The summer I was 18, I went to an area of parking forty-five minutes to the north of town. There, I was behind the wheel for what I thought to be the first ritual of my adulthood. It was a tall, muscular, and exuberant. Just a few days earlier, after a short period of taking tests with the Department of Motor Vehicles in San Francisco, I had been issued my learner’s permit. Learning at that time seemed effortless. Exams were simple. The actual doing–when it came up at all. While driving, I made an effort to adjust the mirrors like I was preparing for a 10-mile drive in reverse. I looked at the empty road ahead of me and then slowly moved the gearshift from park to drive.
Cars were my initial fascination. At the age of two, I learned to recognize the manufacturer of cars through the logos on the fender or the top of the hood. I began to realize my family members in relation to their cars. I figured out what kind type of individual I was from their two older Hondas, and one of them was a second-hand beige Accord I’d taken with them to purchase. The car that my father had been driving for a long time was a yellow, decaying Civic. It was a necessity to be snoring during the dewy days, and I had done the task with enthusiasm by pulling the lever on the wheel and sitting for an extended time before pressing the wheel back. This was in the late eighties. The price of gas had dropped, while the highways were crowded with cars from all over the globe. I don’t remember the things that, as a tiny child, I envisioned in my future. But I am aware that it was a matter of speed behind the car.
In the present, a decade ago, the parking area was almost empty of vehicles, and I was able to feel the reassurance. I was from my parent’s impressive car, a minivan equipped with an all-plastic cabin and the wheel-around radius that a truck would have. The teacher I had was my dad, who was a flawless, but not entirely exemplary, driver who was known to refuse to drive over bridges in particular directions because he was afraid of being, according to him, “hypnotized” by trusses crossing the road. In the past, for reasons that were not clear, my sister was on the bus with me, as well behind me. I stepped my foot on the gas, and the engine started revving for a short time, and the van started to shake.
It was the first time that I sensed the ferocity of the vehicle–not just as a vehicle that I’d experienced automobiles in the past, but as an enormous device that enticed the world via its power and expressed the desires I could not. I realized, at first, I was ashamed of the car. It was as if I had been watched at the beginning of a slow dance. My instinct at the same time was to brake. I did it, and then I was able to see my dad and sister, who started to lurch.
“Oh, my God,” my sister said.
“Maybe a little bit gentler,” my father observed that he sounded surprisingly calm and perhaps even hypnotized.
I tried again to achieve forward motion, but this time, I was traveling what felt to me like a huge distance at an incredible speed. A few cars parked that seemed to be in a safe space came very close. I stopped and looked at my progress on my right shoulder. I had walked approximately 10 feet.
In the past, despite having been around cars for the majority of my existence, I’d never been able to comprehend the ease that a rash move that could be the equivalent of crashing into someone who was on a busy bus could cause injuries or even death. While I ran around the parking lot, I thought of myself driving in traffic and felt a tense swell of anxiety throughout my body. I was just 18. It was all I could do to stay on top of my inedible after-school job of watering the neighbor’s bonsai plants. When the day was over, the notion of not driving–and not stepping into an era where every day, I’d be a potential murderer of children seemed liberating and bright. I didn’t have another lesson.
In the past, I’ve regarded the inability to operate a vehicle as one of my mistakes. Recently, I’ve been wondering whether I did an act of act of kindness to the world. I’m one of the Darth Vader pedestrians who loudly slow-moving couples tailgate on the sidewalk. I’m certain that I’d be a twit at the steering wheel. Maybe I was shielded from making a mistake due to my negligence–one of the blessings that the universe frequently bestows on youngsters (who seldom appreciate the blessing). In America, at present, there are more automobiles than drivers. But our investing in these vehicles has produced a shaky return. Since the year 1899, more than 3.6 million people have been killed in traffic accidents across the United States, and more than 80 million people have been injured. Pedestrian fatalities have increased over the last couple of years. The road has become the scene for our most brutal manifestations of racism in the system. Combustion engines have contributed to the climate problem, as well as the need for oil has pushed our soldiers to fight.
Every technology comes with a cost, but recently, we’ve been able to see the need to question even the supposed benefits of cars. The free-of-costs of men and women driving around the streets have proven to be such dangerous drivers that car manufacturers are currently creating computers to take over their roles. When people in the future reflect on our auto-related century, will they view it as an important moment of forward motion or as a mistake? Are there any chances that 100 years from now, the time of filling on and driving could be viewed as a mere cul-de-sac in the history of transportation, a journey we should never have taken?
One of the most intriguing books that landed on my desk this week is Dan Albert’s “Are We There Yet? the American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless,” which explains that in the latter half of the 19th century, electric vehicles and gasoline vehicles developed together. Electrics were not even on the horizon at this point. Incredibly, Albert reports, gas automobiles were the B-fleet of the several years.
Electric cars of the turn of the century were more agile than their gasoline-powered counterparts. They accelerated faster with better braking and a powerful torque that helped offset the weight of their battery. They set land speed records — in 1902, a car powered by electricity briefly reached a staggering 200 miles per hour. They also, unlike internal combustion vehicles, did not sputter in traffic and needed to be revved up to the middle of the highway. They had to be charged at least every forty miles, approximately the distance between Mount Vernon to Grand Central Terminal and to Grand Central Terminal. Still, very few early motorists traveled much further. Electricity was the moonshot of the past and was quiet, modern, and at the forefront of human progress. In the time that Albert A. Pope, the director of the Columbia bicycle company, joined the automobile business in 1896, the company invested in electrics. “You can’t get people to sit over an explosion,” Pope explained.