Drive By

Tesla drive train.

Four years ago I went to a Tesla dealership. I strolled past the sleek chocolate brown coupe and found myself standing in front of a metal bed on four wheels. Wait. That’s the inside of the car? Where’s the engine? How car go?

The salesperson started talking about the battery and plugs and how smart the car was–that it would charge itself when electricity was cheapest. But I was floored by the lack of an engine. It was just a big, heavy battery. No pistons exploding inside of a big heavy hunk of metal. Almost no moving parts, except for the wheels.

Back to smart, the car was run by software that could be updated. And a few months ago, they started shipping all vehicles with self-driving hardware. The hardware is ready for programming so the car can drive itself. I’m thinking that we should stop calling these things cars. And use another verb for drive.

Cars and car ownership created modern America. We built extensive roads, suburbs, cul-de-sacs and drive-through meals because of cars. We have cement and asphalt covering one-third of the land in Los Angeles for our cars. We have people in jail for driving under the influence. More than three thousand people are killed in car accidents every single day, and 20 million are disabled every year. Seventy percent of all the oil in the U.S. is consumed by transportation.

People express themselves through their cars. Many a new parent resisted their first mini-vans because they never saw themselves as that kind of mom. Then there are growling sports cars, the monster trucks and the SUVs with bike racks and kayaks telling the other drivers who you are.

Us humans have a hard time imagining a post-car world. Frankly, we have a hard time imagining any world different than the one we know. But once cars start driving themselves, when they don’t use gas, it’s a new game. Gas stations, highway motels, auto repair shops, windshield wiper makers, will be superfluous.

Personal vehicles might be more like mini trolleys. They’ll be optimized, set routes. People will call for a ride and won’t need to find a parking space. Cities will lose revenue from speeding and parking tickets. Smart cars won’t need stop signs or traffic signals. They will modulate themselves to the other vehicles around via sensors and satellites.

It was only sixty-six years between the flight at Kitty Hawk and when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Maybe we will have hovercrafts. Maybe they will fly. Maybe. But however this new technology and new transportation plays out over the next decade, we are near the beginning of another upheaval in our world. And this one will be faster than the last. Buckle your seat belts, if we have them, that is.

 

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