When I learned to drive a car 63 years ago, you had to master the intricacies of a manual transmission. You’d turn the key — and, no, I’m not so old that the vehicle had to be cranked from outside — put the car in first and ease away from the house and when you got up a little speed, push the clutch down with your foot and gently put the lever in second. You’d get up a little more speed and repeat the process, go into third gear and — voila! — you were off.
The hard part was learning to do this so smoothly that you didn’t “buck” all the way down the street, sometimes killing the engine and having to start all over again. When you slowed down to turn a corner, you’d have to hit the clutch again, shift back down to second, and then go back to third to travel smartly along once more.
Kids my age quickly got the hang of it, but my grandmother never quite mastered the procedure. She’d roll down the driveway, grinding the gears and revving the engine as she went, while my parents rolled their eyes inside the house.
I can just see our daughter and her sons rolling their eyes at me as I cringe in a corner of the back seat of a driverless automobile, a species that automotive innovators tell us will be for sale in a scant 10 years time.
Right now, our daughter has the newest vehicle in our family, and it boasts a back-mounted camera that shows her when she’s too close to something behind her. No more backing into somebody else’s bumper.
But that’s about all the new automotive technology I can stand. The camera is undoubtedly a good thing, but can you imagine going from Algiers to Lakeside Mall without a human being driving the car?
I got to thinking about this the other day after reading a Wall Street Journal piece that assures the reader that driverless autos aren’t far from the salesroom.
They are, of course, operated by computers, and everybody knows that computers can misbehave. Your lowly laptop can inexplicably lose the piece you’re writing, stow it in some file you’ve never seen before, fill up with ads and programs you didn’t install, and change fonts and then refuse to change back.
And wouldn’t there be some practical problems associated with putting driverless cars on the streets and expressways of a town like New Orleans? First, I would assume that every motorist would have to have one for things to work properly. They are bound to be expensive, and the changeover might take a while. Meanwhile, how do computers cope with the driving habits of many of our citizens? What happens when the computer senses a vehicle four or five car lengths behind in the lane to the left, puts on the blinker, and begins to merge into that lane? Every New Orleanian knows that the driver to the left will speed up to prevent ANYONE from getting in front of him. Then he will pass and cut in front of you and exit to the right. Can a computer cope with this?
Years ago, I merged from the Earhart up-ramp into traffic headed for the Crescent City Connection, but although I’d done it quite safely, when everybody had to stop nearer the bridge because of controls then in effect, the driver in the car behind me got out, walked to my window and gave me a heated lecture on driving properly. In a driverless car I’d have been able to tell him, “Look Pa, no hands!”
Being driven by a computer on the interstate would be less nerve-wracking (but only if the truck drivers had also been supplied with the latest in transport). Imagine, going to east Texas or Alabama and reading a book the whole way, feet propped up, bottle of pinot grigio at your side. Hey, that’s a thought: There wouldn’t be any more DWI.
And driverless cars would be a boon to the elderly. A former editor of mine mourned the loss of his vehicle from the time his children grounded him when he was 88 until his death at 98. On these most modern of wheels, he could have tooled around town for 10 more years.
Still, I don’t think I’d have the nerve. I wonder how those first train riders felt, in the 19th century, rattling through the countryside, unable to see a horse or driver?
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at email@example.com.