What, now, of the road trip? The car chase? The glamour? The freedom?
In inventing a self-driving car, Google has in one fell swoop struck a blow at masculinity, female empowerment, romance, sex and action heroes. It may even violate two of our three inalienable rights — liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But let’s not get negative.
In early tests, the buglike car logged thousands of miles in Mountain View, Calif. This electric car has two buttons (stop/go and emergency), and no brakes or pedals. (A version with a manual control that lets the driver take over is expected to be legal on California roads next year.)
In American middle-class life, driving is independence. Remember your learner’s permit and that first venture out: you in the driver’s seat, Mom or Dad coaching? With the Google car, say goodbye to all that bonding as well as the psychological growth that switch-around embodies.
I remember being on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, my dad suggesting that I change lanes, and being too terrified to do it. And then I did.
On my 16th birthday, I got my license. Hello, freedom. To pass the test I had to parallel park, and it is still one of the things I do best. Afterward I was proud. I picked up a friend and drove us to the beach. With Google cars, there is nothing to learn, nothing to master. This car fosters passivity, nurtures infancy. It has no driver, only passengers.
Over the years, I have grown to feel that the greatest thing about driving is that, if I really need to get somewhere or really need to get away from somewhere, I can do it. Essential to that sense of security and power is that I am actually doing the driving. Now I imagine running out, jumping into the car, and having to call tech support.
Suppose O.J. Simpson hadn’t been in an SUV? Suppose he was heading down the freeway in a Google car? Could Google have stopped it?
According to news reports, the cars don’t drive independently yet. Two Google employees monitor the cars, ready to take over at any time. Edward Snowden claimed in his NBC interview with Brian Williams that the U.S. government can turn your cellphone on and off and listen in. If the government can do that, will it also be able to turn your car off and on? Apparently so, because Google can do that while it tests it. Can the company eavesdrop on your car talk? Run you into a wall or over a cliff? Can Google have your car take you to the police station? Good? Or goodbye to the open road. To Jack Kerouac, Route 66 and all that.
Think about it this way. Your parents could put “parental controls” on the Google car. Travel more than four blocks from home and it will turn around and bring you back. This car gives helicopter parenting a whole new frontier.
Impalas, Mustangs, Porsches, convertibles, pickup trucks, sports cars inspire adventure. They make us want to take off, explore. They are sexy. My husband has never forgotten cruising coolly around in his powder blue Impala convertible. I remember swooning at the beat-up MG of one of my boyfriends. These cars fired our imaginations.
Suppose Thelma and Louise were on the run in the Google car. Louise is not behind the wheel. There is no wheel. No Thunderbird. No top down. Imagine James Bond in a Google car. No, don’t imagine any of this, it’s too depressing.
The upsides: much safer. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error. No gas, better for the environment, no more designated drivers. Soon everyone will be able to get drunk. You will be able to text while you drive, picnic, put on makeup, and have sex, although from the look of the tiny two-seater that isn’t going to be easy.
New positions may have to be invented. It will be cramped and you might throw out your back.
While writing this on my computer, I went to Dictionary.com to get the definition of sexy. The third definition read, “excitingly appealing; glamorous: a sexy new car.”
They’ll have to change that, won’t they? They’ll have to upgrade sexy to take the car out of it.
Delia Ephron is the author, most recently, of “Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.),” a memoir. She wrote this article for the New York Times.
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