Driving isn’t what it used to be — or will be

Published 9:08 am Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nobody drives anymore.

Oh, sure, we can call it driving. “I drove to work and back.” But people don’t really drive.

In the olden days, driving required people to be engaged in the machine and what happened around it. They drove stick shifts and had to use all four limbs. They didn’t have radios. And when radios came along, they were a snap to operate. And the cars were big up until the late 1970s. People drove boats.

Tim Engstrom

Email newsletter signup

And the cars didn’t have good handling. Sure, back then, they thought it was good handling, but you could wobble the steering wheel a quarter circle without changing the direction of your boat one bit.

The roads were more engaging, too. Roads moseyed in and among farms and towns and the landscape. People didn’t drive on straight-as-heck, two-lane freeways. Drivers today barely pay attention while they eat a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and large french fries and soft drink.

They didn’t have cars with computers in them, with automatic transmission, seat belts, air bags, rack-and-pinion steering, crumple zones, third brake lights, hi-fidelity factory stereos with CD changers and satellite radio, anti-lock brakes, traction control and state-of-the-art tires that grab the road.

They didn’t have cars that parallel parked automatically. They didn’t have OnStar. They didn’t have electronic stability control or symmetrical all-wheel drive. They didn’t have intermittent windshield wipers. They didn’t have dashboards that seem to have 93 different lights to explain what’s wrong with your engine. Or your tires. Or muffler. Or transmission. Or any other parts. All they had in the olden days was a speedometer, a tachometer, a fuel gauge, a heat gauge and an oil light. They had less if you go back farther. No, those people — the people who actually drove their cars — they listened to the motor.

The early motorists even wore goggles, scarves and driving gloves. They were quite involved.

Sure, car safety — no matter the era — has a horrible track record. But I am not talking about automobile safety. However, safety improvements have somewhat disengaged the drivers.

With the cars they make today, people barely have to drive to be considered a driver. It’s like cars are built to drive practically on auto pilot, and if drivers mess up, the cars have enough safety features that they will come out better than in the olden days.

People like their cars not because of the experience of driving anymore. They like their cars because they can go anyplace at anytime. With a bus, you have to wait and you go where the bus goes. Same for a train. Same for even a carpool.

Here’s the deal: People don’t want to drive their cars. It is a necessary bother. They want to socialize, often through their cell phones. They talk or text on them. Heck, if the cars could just drive themselves, then people would be able to get more time in their lives.

In fact, mark my words, before my 4-year-old son is old enough to drink beer, Detroit will sell cars that drive themselves.

Did you see that article in the New York Times last October? Google is working on cars that drive themselves using software and a rotating camera on the roof. The story said the cars logged 140,000 miles with little human intervention (a person was at the wheel, just in case, and to abide by state laws) and one even successfully navigated Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Imagine the impact autonomous driving will have on our lives. It will be almost as revolutionary as the Internet itself. More time for getting that report done for the boss. More time to get the high score on that handheld video game. More time to text people. A chance to catch that DVD movie you have been putting off. A more relaxing meal while on the trip to Grandma’s house.

Would they be safer?

I would bet so. Everyone would go the speed limit.

But would robot cars use blinkers?

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other week.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

email author More by Tim