I spent the better part of 5 hours this holiday weekend behind the wheel of a Dodge Journey, apparently the auto aficionado’s choice of SUV or… minivan or whatever thing this thing is called. How would I know the vehicle’s desirability? As soon as I returned it to the rental counter, it was summoned away to be washed and sent back out immediately upon request from another customer.
I did not sign up for a Dodge Journey, nor any other SUV or minivan. With just the 3 of us heading out of town for a couple days, figured a 4-door intermediate sized car would do the trick. But when I arrived at the rental place, there wasn’t a car on the lot. Just everything on steroids. My request for the smallest one they had delivered up the Journey. Yeah, the Journey. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to park it in our tiny garage. (Spoiler alert: Mission Accomplished, with room to spare.)
Once out on the highway, the Dodge Journey drove like in a car commercial. If you closed your eyes and pretended all those other cars weren’t there. Only, not for too long. That’s kind of dangerous driving.
Seats as comfortable as any in my living room. Sound system better than mine at home. A/C keeping us cool on demand. Plenty of room for all the stuff we’ve packed in to make a summer long weekend complete.
Eventually, when traffic did thin out, after a couple hours, the Dodge Journey hit 140, 145 without me even really noticing. This, as the ad man’s copy reads, was a smooth ride. Enjoyable even, to a man who, at the best of times, hates being in a car.
It all got me to thinking about the not-too-distant future when we’d be handing over the task of driving fully to computers. Autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars and the like.
The visuals we’re presented, Jetson’s style, are tiny pods, moving us around efficiently, not careening here and there, zipping back and forth, but almost assembly line like. Everyone travelling in orderly fashion at the same speed, a speed conducive, one would assume, to street life. So, not at crazy breakneck speeds.
Even out on the highways where the private automobile and trucking of goods rule, at what speed will our self-driving cars be allowed to haul it? Around these parts with a posted speed limit of 100 km/h but in practice, more like 120 before anyone really starts to notice, how fast will be deemed too fast? Eliminating driver error through computer control would, presumably, notch it up somewhat. What number will be practical, feasible or desirable?
A bigger question might be: will drivers who are used to determining their driving speed for themselves, within the constraints of using our streets with fellow travellers, of course, be willing to hand over the controls to the machine? Are we really going to be content to stick with the posted limits along with everyone else? Isn’t the appeal (at least theoretically) of driving yourself the individualism to it? We’ve known almost since the private vehicle made its first appearance that speed kills yet we’ve proven ourselves unwilling to regulate their speed in any short of resolute way outside of road sign limits. Why are we still allowing cars on our streets and roads that are capable of going well over 300km/h, and building the infrastructure to accommodate such speeds?
Are we really to believe that with the advent of autonomous vehicles, we’re simply going to take our collective foot off the gas? Not to mention, give up the luxury something like the Dodge Journey offers up now for the confined space of the prototypical self-driving car that we’re seeing on the news reels. I have my doubts. Being in traffic is being in traffic whether you’re driving or not. It’s hard to imagine giving up all the mod cons that we’ve become accustomed to if we’re still spending an inordinate amount of time in our cars in return for someonething else assuming control of the wheel.
Our relationship with our cars has never been that kind of rational. You could argue that car dependence and the building of our environment for the primacy of private automobile use is the very definition of irrational. Yet the assumption now seems to be technology will bring a sense of order, logic and reason to our road use. The machines will save us!
Only if they rewire our thinking about how we move around our cities and places, changing our priorities, will they. Because if the easiest, most reliable and comfortable way to get to where you want to go is still from inside a car, nothing much is going to change. Fewer collisions and fatalities, which is not to be sniffed at, but cars first, cars foremost.
Unless, of course there are none remaining in the lot. Then we’ll all be moving around in Dodge Journeys. Riding in extreme comfort but still stuck in traffic despite the machine’s best efforts.
I’m not left speechless very often. I lose lots of things, words are seldom on that list. But then Orlando, and the Pulse nightclub mass shooting/murder.
Our urge to explain the unexplainable seems to be a defining trait of our species. Understandable, since it is much easier to do than actually trying to prevent the unexplainable. Hindsight being 20/20.
Apportioning blame is as simple as pointing your finger and raising your voice. As is the case in many of these kinds of situations, it’s just a matter of a hate pile-on. If only we had banned/killed/jailed X, then Y would never have happened, and we’d all be as happy and content as Z.
The one unspoken current running through all of that, of course, is an absolving ourselves of responsibility, the ‘othering’. It was Them not Us. We’re all good here.
This last thought struck me as I was watching on my TV, from my safe distance on my couch in Toronto, a panel discussion on The National about the Orlando tragedy. The CBC had gathered 3 voices from the national security and international politics arena. Not surprisingly, I heard ISIS mentioned significantly more often than either homophobia or gun control. This, after all, was what these 3 experts knew best.
