh: By the time it is running in the streets of Los Angeles, I will be fine with it. It’s one thing if they were like, “Hey, get in this rocket we just made. We’re going to shoot it to the moon.” And I’d be like, “Uh, give it a beat.” But I generally think that when you have as much research and technology going into it, and have been able to pass the qualifications required to move it onto the streets of a city like LA, you’ve already… if it’s something that you’d like to stop, you’ve already been given the chance, so may as well jump on.
GT: Well, from doing this interview, you might have a hook up to one of the early rides in Los Angeles, so I’ll let you know.
Josh: Oh, that would be sick. Let’s to-be-continue this interview from the back of an autonomous vehicle.