For some reason driverless cars have been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe that’s just because I read an article last week saying they’re already operating in some areas out West as taxis and delivering groceries.

Driving down our streets, it seems impossible to imagine driverless cars being able to weave in and out of traffic, swerve properly to avoid huge potholes and exist in relative harmony with traditional vehicles full of humans texting or getting drunk. But the science nerds assure us it’s coming — soon.

Even as we move forward to building the gigantic new bridge across the Mobile River, I have to wonder if by the time it’s finished whether it will even be necessary. Driverless cars, controlled by computer networks, will be able to move at a constant speed through our tunnels. They won’t be tempted to slow down and honk repeatedly, or try to drive a truck that’s too large through the Bankhead Tunnel and get stuck. There’ll be fewer wrecks and no rubbernecking when there are.

Maybe we’ll still need the bridge to handle loads of driverless trucks delivering goods all over the place. One person involved with the bridge project said the design allows for driverless vehicles and any potential for them going berserk and plunging into the river below. Comforting.

One colleague expressed horror during a recent discussion about the coming age of driverless cars. His fear was that the door lock would click and the cars would have you trapped. You’d then be swiftly transported to a concentration camp. So that’s one more potential downside — unless you build concentration camps. (Note to self: Invest in concentration camp companies.)

The upsides are obvious. Traffic fatalities would plunge and there’d really be no reason to own a car when you could just call one and have it drive you wherever you need to go, and another to pick you up when you want to come back. Inside the car, you could eat, sleep, work or watch TV. Lots of options.

As the father of a 16-year-old son who is getting his first (very used) car, I’d hoped driverless cars would be here sooner. Almost every parent I’ve spoken with is terrified of the prospect that a kid who can’t remember to put the toilet seat down or take out the trash is suddenly hurtling along in a 3,000-pound hunk of steel. Even after a year and a half of training with dear ol’ dad, and a semester of Driver’s Ed, I’m still worried.

But I can recall the freedom that driver’s license and first car conveyed upon me at the ridiculous age of 15. (It was Mississippi.) My concentration camp-fearing comrade may be taking things a little far, but there’s almost no doubt the advent of the driverless car will mark the death of a certain rite of passage for the American teen. There’s freedom in those wheels.

Maybe it’s not as much freedom as it once was, as parents can now GPS the kid’s car and know how fast he’s driving or if he really was going to church. Back in the day, of course, once you were out of the driveway there would be almost no way of pinpointing where a teen and his car might have gone.

Some parents were clever enough to check the odometers ahead of each trip, but that requires a lot of prep work and is practically impossible if the car is leaving the driveway five times a day. All parents of that time had to fall back on was trust. And it was completely misplaced.

I bought my first car — a 1978 Toyota Corolla — from my older cousin because I’d been in it when he drove it over 100 mph, so I figured it must be fast. Our glorious time together ended a couple of years later in a blanket of smoke that covered all four lanes of I-10 when the head gasket blew out while I was driving over 90 just west of the Mississippi line.

My parents wised up after that and got me a ’78 VW Bug that could only break 80 if it was in free fall off the side of a cliff. (That’s just an assumption. I never tested the theory.) I’m sure they felt more secure in that the car wasn’t fast, but it was a death trap in so many other ways. There were no seat belts in the back, for example, and the ones up front were simply lap belts hooked to a seat that once fell through the rusted floor when I got into the car.

Nowadays safety is a much bigger concern. Kids stay in car seats until they’re old enough to shave and everyone snaps those seat belts before the car leaves the driveway. Times have changed.

Neither my parents nor any of their five kids ever wore seat belts when I was growing up. We drove around in an orange VW camper (my mother’s family has a VW fixation) with all of the kids jumping around in the back, beating one another. There were no videos to amuse us. Someone was usually locked in the tiny wardrobe closet that would theoretically hold camping clothes, and the catbird seat was an unmoored stool that sat in an aisle between the driver and passenger seats and offered the clearest flight path through the front windshield.

One of my first memories of riding in a car was of my brother Matt and I standing on the bench seat of my dad’s Pontiac while he drove 100 mph down some deserted road. We were delighted. Perhaps at that point my parents figured we were all going to die of secondhand smoke anyway, since they drove around with the windows up smoking like characters in a Scorsese movie, so the whole reckless endangerment thing seemed minor by comparison.

The families of tomorrow will never deal with such things. There’ll be no reckless showboating in the car or aimlessly driving around town and going by some girl’s house a creepy number of times. Certainly parents of the future won’t have to worry about training teen drivers or figuring out what kind of junker to buy to get the job done.

But there will be a freedom lost. It’s just not going to be the same telling a computer every move you want to make, and there’ll never be that moment where you just put the pedal to the metal and go. But I’ve already had my fun, so I’m cool with that. As long as the concentration camp thing doesn’t happen, I say bring on the robot drivers.


Happy New Year to all Lagniappe readers! Thank you for making this Alabama’s largest weekly newspaper and for keeping print alive in the Port City! Let’s have a fantastic 2019!