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March 7, 2002

Why I'd Give Up Driving

It seems to be the de facto standard that if you work (outside the home), you commute nowadays. I know I've done it for the past three jobs I've had. My first job was only a 20-minute commute to the office, but it involved going to customer sites to work for extended durations. Sometimes I'd get lucky, and my commute would be even shorter than 20 minutes. Generally, however, it would involve some extra time, at times up to an hour. Nothing is more draining (well, maybe really great sex with an octopus) than commuting two or more hours a day, in traffic, with traffic, facing the sun each way. It sucked.

My second job was straightforward, between 45 and 55 minutes one-way, depending on whether I took the highway or the back roads. Winter didn't affect the commute much, as there was very little traffic, and I was limited only by my own sense of self-preservation. Shortly before the arrival of my daughter, I decided to cut down the commute, and found my current job with a 25-minute commute. It's not bad, but coming home at times can be plodding, and if the sun is in the wrong spot in the morning people feel the need to brake.

Even with the reduced commute to my current job, I've put 30,000km on my current vehicle in 9 months. That should be down significantly from my previous job, which saw me driving about 600km a week. I worked there for 16 months, so that's a total of nearly 40,000km just for that one drive, over 30,000km a year. Where are the extra kilometres coming from? Either way, I drive a lot.

I don't mind, however. Driving can be enjoyable, in the right kind of vehicle. Before I became a Responsible Family Man, I had a Honda del Sol Si. It was a pure 2-seater targa, which meant that I could take the roof off and store it in the trunk and commute with the wind in my hair. It was low to the ground, had a 5-speed, and of course being a Honda, was pretty fun to drive. There's nothing quite like downshifting into 3rd behind grandma's Crown Victoria and blasting past her on a 2-lane country road at 6000rpm. Ah, those were the days. Now, however, said 2-seater is in the hands of a young man one town over, and it's probably already been festooned with larger rims, euro-style tail lights, a bleeding-ear stereo system, and a tasteful (hopefully) factory spoiler. Meanwhile I am driving my antithesis, an SUV with an automatic transmission and horrendous mileage (as compared to any other vehicle I've owned, all of which had four-cylinder engines) but sufficient space for baby and all the associated Stuff. It's safe, it's well-appointed, and it was the right price. The things we do for our kids, huh?

In the future, it's entirely possible that said beast will stay in the driveway when I go to work, and I'll be driving something that weighs closer to one tonne than two, and once again has three pedals and not just two. I've come to realize, however, that I'd give it all up, and never know the thrills of a well-defined 5 speed mated to a high-revving engine again. No, I'm not saying that I'm going to revoke my own driver's licence and take the bus. Sadly, mass transit is sadly underdeveloped in my area, and where I live and where I work are so poorly connected using one's own vehicle is about the only way to get between the two points. What I am talking about is not giving up the automobile, but giving up driving. I'm talking about autonomous vehicles.

Get in, sit back, watch the scenery, and get out when you stop. It's been the realm of science fiction for decades. Over the past decades, various advances and systems have been made and developed to make this a reality. Test highways are already in place in California, in the hopes that some day the horrendous LA traffic situation (and thereby a good portion of their smog woes) will be alleviated. (Although I have yet to confirm this for myself, apparently Los Angelines are just whining, and Toronto traffic is much, much worse. I know for a fact Toronto traffic sucks eggs, even with the new 407 tollway.) Benefits include better fuel economy for the vehicles due to a more consistent speed and reduced drag from drafting (just like they do in NASCAR). The same amount of cars will also take up less space, as they'd be tightly packed. The item that sells me on the whole idea is the fact that you take driving out of the hands of humans.

I've never seen it happen, but I know it must. A perfectly normal human being leaves his or her home, and mere seconds after stepping into their vehicle, all common sense, courtesy, higher brain functions, and every shred of driver's ed they ever took deserts them, leaving them to swerve, shout, tailgate, speed or crawl, and generally blunder their way to their destination. It doesn't happen to every driver on the road, as proven by the fact that I make it to work every day, but it's not uncommon to see someone driving along with a raging case of the stupids.

I hope technology will beat my predicted timeline of 2030 for wholesale public acceptance and use of self-navagating automobiles. The benefits are innumerable; traffic that re-routes itself away from construction, drunk drivers become less of a hazard, traffic lights and most traffic signs could be done away with (tell me your city wouldn't look the better for it), and best of all, I could have a quick nap on my way to and from work without ending up as a blob of pink paste in a crumpled metal heap.

Human controlled vehicles won't disappear anytime soon, however. There will forever be a population of older, non-automated cars. If a VW Beetle from the 70's can survive until 2002, how long will today's vehicles be able to last? They'll be there. Which probably means we'll have a dual highway system: one set of lanes for the huge, existing base of regular vehicles, and one set of high-speed, closely-spaced lanes for the new autonomous smart vehicles. No biggie.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to get up early to try and beat the traffic, make sure that I've got enough washer fluid, have my sunglasses hand for that early morning in-your-face sunshine, and hope and dream that some day soon I'll be driving something that corners better than a shopping cart over wet vinyl flooring.

If you're still haunted by that octopus reference above, please try to not let it distract you on your drive home.


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