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Who wants an autonomous car?

POSTED October 19, 2010 11:18 p.m.

I’m not usually one to rail against new technology. I’m a geek, a nerd, a certifiable tech-addict with more gadgets, gizmos, whozits and whatzits than “The Little Mermaid” could ever dream of.

Normally I’m the first one to back a new innovation, singing the praises of automated vacuums and electronic scooters far before my friends catch on.

But last week, when Google announced their work on an autonomous automobile, I think I was the only one steadfastly clinging to Luddite views as a chorus of online observers stood ready to spring into a future spent being a passenger in one’s own car.

Intellectually, I understand the appeal of a driverless automobile. Our lengthy commutes could suddenly become productive time spent reading, sleeping, or – as I’m sure Google would hope – watching YouTube videos and checking Gmail.

I used to live in Southern California, so I understand the allure of driverless driving to those stuck in daily gridlock. If cars drove themselves perfectly, there would be no accidents, no rubbernecking, and no stressful stop-and-go driving. Gridlock would become a thing of the past.

The safety aspects alone are undeniable. The human being at the wheel is inevitably the cause of most every accident, and a world with our robotic overlords handling the chore of driving would eliminate the tens of thousands of needless driving fatalities each year.

And, of course, there’s the welcome thought of being able to hit the local pub for a pint or six without worrying about finding a ride home. Unless you happen to be a taxi driver, that is, in which case the thought could be quite troubling.

But, put all of those admittedly amazing positives out of your head – a difficult task, I know – and you’re left with a shocking vision of a future technology that will emaciate rather than empower its users.

Cars have never been sensible. They’re not appliances. When shopping for a car, people want something that moves them, both literally and figuratively.

The vehicles that stir the hearts of adolescents and gray-haired enthusiasts alike are emotional. They’re festooned with needless wings and tailfins, oversized engines that growl like caged tigers, and paint schemes that evoke mental images of tropical creatures.

Sure, those lust-worthy automobiles are oftentimes unreliable, but people buy them anyway. It’s because cars aren’t just a means of transportation. They’re an outward symbol of our freedom.

I can think of no greater moment in my life than my 16th birthday, freshly-minted driver’s license in hand and the whole world in front of me. The independence, the responsibility of being in charge of my own destiny at long last was overwhelming.

I still get chills just thinking that I could hop in my car right now and drive to Albany, or Saskatoon. Or even to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost point of the Pan-American Highway.

I admit it: I could still do any of these things with the help of a Skynet-enabled gCar, as it would undoubtedly be called. But where would the sense of adventure be if I wasn’t behind the wheel?

I enjoy driving. I like the feel of it as the subtle movements of my hands and feet are translated into moving a three-ton behemoth faster than I could ever run. I adore the rush of adrenaline as I perfectly apex a corner, put the power down smoothly, and accelerate in a sublime connection between man, machine, rubber, and pavement.

All while following the applicable sections of vehicle code, obviously.

Yes, driving takes a modicum of skill to do well and safely. But when you embrace it as an experience, as an activity rather than a chore, it becomes one of the most amazing, life-affirming things a person can do.

I don’t even drive an automatic transmission. I want to be responsible for every aspect of my car’s motion as I snik-snik my way through the shift gates.

When I step into my car, I embark on an adventure. I don’t know if I’m going to come home safe and sound, even if I drive as carefully as possible.

It’s not the greatest arrangement, admittedly. But what sort of adventure starts with the participants sitting passively, waiting to arrive so the real adventure can start?

If you ask me, getting there – and back – is half the fun of a trip.

I don’t fault Google for what they’re trying to do. I think their technology has benefits.

I’d love to see a Google-inspired override system to wrest control away from drivers whose attention lapses. I’d drive a car smart enough to prevent imminent accidents. And I’d surely appreciate an optional autopilot which could keep drunks from driving.

But I don’t want my car to do the driving for me. I want a steering wheel in my hands, the wind in my hair, and the open road ahead of me.

I drive my own life forward. And I always will.

To contact Alex Cantatore, do a burnout in front of the Turlock Journal office, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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