Tim Woodward

Driverless cars set to end American love affair

Tim Woodward
Tim Woodward

One of our cultural icons looks to be going the way of the horse-drawn carriage.

If you follow the automotive news, you know that time could be growing short for one of our beloved institutions. The Statesman recently reported that Tesla is likely to have trouble meeting demand for its new electric car. And Time reports that Tesla’s self-driving electric car and those of other manufacturers following its lead are poised to replace the cars Americans have driven, relied on, loved and hated for nearly a century.

And sooner than you’d think.

With humans in the driver’s seat in case of emergencies, Tesla’s driverless cars have gone from Los Angeles to New York in two days — with the car driving itself 96 percent of the time. Tesla predicts that its electric cars will be entirely self-driven within three years.

Think of that. We’ll hop in our cars and go from coast to coast with nothing to do but enjoy the ride. Or read … play a game … take a nap.

“Today,” Time reported, “you pay higher insurance premiums to drive a zippy roadster than a dowdy minivan. Tomorrow you could well be paying a steep price for any steering wheel at all.”

Such predictions aren’t new, of course. A Life magazine article predicted driverless cars decades ago. I remember the illustration, a drawing of a family cruising down a highway playing cards. No one was at the wheel because there wasn’t one. The same article also predicted heated highways on mountains passes (something a Sandpoint company is pioneering) and mowers that cut grass automatically without human assistance.

Then those things were in the realm of science fiction. Now they’re reality, or close to it. Self-driving cars offer significant benefits. But how willing will people be to give up driving themselves? Our love affair with the automobile — the kind we drive ourselves — is beyond well-documented. Virtually everyone has had cars they loved to drive, and favorite driving stories.

My first car was one of those zippy roadsters with higher insurance premiums. Zippy when it was new, that is. Its better days were history by the time I paid $400 for it at a used car lot and drove away with the wind in my hair — it was a convertible — and a song in my heart.

The bad news: It cost another $400 to keep it running for a year. But gosh was it fun to drive! And it had a secret weapon — a crack in the floor on the passenger’s side that, when adroitly maneuvered over puddles at a good clip, drenched whoever the passenger happened to be. Handy for getting the last word in an argument.

Everyone who drives has drives remembered for life. My first was a solo trip in an old VW Bug. I was 19, had a couple of months left before leaving on active duty in the Navy and was out for new experiences. One summer night, feeling more restless than usual, I decided on the spur of the moment to jump in the bug and drive to San Francisco. The trip was financed with the money residing in a pocket of my jeans, if memory serves about $40. (You could fill the tank of a VW for three bucks then.)

This was before my fear of heights kicked in, and nothing seemed quite as exotic or thrilling as driving across the Golden Gate Bridge into the beautiful city by the bay. I ate at Fisherman’s Wharf, bought trinkets in Chinatown, roamed the streets of North Beach. Running low on gas late at night in Nevada on the way home, I stopped at a station in the middle of nowhere and surprised an attendant and his girlfriend taking advantage of the solitude in a back room. He probably still talks about the time an embarrassed customer pumped his own gas and left the money on the desk.

The fear of heights had kicked in and then some by the time my wife and I drove the aptly named Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park — dizzying drop-offs, switchbacks rising to the clouds. My fingernail marks are probably still on the steering wheel. A self-driving car would have been a godsend; my eyes could have remained tightly closed till we reached a civilized altitude.

Our cars become cherished companions, or, in some cases, bitter enemies. I’ve owned half a dozen VWs and four Saabs and loved every one of them. The same was true of a briefly owned BMW. I sold it because I didn’t like paying for premium gas or insurance surcharges, but it was almost sinfully fun to drive.

Bitter enemy? No question about that one. A Fiat. It was one of the few new cars I’ve ever owned, and in less than a year it went through three sets of rear tires, burned out two batteries and left trails of glass from rearview mirrors falling off and shattering on the pavement. It also howled. Really. Imagine the mournful howl of a woebegone dog and you’ll have an idea of what it sounded like. That car hated me, and the feeling was mutual. I sold it cheap and celebrated with a stiff drink and a cartwheel.

If in time we’re forced to give up driving, according to Time, the number of traffic accidents will plummet. More than 90 percent are the fault of human drivers, with causes ranging from drunken driving to talking on cellphones to fumbling with a sandwich. Self-driving cars will maximize fuel economy, dramatically improve traffic flow and are even better at finding parking spaces.

All things considered, we’ll probably be better off for it.

I for one, however, would miss driving. For many of us, giving it up would be downright painful.

So what about a sweetener, something to ease the pain of giving up something we love? If technology has reached the point that cars can drive themselves, where are those self-driving lawnmowers?

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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