Article by Ryan Dickman & Ryan Moriarty | Additional Reporting by Liz Doyle Photography by John Morin | Owl Staff
Leaving the Department of Motor Vehicles with my 2004 Toyota Tundra was the first moment the machine and I bonded. It lasted me three years and 75,000 miles. At the end of our journey, it was a friend. It had brought me all over the state, through miles and miles of open road.
Cars often evoke a connection between man and machine, and create a sense of freedom for the driver. That truck was my gateway to freedom.
Published in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road follows the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they embark on four cross-country journeys. The novel painted a picture
of beatniks, referring to a young person in the 1950s–60s, using America’s highway to travel from coast to coast.
According to William Plummer of The New York Times, “Kerouac and his cohorts were indeed ‘cultural pioneers.’ More than just a nostalgic figure in the carpet of the 50’s, Kerouac is an uncanny archetype for a whole generation of Americans who trekked through the 1960s and 1970s.”
This novel gave a voice to American youth who craved more than the mundane small-town America. The 1950s gave birth to cars that were fast, exciting and powerful. The superhighways were flooded with people wanting to see all the country had to offer.
For example, in the 1983 movie Vacation, the infamous Griswold family used their Wagon Queen Family Truckster to go from the suburbs of Chicago to Wally World, an amusement park located in Southern California.
However, cross-country road trips may be a thing of the past. Cars are still a topic of interest to many people, but with the passing of time and the digitalizing of many systems in the vehicle there are fewer aspects of driving that require the full input of the driver.
Inventions like automatic transmissions, cameras in the mirrors, and the upcoming cars that even drive themselves are all progressive, but they can also reduce the intimacy between the vehicle and its operator.
Self-driving cars will make the need of an operator completely obsolete. So how has driving been developed to fit in a modern America where personality is sacrificed for convenience?
The manual transmission was once the only option, but now people seem to prefer automatic as shown by Edmunds.com. According to their website, as of 2013 only “3.9% of new cars sold for the year had manual transmissions” and the number has decreased since then. Now some cars park themselves, and soon cameras will replace a rear-view mirror.
Before, driving always required the complete control and awareness of the driver, and demanded a connection between the driver and machine. It called for the driver to have full control, and the vehicle was a tool for the driver to bond with.
Now, cars have become so computerized that driver input is becoming less and less necessary. The loss of connection is something that is going to continue in the future. Soon the driver will be just another passenger. According to Business Insider, a fully driverless vehicle will debut in 2019.
Technology is also a factor in this. The danger of texting and driving has become so severe that the autonomous car is being advertised as the answer. People say that these cars will be safer, but they might not be as safe as people think.
Google’s self-driving car has driven 400,000 miles. According to Mike Monticello of Consumer Reports, “A human driver has had to assume control of these purportedly self-driving vehicles more than 340 times, an average of 22.7 times a month.”
The reason for that is “the self-driving technology failed” and the driver had to take over. Self-driving cars are predicted to be able to provide transport for people who cannot and should not drive. This would give independence to physically impaired and elders.
According to Jerry Hirsch of The Baltimore Sun, “Google ran a trial with a blind person who usually spends two hours on public transit to go to work. Google’s experimental self-driving Prius, with a licensed driver at the controls for backup, was able to drive the person to work in 30 minutes.”
Although the future price of self-driving cars remains unknown, David Hosansky of CQ Researcher states, “The light-detection and ranging system atop a Google self-driving car, known as LIDAR, costs about $70,000 and enables the vehicle to scan its surroundings and determine its location. Additional sensors, software and technology can add another $30,000.”
While the future of self-driving cars is still distant, several automakers are already in the works of designing and testing. According to The New York Times, General Motors has already “invested $500 million in Lyft and has announced that it would test self-driving electric taxis on public roads within a year.”
These numbers raise eyebrows. It seems the consensus is that driving will always need a human element. However, the current goal of the auto industry is to eliminate human error, even if the driver still needs to pay attention to the road.
But what about the subculture of people who live and breathe cars? Those who meet in parking lots on early Saturday mornings, just to show off their horsepower and chrome. The people who simply want to turn head with their rides.
John Manlucu, a 22-year-old student at the University at Buffalo, considers himself fully immersed in the subculture of car lovers. Through cars and the people who drive them, he has learned life lessons that find value outside of their unique hobby.
Manlucu drives a 2002 BMW M3 and considers his car “an extension of my personality.” He loves when “man and machine become one and you have total control,” a feeling that truly transcends just transportation. To a true enthusiast, Manlucu has trouble relying on self-driving technology.
For our society, it fits the direction we’re heading. We live in a microwave-oriented generation where people want things done quickly and easily instead of having to overcome the struggle of the journey itself.
Trusting base algorithms and unaware artificial intelligence to a moving machine will always be sketchy.” Lolo Cernik, a Graphic Design major at Harford Community College, shares Manlucu’s adoration of cars.
“My car is my freedom,” says Cernik. “Whenever I have gas, we go on adventures together.”
Cernik and Manlucu also share similar opinions about technological advancements interfering with the feeling of being in control. “While self-driving cars may assist in preventing careless mistakes on the road, the lack of human control will somewhat take away the feeling of independence,” Cernik adds.
Daniel Billings, a history major at HCC, has also developed a deep bond with his car. “I’ve taken a lot of trips with my car, so it means a good bit to me,” says Billings. “The big perk of turning 16 was being able to drive and having more personal freedom. It feels good to have the option to go wherever I want whenever I want.”
Along with Manlucu and Cernik, Billings feels as though freedom will be jeopardized with the implementation of self-driving cars. “If a car is completely self-powered with no manual way to drive, there will be a huge loss of individuality,” says Billings.
The idea of a machine using artificial intelligence and cameras to control our roads is a way of life some won’t want to relinquish. Still, we look towards the future, as technology and society always will. Artificial intelligence will find its place in the auto industry and enthusiasts will find their place on the roads in the very near future.
But here is hoping to a future that maintains a connection desperately needed on our roads. Our country will be divided between the people who love to drive cars and those who want the car to drive itself, and our love affair with the thrill of driving may have to come to an end.
Superhighways may soon resemble conveyor belts and cars may soon resemble roving living rooms or mobile offices. Most of all, the physical act of driving may be a thing of the past.
However, we must be optimistic and hopeful that the art of driving is preserved unless we want to forget about the bond that can be built between man and machines.
If this bond is rendered stale and digitalized, the memories once shared between driver and vehicle could fade with the future, and those moments I shared with my Toyota Tundra may never be felt by another in a fully computerized age.