On first glance, it makes sense. The shooter was a Muslim-American. The FBI had, apparently, investigated him for suspected Islamic extremism ties. He had, again apparently, phoned in to 911 before the assault, pledging allegiance to ISIS.
There’s your answer, easy answer, on a platter.
This isn’t about homophobia in a country where there’s plenty of it. This isn’t about gun control in a country where there’s virtually none of it. It can only be about one thing, and one thing only. Reality is complicated. Our perception of it doesn’t have to be.
But I wonder…
If I’m a damaged man, and it’s always about men when it comes to these mass killings, a damaged Muslim man looking to go out in a hail of gunfire, what do I want as my epitaph? I Pledge My Allegiance to ISIS or I Hate Faggots. There’s a certain ring of righteousness and nobility to fighting for a cause rather than murdering out of pure hatred.
I’ve got my opinions, of course. Some informed, others far more viscerally-based. The investigation is still in its early stages. What we think we know now will need to be later updated.
But the one truth I think cannot denied here?
When we vilify others, or enable the vilification of others through the words we say, the ideas we spread, the laws we pass or don’t pass, based on gender, race, sexual orientation, political views, we create and target vulnerable individuals and communities. Hide behind degrees of hatred as you might – In this country we don’t throw them off roofs! – it’s a self-congratulatory pat on the back that passes for plausible deniability. See? No blood is on these hands.
It’s them. It’s always them. If everyone else would just act, be, believe, think, pray like we do, we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. What we need is capitulation to the norm, not more cooperation or accommodation.
Diversity has its place, as long as it doesn’t challenge established practices. People get agitated when their way of seeing the world comes under attack. Lashing out is to be expected. Shocked by the news we’re hearing? We shouldn’t even be surprised.
(I know, I know. I said the last excerpt would be the final excerpt but as I finished up John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death Of the Automobile, seemed like its last segment would be the best last excerpt here.
It’s fun to look back from your perch, 40+ years on, to assess how predictions worked out. No one’s going to get it exactly right. That’s not possible.
Jerome clearly underestimated just how stuck on cars we were. ‘Gadgets’ have continued to captivate us (Heated steering wheels anyone?). Car makers did eventually respond to safety concerns about their products. Road death numbers dropped significantly, certainly on a per capita basis. And, oh my, was he soft on our tax tolerance.
Ultimately, a pattern, once firmly in place, is incredibly difficult to change. Jerome, I think (and here’s my prediction) wasn’t incorrect in thinking our car dependence would be eventually broken. He just got the timeline wrong. Automobile use hasn’t yet become ‘unbearable’ although, in some places, it feels like the moment’s incredibly close.)
* * *
The Death of the Trip
The force that will finally finish off the automobile as the basis of our transportation system still lies unrevealed in the future, of course, and I have few clues to its identity, although some educated guesses are possible. It could well be a ponderous technological overcomplexity that will drive prices totally out of reach, forcing the private citizen, already staggered by the Nader Tax, to reevaluate his own transportation needs in new terms. More conventional taxation is due to increase markedly in the immediate future. We will surely recognize, shortly, that the automobile was responsible for the total decline of public transportation, and represents one of the few remaining sources of revenue substantial enough to pay for bringing that institution back to functioning life. European gasoline prices are boosted by taxation to circa sixty cents a gallon (and public transit is uniformly excellent). Japan taxes engine size so severely that over-180-cubic-inch engines add 40 percent to the cost of a car in taxes alone.
The automobile seems to represent an endless source of revenue generation, a role that could contribute to its own demise. The foreign nations are behind us in automobile-centered problems because they taxed early, limiting the growth of private automobiles. It seems likely that we will soon find it necessary to attempt to tax ourselves back away from the problem. The solution sounds a bit elitist for our democratic blood, but it fits our style better than anything so drastic as the outright ban that probably represents a more desirable solution. Use-taxes for city streets sound unreasonable? The parking bandits in New York City are already getting seventy-five dollars a month and up, which is exactly the same mechanism except for where the money goes, what it accomplishes.
Changing consumer habits may be enough to revise radically our patterns of automobile ownership and use, if not to wipe out the machine entirely. One such change Alvin Toffler calls “rentalism.” Many city residents are finding they can avoid car ownership entirely, simply renting when the extended need arises. The savings in out-of-pocket expense, on a long-term basis, is immense. An interesting side effect of the rental phenomenon, originally surfacing in the computer industry, is that it dumps squarely back on the manufacturer the problem of product longevity and serviceability. There is absolutely no need for the customer to put up with any kind of unsatisfactory original condition or service when he can simply turn in the product and rent another for the same cost. Rental-car owners will be less inclined to sucker for psychological trimming, keenly interested in reliability, and absolutely immune to the emotionality of product loyalty. The effect could even bring back product engineering.
