• Otter Views: Look Ma, No Wheel

    by Tom Stevens

    A Walt Disney animated TV special I watched as a kid was “Cars of the Future.” I think Goofy was the host.

    This was in the 1950s, during America’s post-war love affair with all things automotive. Having survived The Great Depression, the dust bowl and two punishing wars, Americans were ready to “See the USA in a Chevrolet,” as one jingle put it.

    To enable that, the Eisenhower administration rolled out an ambitious and visionary public works project: the vast interstate highway system.

    As wide, smooth, well-graded highways reached all corners of the nation, roadside infrastructure kept pace. New “motels” popped up, flanked by diners, rest stops and gas stations pumping 20-cent gallons of West Texas crude.

    Soon Joe and Jane Q. Public could zip across the country at a cost and comfort level unimaginable a decade earlier. As transport and distribution links improved, cars and other goods once available only to the wealthy become widely accessible. In many ways, the highway system supercharged the economy and truly “united” the states.

    There were downers, too, of course. As sprawling new “commuter suburbs” supplanted earlier residential and retail models, Americans stopped walking and started eating fatty “fast food,” with lamentable results. The driving lifestyle also contributed to urban congestion, air pollution, environmental degradation and several Mideast wars.

    But hindsight is 20-20. In fairness to Goofy, these automotive downsides were not widely foreseen when “Cars of the Future” first aired. In the 1950s, all was can-do optimism, American ingenuity and “better living through chemistry.”

    Perhaps as a result, the promised “future” seemed much closer back then. Even as a kid growing up in the remote Territory of Hawaii, I knew floating cities, aerial sidewalks and personal jet packs were just around the corner. Coming even sooner, Goofy promised, would be the “driverless car!”

    I still remember the animated sequence. Seated in futuristic swivel chairs in their comfortably oversized sedan, a two-parent, two kid, all-white Disney family played cards while highway scenery whizzed past the car windows. “Who’s driving?” Goofy asked playfully.

    Well, no one was driving, because the car drove itself! What a concept. Computers were still rudimentary in the 1950s, but the Disney car somehow took its speed and directional cues from a nationwide traffic control system and from sensors imbedded in the highway itself. If I remember correctly, the car of the future didn’t even have a steering wheel. I couldn’t wait to ride in one.

    But I would have to wait, because the promised future kept receding into the actual future. First, pesky Rachel Carson came along and showed that many things were not living better, but in fact dying badly through chemistry. Then smog appeared. Then abrasive Ralph Nader made his case for car safety. Then OPEC hiked gas prices. Eventually, video footage of oil spills, Bronco rollovers and crash-test dummies replaced the happy 1950s Disney family in their futuristic car. Having already lost hope that my lifetime would include floating cities and personal jetpacks, I sadly prepared to add driverless cars to the list.

    Then, eureka! While I was motoring slowly along last week, a radio account of a new self-driving “Google Car” nearly sent me off the road. Actually, I shouldn’t say “new,” because the Google Car reportedly has logged 300,000 driverless miles around Central California already.

    Initially it seemed odd that Google — rather than say, Toyota, BMW or General Motors – should be spearheading this driverless car project. But when I mentioned the story to my boss, he laughed.

    “That’s because modern cars are already driverless,” he said. “Everybody’s texting while driving.”

    Suddenly it all made sense. Except on TV poker, Americans no longer sit around tables playing cards. But the animated sequence I watched a half-century ago is still pertinent. Now, instead of playing cards on the interstate, the perfect Disney family reclining in swivel seats can lock onto their smart phones while Google does the driving.

    It’s certainly futuristic, but not in the congenial way Goofy might have imagined. In this Google family car, no one’s talking, there’s no eye contact, and a much-depleted natural world passes unnoticed out the windows. The Google car might not even need windows: We now take our cues from sensors imbedded in our palms.

    I’ve waited a long time for the driverless car, but this version lacks humanity. Maybe I’ll take the train. Amtrak’s “vista car” still offers conversation and card games, and the engineer can keep the train on the tracks . . . . assuming he’s not texting.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 12, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views


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