You test cars for a living?” The fellow party guest to whom I’d just been introduced smiled politely. I nodded, expecting the usual follow-up: “Wow. What a great job!” Instead, the guy suddenly burst out laughing: “Now there’s a career with no future!”
I shuffled away to refill my glass of indifference. “Probably one of those twits who reads magazines without cars on their covers,” I muttered to myself. Then again, lately I’m hearing a similar refrain—“The automobile is dead!”—more and more.
The intelligentsia likes to use the term “peak car,” as if somehow we’ve planted a collective flag on our automotive Everest—and it’s all downhill from here. Others point to the impending dawn of autonomous automobiles, implying that soon we’ll happily trade in our human-guided vehicles so we can all beta-test the latest release of Windows Freeway at 90 mph. Still others, mostly those age 25 and under, will momentarily lift their eyes from their smartphones and ask, “Cars? What on Earth are those?”
With respect to the automobile, “It’s alive! It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive!” Allow me to elaborate.
What’s the first skill you acquired that meaningfully changed your life? Don’t tell me, “I learned to ride horses at camp,” because you are now a marketing manager or a lawyer or a civil engineer and the last time you said “whoa!” was when your colleague accidentally posted those uncensored selfies to his Facebook page. No, your first significant life-improving skill was learning to drive. Suddenly, you had freedom beyond your dreams, enormous responsibility, an unprecedented sense of pride and accomplishment. And then you went right out and drove Dad’s Lincoln into a mailbox. But never mind: That first fender-bender was a rite of passage, too. If we take away cars and force everyone to ride around in automated transport pods instead, no one will ever need to get a driver’s license. Teenagers will never know that heady mix of elation and fear that accompanies those first solo months behind the wheel. Quite possibly, no one will ever look out of a car window again.
Have you ever thumbtacked a poster of a coffeemaker to your bedroom wall? Ever giddily perused the specs of a new waffle iron? Ever said to your best buddy: “One day, dude, I’m gonna own a Kelvin Excelsior gas range of my very own!” Of course not. They’re appliances, soulless and dull. Autonomous vehicles will be the same. Sure, one might be more lavish than another, might recharge a little quicker, but they’ll all be built simply to get you from here to there. As for electrifying your corpuscles … forget it. Never in recorded history has one person waxed ecstatic about the performance and handling of the New York subway.
Which brings me to this argument: Cars aren’t simply transportation. At their best, they transport you. Behind the wheel of an engaging automobile, the open road uncoiling before you as the engine wails, the sunlight glints off the hood, the wind tumbles past your mirrors, you leave behind not just your starting point, but worries, troubles, impositions. The wheels underfoot are dancing not to the digital dictates of some overheated microchip but to your organic inputs, your fancies, your needs. Go ahead, press the throttle a little harder, twist in a tad more g in the turns. No automaton will ever be able to replicate the jubilation of being in control of a charismatic transportation machine. I fly in airliners, and I pilot aircraft myself. The former is like being a piece of mail; the latter, you’re an eagle.
We need to save the uninitiated from the coming plague of automated vehicular passivity. Yes, I realize that many in the new generation would happily trade the demands of driving a car for uninterrupted texting and tweeting, but that’s only because they don’t know better. Cars aren’t mere conveyances; they’re liberation machines, steel and glass escape artists. Cars can get you where you need to go and reawaken your soul along the way.
If nothing else, we owe it to history to pass the torch of our automotive ardor to a new generation. If Enzo Ferrari were alive to see someone walk right past one of his cars in a smartphone trance, he’d never stop throwing up.