For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that the automobile will simply be replaced by some other new transportation technology seems dim indeed. We’ve had our fingers burned on not a few new technologies in the past, and can be expected to move slowly and suspiciously toward a commitment to a new gadget on a scale that will represent a total replacement of our hundred million vehicles.
We already have, however, the technology to supplant most of the automobile’s function – and have it manufactured, distributed, installed, paid for. Personal communication can and perhaps will supplant the automobile eventually, not by superior performance of the automobile’s function, but by diverting us away from that function. In the face of the clearly insurmountable problems that an ever-expanding automobile population presents, our futurists are beginning to see that it is mobility itself – that simple original notion that we so quickly mastered and then went on to other things – that is the enemy. The range of spokesmen who are mulling over the idea in public print is remarkably wide. Sociologist Paul Goodman perhaps represents the reputable anti-establishment extreme: “The first question about transportation is not private cars and highways versus public transportation, but why the trip altogether. I have not heard this question asked either in Congress or in City Hall. Why must the workman live so far from his job? Could that be remedied? Why do I travel 2,000 miles to give a lecture for an hour…?
For the other side of the abyss between anti- and pro-establishment forces, nobody could be a better spokesman than the director of research for General Motors, Paul Chenea: “When you stop to think of how much traveling you do which you wouldn’t really do if you could accomplish the job some other way. Just think of how much travel you could avoid if you could look at a guy when you talk to him on the telephone. I’m not really convinced that everybody’s got to go everywhere all the time. There must be a better way than this…”
When the director of research for the largest transportation company in the world says perhaps we shouldn’t move around so much, it is mobility itself that is clearly identified as the culprit. Dr. Chenea will be joined in the near future by what will amount to a world-wide chorus – the same kind of swelling organ tones of piousness and moral exhortation that have unfortunately characterized a great deal of the environmental protection movement. Don’t go, the voices will say. Stop. Consider alternatives. Stay home. Phone instead of going. (The phone service shows signs of collapsing already. We have yet to discover the communication equivalent of exhaust emissions, but it is hardly cynical to suggest that we probably will.) Okay, we are a buzzing, jittery, flighty human race; maybe we can spin off some portion of those jitters in increased – dare we hope for improved? – communication. Talk, don’t drive.
Visual phones, access to data banks and computers, transmission via phone of graphic materials – these will increase slightly the effectiveness of electronic rather than mechanical travel. As we have created a new class of the technologically unemployable in the recent past, we might well profit by creating a class of professionally unmobile in the future. It is unlikely that such a sea change in American custom will spring lightly from the public-spiritedness of the citizenry. During one of New York’s subway strikes, Mayor Lindsay issued a public plea that all Manhattan workers not “absolutely essential” please stay home; the result was an historic traffic jam, as every citizen rushed to the office by car to prove his indispensability.
Neither new gadgets nor new social economic classes are sufficient, really, to break the pattern. Nor will we give up our cars for moralistic reasons, no matter who or what would thereby be saved. It has been suggested that the automobile must be abandoned if we are to survive. Yes, of course – just as we must stop having wars in order to avoid killing so many people. We will not exhort ourselves out of the automotive trap any more successfully than we stopped highway crashes with moral imperatives. No appeal to our reasonableness or our humanity will finally demobilize us.
The automobile will die when its use becomes unbearable. It would be comforting to end on a positive note, to suggest some new attraction that will pull us from our cars by increasing human possibilities, but we’ve run out of room – and, perhaps, time – for that. When the moment comes – as it will, as surely as tomorrow’s polluted dawn – when movement threatens, when to go carries a greater psychic cost than to stay, then we will stop. The automobile has made a powerful beginning in the creation of an environment in which such a threat is integral. Every day new elements click into place: the risk, the cost, the delay, the bother, the crowding and congestion. The rage. When the destination diminishes as the task of getting there grows, when the endless prospect of unrelieved blight conquers the remaining vistas, when no conceivable place holds any hope of being different from any other – when all of America becomes Woodward Avenue – then we will stay home. What new toys – surrogate sports cars – will fill our time is beyond imagining. But there will be time to fill, a great deal of it, when none of it is spent in automobiles.
One possibility lies waiting in the wings for our discovery, if we have the wit to seek it out. When Alan S. Boyd became the first Secretary of Transportation, one of his first official acts was to decorate his new chambers. On one wall, he hung a large photomural: it showed a pair of well-shod feet. It’s a transportation solution that hasn’t had a great deal of technological support in recent years, but it might be the salvation of us yet.