Driving myself

(More old-man musings that appeared in Newsday.)

My current car, like the previous eight of my extended time in this land of the freeway and home of the paved, does not drive itself. Nor would I let it, even if experimental autonomous vehicle technology—big news these days—were already perfected.

I will not have my car be the boss of me. I’m not even comfortable with cruise control. I eschew the GPS function.

This does not make me a member of the Flat Earth Society. I accept electric window and sunroof conveniences. I believe in seat belts and—as long as I never experience their deployment—air bags. I love the computer read-out informing me of my average gas mileage. I appreciate satellite radio.

But I’m the designated driver in this human/car partnership. I’m in charge here. I pay for the gas. I foot the service bills. It is the car’s place to do as I order it, without any backtalk. (There is nothing more distracting than those robotic voice commands accidentally activated by a button lurking on the steering wheel.)

Let’s take this another step, to my aversion to automatic transmission. For more than 50 years, I have owned only do-it-yourself manuals, both for reasons of driving enjoyment and practicality. A manual transmission forces the driver to pay better attention. It requires the use of both hands and both feet, which diminishes the urge to eat, drink, shave, text or apply makeup while barreling down the parkway at what have become accepted speeds routinely 10 miles faster than the posted limit.

Also, standard transmission cars get better gas mileage. My current velocipede exceeds 40 miles per gallon on the highway, occasionally peaking at 50 mpg. (I won’t engage in free advertisement by identifying the car, but it may be a VW Jetta and may be equipped with a five-speed Turbo.)

I am aware that manual transmission, once standard in all cars, is steadily disappearing, now present in fewer than three percent of U.S. cars sold. That’s down 25 percent from just 25 years ago. In European and Asians countries, 8 in 10 cars have manual transmissions, so it is possible that my affinity for the stick shift makes me somehow un-American. (I also confess to liking soccer.) The only American car I ever owned was a 1974 Chevy Vega, with an aluminum engine that burned or leaked oil so badly that it seemed to need oil top-ups as often as gas fill-ups. I bid it goodbye after three short years.

Anyway, I’m not alone. Look what’s on the local roads, all those Hondas and Hyundais, Mercedes and Lexuses, Audis and Acuras, BMWs and Volkswagens, Subarus, Kias and Nissans.

But back to future. Isn’t the foundation of self-driving cars—artificial intelligence—artificial? Won’t self-driving cars require some sort of human default position, some need for an override function to respond to emergency vehicles forced to disobey traffic rules, or to changing weather conditions, or to critters crossing the road? Might those situations require back-up people skills more complicated, and necessitating far more training, than present-day drivers’ ed?

And won’t self-driving cars be a lot less fun? When I got my first car—I don’t want this to turn into a free ad, but it might have been a green British-made MGB convertible and it might have had a fake-wood steering wheel and wire spokes; very sporty—I spent the first day of ownership behind the wheel, aimlessly wandering around Columbia, Mo. Probably went through a half tank of gas. (At 25 cents a gallon.)

That was in 1966 and, even then, I suspect that someone out there already was envisioning a car with its own mind and will. Brilliant folks, after all, were only three years from landing people on the moon.

Science is good. Human existence gets better all the time. I’m all for progress. But some fantasies, like one I remember from childhood that a single pill someday might replace a perfectly prepared meal, literally would take the flavor out of life.

So. I am not interested in a car that will drive my car. I’ve got a driver. Me.

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