July 24, 2024

In the summer of 18, I drove to a parking area 45 minutes north of the city for what I thought would be my first true adult rite. I was tall, gangly, and excitable. After a short period of testing at the Department of Motor Vehicles of San Francisco, my learner’s license was issued to me less than a week before. In those days, learning seemed simple. The tests were simple. When the issue arose, it was hard to do. I adjusted the mirrors behind the wheel as if I were preparing to drive ten miles in reverse. I looked at the empty pavement in front of me and then slowly moved the gearshift from park to drive.

My first love was cars. I learned as a 2-year-old to identify the brand of vehicles from the logo on the hood or near the fender. I was able to learn about people by their cars. I discovered what kind of person I am from my parent’s two old Hondas. I went with them to purchase one of the Hondas, a beige-used Accord. The rotting yellow Civic of my father, who was still a bachelor, had to be choked up on drizzly mornings. I did this with great pleasure by pulling the knob next to the steering wheel and waiting for a while before pushing it back. It was the end of the eighties. Gas prices were lower, and roads were jam-packed with cars from around the globe. As a child, my vision of the future was to drive fast.

All those years later, I was reassured to see that the parking lot had been virtually cleared of cars. My parents had a minivan that was as tenacious as a dump truck, with a plastic interior and a turning radius similar to a vehicle. My father was a driver who was flawless but not entirely fearless. He would refuse to drive certain bridges or in certain directions for fear that he might be “hypnotized” (as he put it) by the trusses running alongside the road. My little sister, who was in the rear, was also on board for reasons that I cannot remember. I pressed my foot on the accelerator; the van began to lurch as the engine revved briefly.

The first time I felt the power of this thing. It was not a vehicle as I knew it in the past. Instead, it was a massive machine with a lot of appetite that expressed its desires and interacted with other people. With a start, I realized that I was embarrassed behind the wheel. I felt as if someone was watching me during my first slow dance attempt. My instinct almost immediately was to hit the brake. My father and sister were the ones who started to lurch when I used the brake.

My sister replied, “Oh my god.”

My father remarked, “Maybe you could be a bit gentler,” sounding strangely calm, perhaps hypnotized.

I again tried to move forward, but this time at a speed that felt like it was a long distance. A few cars parked in a safe distance drew closer. I braked once more and looked over my left shoulder to see how far I had come. I had traveled about ten feet.

I had never realized how easily an accident, or even a fatality, can be caused by a simple mistake. As I jolted about the parking lot, I felt a tight spasm in my chest as I imagined myself in traffic on the road. I was 18 years old. After school, I had to do my best to keep up with the job of watering bonsai plants for neighbors. After a long day of driving, I was relieved and excited to have decided not to drive. I never took a second driving lesson.

Years ago, I considered my inability to drive a personal failure. Recently, I have wondered if I accidentally did something good for the world. I am one of those Darth Vaders who loudly follow couples walking slowly up the sidewalk. I’m certain that I would have been a twit at the wheel. Maybe I was saved from making a mistake by my incompetence. It’s one of those mercies that the universe bestows upon the young, who rarely recognize the gift. There are more cars in America than there are drivers. Our investment in these cars has produced dubious results. In the United States, since 1899, over 3.6 million people died in traffic accidents, and 80 million were injured. Pedestrian deaths have increased in recent years. Our most violent examples of systemic racism have been on the road. Combustion engines are to blame for the climate crisis and our soldiers’ wars.

Even cars have costs. Recently, we’ve been tempted to question their supposed benefits. The open road has proven to be a dangerous place for drivers, and carmakers have developed computers to replace these people. Will the people of tomorrow look back on our century of automobile life as a step forward or a mistake? Could it be that in a century, people will look back on the age of driving and filling up with gas as a mistake?

Dan Albert’s book “Are We Here Yet?” was one of the most captivating books that I received recently. The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless” notes that, at the end of the nineteenth century, gasoline and electric cars were developed alongside each other. Electrics were a mere concept at this point, one would assume. Albert reports that gas cars were the B fleet for the year.

Electric cars from the turn of the century were more maneuverable than gasoline-powered vehicles. The cars had faster acceleration, improved braking, and powerful torque to compensate for their heavy batteries. In 1902, a car powered by electricity briefly reached 102 mph. Unlike internal combustion vehicles, they didn’t need to be revved up in the middle. They had to be charged every 40 miles, which is about the distance between Mount Vernon and Grand Central Terminal, but early motorists did not travel much further. Electric power was the moonshot of its time: quiet, futuristic, and at the forefront of human achievement. Albert A. Pope invested in electrics when he entered the automobile business in 1896 as the head of Columbia Bicycle. He explained that people would not sit near an explosion.

Pope declared bankruptcy in 2007. Why did explosive, finicky gas cars dominate the field? Albert is an avid car enthusiast and former curator at the Science Museum of London. He identifies as ” n+1’s Car Critic” today, an assignment he takes very seriously and with pride. The book is both interesting and idiosyncratic at times, and it tracks the changing social and cultural status of cars with a mournful tone. Albert Now

 

Albert These Let the Europhiles in Boston drive their Swedish Volvos and the Los Angeles elites have their holier-than-thou Teslas; let New Yorkers rely on ride-hailing and Mobility-as-a-Service. We

 

Albert applauds the Aquarians who rose against the establishment. He is circumspect when it comes to the truckers, who in 1973 fought against gas taxes and a reduced speed limit by rising against the establishment. In his view, the main difference is that the Aquarians wear blue, and the truckers, in large part, wear red. The more telling point is that by the 1970s, anti-establishment feeling had become a common reflex, and everyone, regardless of their ideological affiliation, was on a march.

Albert is also against autonomous cars, despite the fact that Team Blue has a more consistent support for this technology. He calls self-driving cars “Randian,” even though nothing is more Randian than giving a vehicle agency to use situational awareness in order to join traffic. He calls them later “Benthamite Buicks,” referring to the practical code that tells an auto-driving car how to swerve in case physics makes a crash inevitable. He writes, “Suc,h serious discussions support a vision of totalizing power for the algorithm.” Are the decisions on which way to swerve better made by a human sipping Big Gulp or a computer? Albert appears to prefer Kantian cars; he supports the vehicle-to-vehicle collision technology and a popular Vision Zero program that aims to eliminate traffic fatalities categorically through reengineering roads and reducing speed limitations–Albert proposes twelve miles per hour. The article does not explain how this thoughtful proposal fits with his love of speed and freedom elsewhere.

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