Imagine the conversation you’re having with your grandson several years from now, where you’re waxing nostalgic about a favorite car you used to own. You’re smiling into the details, remembering how your stylish sedan hugged the open highway curves at a crisp 75 mph; how the in-dash digital receiver cranked favorite tunes via smartphone; how the feel of the steering wheel leather gave you the perfect combination of comfort and control. Only then, your grandson interrupts you and says, “what’s a steering wheel“?
This week, the Wall Street Journal published a make-you-pause article titled “Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels”. The subject matter is the technological luxuries in a vehicle where “driving” is no longer necessary. Forward-facing seats rotate to face each other, perhaps around a central console. Touchscreens – to control the vehicle; cameras – to enlarge the outside views; movie screens – simply for entertainment; each of these appear on the window glass with simple voice commands. Microwaves, refrigerators and ice chests hide nearby for always-available snacking. In other words, the very definition of “car” gets turned on its ear. Your grandson won’t even know what a “dashboard” is.
Your grandson won’t remember “The Jetsons” either – the Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom from the early 1960’s. In a mere twenty-four episodes, “The Jetsons” gave us a peek into a fascinatingly advanced world of the future. George Jetson and his family enjoyed luxuries only present in a 1960’s imagination, like robot housekeepers or in-home treadmills. The Jetsons lived in a high-rise apartment building floating in space. My favorite concept: the “aerocar”. There were no roads in George’s world, so he and his family bopped around in a airborne car. Per the illustration above, the aerocar is effectively a flying saucer with a transparent bubble top. I still hear the sound of its little engine.
At least George still drives, which is the premise of this post. No matter how advanced the mode of transportation, I want the option to navigate whenever my heart desires. If my family and I are heading out for a Sunday jaunt, I want to be able to steer us wherever the wind blows. Maybe that’s the provider in me, or maybe that’s just driving for the sheer enjoyment of it. We need our steering wheels.
Flying cars are closer to reality than you might think. Airbus, Uber and a handful of other companies have created concept “cars” that take-off and land vertically – no wings. No rotors either, like you’d see on a helicopter. Yet some models – like Airbus’s “Vahana” – are designed to be pilot-less. What fun is that? Who’s at the controls? Sounds like going for a ride in an oversized drone. Regardless, even with perfect technology the real hurdles with flying cars lie in regulating airborne travel. There must be rules. You’d better believe the environmentalists will have a seat at the table too.
In my childhood days at Disneyland, I was led to believe monorails were the future mode of transportation. I pictured vast elevated networks of elegantly formed concrete spreading out across the country, with graceful trains slithering along topside at impressive speeds. Alas, Disney’s monorail in Florida – at 14.7 miles – remains one of the longest of its kind. Only two others, in Japan and China, claim more riders. Monorails just never took.
Maglev (magnetic levitation) replaced monorails as the potential mass-transit solution of modern times. Magnets are super-efficient, providing both lift and propulsion towards a high-speed, low-friction, no-moving-parts solution. Assuming an aesthetically-pleasing design, even the environmentalists would be on board with zero-emissions engines. But there’s always a negative. In this case, costs of maglev are projected at $50-$100 million per mile. No wonder the few installations around the world travel very short distances.
Even if we mapped America with arteries of monorails or maglev, I’d still find dissatisfaction in the notion no one’s driving the bus. More to the point, I am not driving the bus. But at least we’re talking about mass-transit here; an option I chose willingly over my own car. If I’m not “licensed to drive” I’m happy to leave the controls to someone else.
Living rooms on wheels will be tough for me to swallow. The focus has shifted from enjoyment of the drive to enjoyment of the ride. Maybe I should’ve seen this coming when automatic transmissions became an option to stick-shift. Certainly it hit me over the head when Uber debuted its self-driving fleet. Sir, please step away from the controls.
Here is my futile plea for now: don’t take away my steering wheel. Let me have the option to play pilot. At the very least, give me a set of handlebars and a little weight-shift control.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.