The day after I received my driver’s permit, I drove through a 10-foot fence. I knocked that sucker flat, sending a steel pole straight through the radiator.
My mom and I were so shocked that we burst out laughing, tears running down our faces until the cops showed up to haul us out.
Needless to say, my relationship with cars has been fractured ever since.
So news that driverless cars are getting ready to hit the streets thrills me to no end. Nearly all the major car companies are rolling out their autonomous prototypes in what promises to be one of the major disruptions of our time.
At first blush, the idea of driverless cars seems preposterous. There are so many variables when it comes to driving, so many quick reactions and changing situations.
But the technology is advancing exponentially. The latest test drives show that when it comes to driving, computers are more reliable than humans. A computer doesn’t get distracted, angry or inebriated. It doesn’t suffer from night blindness or fatigue. And it never texts while driving.
Yes, computers glitch. But think about this: In the United States, an average of 33,000 people are killed in car accidents every year, according to an article by Matt Vella from the March 7 issue of Time magazine (subscription required). That’s equivalent to a small city getting wiped out every year. That doesn’t include the nearly 2 million people who are injured in accidents, according to the Time article. A whopping 94 percent of those accidents are the fault of drivers.
There’s something about ramming through a fence in your first driving experience that changes your perception of power behind the wheel. There’s something about getting hit broadside in an intersection, coupled with all those near misses, that makes you hyperaware of human frailty.
Of course, that doesn’t keep me, or anyone, off the road. I’m a freelance writer who works from home, and I still manage to clock 500 miles per week in my minivan. With the exception of the large cities, we are a nation utterly dependent on driving, whether we want to be or not.
The funny thing is, when it comes to technology, I’m not just a late adopter; I’m usually the last adopter. Perhaps I read too much Ray Bradbury or George Orwell as a teen, but I dragged my feet in transition from cassette tape to CD, from VHS to DVD, from dumbphone to smartphone.
But driverless cars? They can’t come soon enough for me.
Vella’s Time article points out that the right to drive is embedded in American culture. We are the birthplace of the sleek automobile, zero-to-60 horsepower and all that mumbo-jumbo. Just look at every luxury car Super Bowl commercial.
For many people, their car is part of their identity, an extension of their psyche. From the BMW to the VW Beetle, we are what we drive.
But perhaps because my first car out of the gate (or should I say, through the fence) was a gray Chevy Astro, I’ve never felt my identity tied to my mode of transportation. While my other high school friends slid to school in their Camaros and vintage blue Thunderbirds, I roared through the parking lot with all the subtlety of a hippopotamus arriving at a watering hole.
My car status didn’t improve much in college. I was too short to see over the steering wheel of most sedans. To counteract my stature, as well as my fear of ramming through more fences, I chose function over form, boxy chunks of metal with four-wheel drive and side airbags.
I may be an early convert, but the transition to autonomous vehicles may be one of the hardest transitions, psychologically, that Americans will have had to face. Looking at our strange resistance to mass transit, light rails and speed trains, one can only imagine the uphill battle for driverless cars.
We are a people who like to be in charge. We also like the illusion of safety. Although most of us acknowledge driving isn’t always safe (ask anyone who’s been stuck behind a swerving student driver), it’s what we know, and at the moment it sure seems safer than handing our lives to a computer.
However, the advantages of driverless cars go beyond safety, as if that weren’t enough. As the Time article points out, autonomous vehicles change the structure of sprawling parking lots. “Automated cars are like tireless parking valets,” Vella writes. “They can drop passengers off at their destination, pick up a signal from an empty parking space and then zip away for the return trip.”
When cars do the talking, they change the very structure of our wide roads and eventually the need for stoplights and stop signs. Traffic will become an anecdote of the past. And just like how Uber has upended the taxi industry, driverless cars may make owning a vehicle obsolete. This is good news for those whose health, circumstances or age makes it impossible for them to drive.
Of course, there are huge issues that need to be addressed before we make a full switch: hacking, for one. Liability will also be an ongoing debate. Not to mention what will happen to the automotive industry, the car insurance companies and all the goods and services connected to human drivers. These are all kinks that need to be sorted out.
When the first automobiles were introduced more than 100 years ago, they were met with huge resistance. People couldn’t imagine giving up the trusted horse and wagon. They complained about the noise of these strange new machines, about the pollution and about the danger of zipping through a city street at the insane speed of 15 miles per hour.
For many Americans, I imagine the arrival of the autonomous car will be similar. We will gawk at the insanity, drag our feet and insist, with one foot on the gas pedal, that we’ll never give up our right to the steering wheel.
Except for me. I’ll be the first one to toss my keys, right over that fence.
Tiffany Gee Lewis runs the website Raise the Boys at raisetheboys.com, dedicated to rearing creative, kind, courageous and competent boys. Follow it on Instagram and Twitter at raisetheboys. Email: email@example.com