I was having breakfast this morning while reading a book on a Kindle and checking my phone for e-mail. There was also a newspaper open on my iPad. This is typical for most mornings as I try to rebuild my overstimulation levels, which have been left depleted from six or seven hours of sleeping. Meanwhile, the TV was quietly on in the background subliminally telling me that autonomous cars are in our future. The possibilities of what I heard caused me to stop for a second and CTRL+ALT+DEL my morning ritual.
Are self-driving cars really the next phase of getting from point A to point B because I’m already in the process of growing a third eye on my forehead so I can keep up with everything. OK, I’m not about to wish for the old days because those were fraught with their own problems, but really—the new days are starting to overwhelm me as I sort out what’s worth keeping and what’s due for an upgrade.
The windshield wipers on one of my early cars worked on manifold vacuum pressure—the more gas I gave the engine, the faster the wipers moved. They slowed to a stuttering crawl at red lights. Worse still was the VW Beetle I had, which needed an ice scraper for the inside since the defrosters were so anemic, they couldn’t blow out a birthday candle. Things have gone from that to self-driving cars in forty years. This is amazing but I don’t know if I’m ready to put my full faith in an automotive computer network. There are a lot of bugs with the systems we have now that still need to be worked out before I’ll go anywhere near a self-driving car.
The steering wheel on the truck I’m driving has more buttons (on both sides) than a jukebox. One of those buttons changes the speedometer display into one with all sorts of arcane information; as if I really need to know the temperature of the transmission oil or how many hours have been driven since I’ve reset everything. I still don’t know what a few of these buttons are supposed to do, but there is one that shows promise. I press it once and a disembodied voice asks me to say a command
“Turn the heat down,” I’ll say. That seems to be a reasonable request since the heat controls are two buttons with tiny up and down carets that are part of a community of forty-three other buttons, plus five dials and at least two-hundred touchscreen commands, should I choose to go that route. They are completely indecipherable unless the vehicle is stopped and I strap on a headlamp. I’ll then stare at everything until it comes into focus, much the same as one of those Magic Eye drawings, so it sure would be swell if the voice command took care of this since it’s impossible to do it by touch alone. A second or two will go by after my request before an off-key, tonal “boink-boink” tells me that the system doesn’t understand this command, so please try again. “Make me a sandwich,” I’ll say. Boink-boink. Nothing. What good is this? This is not the robot I signed up for in 1961. If I want to turn down the heat while driving, I have to open the window.
The only thing that it does do well is to make adjustments to the radio station or switch over to the CD player. The flaw in that system is that any sharp noise, such as closing the door, beeping the horn, or blinking will jump the radio up to the next station, and I still have not figured out how to turn the radio off. I just turn the volume down all the way while the iPad-sized screen continues to tell me what song is playing. Side note to Dodge: I’ve asked the system to turn the volume up, but it can’t do that, so this one-trick pony needs some work in the convenience department.
After two years, I did finally manage to pair my phone to the truck. All I needed to do was download an app, make sure the Bluetooth setting was activated, put in a code, wait five minutes and there it was. All my contacts were available, so I thought I’d try it. I pushed the handset icon on the steering wheel and gave it a whirl.
“Dial Mrs. G.,” I said, and it did. It was amazing. I felt much the same as Mr. Bell must have felt when Mr. Watson said “hello.” It took me a while to learn that the truck can’t tell the difference between the words “dial” and “call” but after that, it worked OK. Better than the heater.
I haven’t had a chance to drive one of those cars that can parallel park itself, but I understand they work fairly well. I don’t think I would ever use such a system. One of the rights of passage of driving has always been the ability to parallel park, and I can still do this task well. When I took my driving test back in the Stone Age, it was an automatic fail if this skill could not be performed correctly. I have no idea what is required of novice drivers now, but I really don’t care if they can parallel park or not. Staying within three feet of the painted road lines while Snapchatting their driving selfie on Instagram would be nice, though.
Google has sent driverless cars out on over a million miles of roadways, and for any criticism I may have, the computers and sensors are probably better drivers than most people on the road. True, the cars look as if they were made by Playskool, but that’s splitting hairs. As we grow more and more distracted by all of the other new technology, maybe it’s technology that will ultimately pilot us safely from one place to the next while we sit there staring out a cracked window, ears flapping in the wind like a Labrador retriever. If the easily confused voice command on my iPhone is any indication, that could be a long way off, but it’s coming. Twenty-five years ago, when the Internet groaned into a vacuum tube monitor over a 14.4K modem, I thought this would never catch on, but I was wrong on that and I’m probably wrong on this too.
So hey, who says we can’t have both, and what’s old will be new again. I recently read that cassette tapes are making a comeback, which is in addition to vinyl records, bow ties, and radio programs (which are now called podcasts). Actual letters on stationery are making a comeback too, so maybe people will once again discover the joys of driving a basic car. I can understand why a generation that grew up on the bits and bytes of computer-powered items might be totally enthralled with something more old school. “Oh yeah, the 1975 Pacer is my dream car. So manual. So basic. So window cranks and bench seats, and it starts with a fifty-cent key. I can get the full driving experience.”
For me though, someplace in the middle would be nice. I can drive myself. Just give me heater controls that have actual levers that make a satisfying “whoomp-wh-o-o-o-sh” noise when I go from heat to defrost and I’ll be a happy guy. If I want to be driven somewhere, I’ll call an Uber.