Opinion: Have We Evolved Beyond Driving?

I love driving. For me it is calming. An exercise in unlimited freedom. All I need is a car and some cash, and I can be a 1,000 miles away in a matter of hours. It is… liberating.

But not everybody feels the same.

In fact, I would wager most people see driving as an inconvenience, a necessary evil. And in today’s constantly moving, evolving, ever-connected-to-the-Internet world, maybe they’re right. Distracted driving, drunken driving, hell I even see people reading a book on their morning commute. It all leads to accidents and traffic jams and a twenty minute commute becomes an hour of bumper-to-bumper aggravation.

I think cars are here to stay. Personal mobility is awesome. But for many, driving is a chore. How do we keep the car, but eliminate driving?

The natural answer for many people is public transportation. But buses don’t pick you up from your doorstep unless you’re attending grade school (funny, how once we graduate, the “free ride” comes to an end.) It also requires infrastructure, planning, buying, building, and evolving technologies. High speed rail, electric buses, monorails… it all sounds great in theory, but what about those of us who live in the sticks? Are they going to build a monorail station to my doorstep?

So we drive. And in a single year, the average American spends over 100 hours in their car just commuting to and from work. It’d be nice to get some of that time back.

Just imagine for a moment you could eliminate 80% of your morning commute. How many hours a week would you save? How much less aggravation would you deal with if you didn’t have to jockey for position on today’s overburdened highways? Imagine if your car could “memorize” your morning commute and drive you along a pre-determined route safely and quickly. You’d have to handle some of the driving, of course, but once you’re on the highway, it would be sort of like a “fire and forget” system. Just point and go.

The idea of a self-driving car isn’t new at all. It has been passed around for decades. But I think we need it now more than ever.

The October, 1967 issue of Popular Science ran a cover story about the “Urb-Mobile,” a concept that utilized an electric car and a roller coaster-like track to get commuters to and from work safely and efficiently. The Cornell Aeronautical Lab was working on a study to see just how feasible such a system would be, as they faced the same problems we tackle today. Even forty years ago, writer C.P. Gilmore wrote for Popular Science that “…freeways are jammed as soon as they’re built. Downtown areas are choked with cars. Parking is impossible.”

Forty years ago. Things have only gotten worse since then, and most of the country still lacks a viable alternative to driving.

My favorite feature of the Urb-Mobile was that it was supposed to combine the efficiency of public transportation with the individuality of the personal automobile. The Urb would be all-electric, and would be manually driven to the owners front door and on non-track side streets and such. But when on the freeway, the Urb would connect to a special electrified track-lane that would drag the car along the highway at 60 mph along with other Urbs, bumper to bumper. The electric connector would also charge the battery on the Urb as it went along, and it would have had a range of between 40 and 80 miles on a charge off the grid.

Again, this was forty years ago. The Nissan Leaf, expected to be the first affordable, fully-electric car, is expected to have a gentle-driving range of about 100 miles. Why haven’t we come farther? Why don’t we have a modern-day Urb-mobile?

The problem, as I see it, is that all the self-driving car techniques of today require too much fancy computer technology, and too little in the way of mechanical ingenuity. The Urb-Mobile relied on a simple electric motor and a track to guide it along, sort of like a car-trolley. Setting up such a system into and out of major population hubs would almost certainly reduce congestion. Electric cars wouldn’t need an excessively long range or lots of electric batteries if they were attached to an electric rail for 80% of the trip. That means they could be very cheap. All the fancy computer technology we find in cars today could instead be focused on getting 10,000 Urbs to the same destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. A simple mechanical car-pulling system could be implemented in a lot less time than it will take California to build its highly-touted high speed rail systems.

With the Urbs all driving right on top of each other, the highways we already have would be used much more efficiently too. Think about how spread out cars are, for safety purposes, and how one driver going 10 mph under the speed limit can hold back a whole lane of traffic. If everyone drove the same speed and the same distance from each other on the highway, we’d all get to where we wanted to go a lot faster. The top speed of the Urb in 1967 was supposed to be just 60 mph… but imagine if you could get to work at an average speed of 90 mph? How much time would that lop off of your commute? And how much more fun would it be? Best of all, this could be implemented on existing highways; no need to invoke eminent domain or spend millions on buying up land rights for new infrastructure. We have plenty of highways already; we just don’t use them very efficiently.

The article states that such a system could be in place by the mid 80’s. The Arab oil-embargo seems like it should have catalyzed such a system into existence… but it didn’t. In fact, study after study has been done trying to get cars to drive themselves, whether it is a follow-the-leader type car-train, a self-driving car, or more complicated automated highway systems. This year, San Diego is wrapping up a three-year study by Swift Technologies regarding an automated highway system with a converted lane for automated commercial use, but most companies seem fixated on parallel parking systems rather than self-driving cars.

The average American teenager spends almost eight hours a day connected to the internet or other media forms. Talking on cellphones is banned (lest you get those silly headsets) and texting while driving makes you six times more likely to crash. But we still do it.

For all the automotive advancements made since 1967, we seem no closer to self-driving cars than we did back then. Life has only gotten busier and, like our cars, more complicated. It takes 100s of millions of lines of software programming and dozens of microprocessors just to get our cars started these days, but has the driving experience changed at all? We still have our hands at 10 and 2, eyes straight ahead, even while we are playing with the latest version of  Bejeweled while sending pictures to our best friend of the crazy bearded-guy driving next to us in the middle of a conversation with our mother about the impending snowstorm. My generation can multi-task exceptionally well, but driving still requires our full attention. The world moves a lot faster than it did in 1967, but driving is still the same as it always has been.

I may be a Millenial, but I suppose in some ways, I am a Luddite too. The coolest feature on my phone is the “flip” function that makes my phone half the size and thus easier to carry. My newest car was made around the same time “U Can’t Touch This” was topping billboard charts around the country. I’ve tried to fix a computer with a hammer before. And I think cars should be simpler.

I’ve given up on ever owning a flying car. But I still have hope that one day, my car will drive myself. And even though I will always love driving, it’d be nice to take my hands off the wheel every now and then.

If you could, dear reader, would you want to eliminate driving from your daily routine?

Source: Popular Science (circa 1967) | Images: The Simpsons | The Jetsons

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.