Just when we'll need them: driverless cars
Shortly before my mother died at the age of 81, she had made the decision that she was going to get rid of her car and stop driving. Never a comfortable driver to begin with - she didn't get her license until she was well in her forties - we were relieved and happy that Liz was going to get off the road.
Other adult children are not so fortunate. My brother-in-law had to drop a dime on his mother, anonymously reporting to the Pennsylvania Registry that they had a really bad driver on the loose. Fortunately, Rick's mother never learned that it was her son who caused her to have to re-apply for her license. She assumed it was one of several drivers she'd crashed into. And, fortunately, she failed the test before she did any real harm to herself or anyone else.
My Aunt Margaret - another driver who learned to drive in middle-age - stayed on the road until she died at 85. Most of her treks were local: church, Star Market, the library. But she would still drive from Newton to Worcester to visit my mother (who was nine years younger), well after my mother had sensibly signed off on driving on the Mass Pike. Aunt Margaret's classic RMV story: when she went for what turned out to be her final license renewal just prior to her 85th birthday, the registry clerk coached her on the vision test so that she could pass it. Yikes!
My Grandmother Wolf was another driver who should have been off the road well before she died at the age of 78. Yet another of the family's later-in-life-licensees, Grandma once drove 50 miles out to my aunt's house, where she asked my uncle to check out the car because it wasn't running that well. It turned out that all four of her tires needed air - she was almost running on rims. And one of the great childhood adventures I remember was Grandma's ignoring the flashing lights at some rapid transit grade crossing on the North Side of Chicago. We made it through, but the striped gate came crashing down on the trunk of her mint green 1957 Plymouth.
The above is not meant in the least to imply that only older female drivers should be off the road. In my family, we just don't have a long history of older male drivers to compare them to. (I come from a long line of youngish widows.)
I don't imagine my Uncle Charlie would have aged into a great driver. One of the worst drivers I ever had the displeasure of riding with, Charlie, in my father's words, never drove fast enough to stir up a breeze.
One time, Charlie drove me from Boston to Worcester. This was a few weeks before my father died, so I was run down to begin with. I was also coming down with a stomach virus.
Charlie didn't drive fast enough to take the Mass Pike, so we did the stop-and-go on Route 9.
It was winter. I was sick. Charlie was chain smoking.
I lost whatever it was that was on my stomach at a red light somewhere in Framingham.
I have no idea what kind of old-age driver my father would have made. I remember him as being a pretty good driver. He was never in an accident - even a fender-bender - that I'm aware of. But he could be a hothead. When my sister Trish was little, she was standing in the back of the car during a ride, when some "young punks" jumped out in front of the car. My father slammed on the brakes, Trish slammed into the back of the front seat cutting her lip, and my father jumped out of the car to give chase to the young punks. (Al was then in his fifties and not far from death, but he was always quick to defend his kids.)
In any case, as the Baby Boomers age, we can look for the problem of aging drivers to worsen.
We are, after all, the first generation to grow up in an almost completely car-dependent world. There was a reason the women in the family didn't learn to drive as teenagers. Families were less apt to have cars to begin with. People lived in cities with public transportation. Groceries got delivered to your house. Your husband drove you places.
Who among the Boomers wasn't itching to get that license the moment he or she turned 16?
And here we are, just a decade or two away from being on the road with slower reflexes, worse eyesight, and, in general, poorer driving skills.
Bring on the driverless car!
In The New York Times last week, John Tierney provided an update on driverless cars, which are, apparently, getting pretty good. (Note: this link may require a login.)
As Tierney points out, it's easy to laugh at the idea of driverless cars. I've done it myself, making fun of the cars that offer automated parallel parking.
But driverless cars...It all seems so Meet George Jetson. At the 1939 World's Fair, the "World of Tomorrow" predicted that we would all be cruising around in radio-controlled cars by 1960. Which, of course, didn't happen - although I do believe the push-button automatic was unleashed on the market just about then.
But smart cars, driverless cars, autopilot - whatever we want to call them - are coming.
For the last several years, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) - the boyos who helped bring you the Internet - have been holding driverless car challenges.
This year, a half-dozen cars completed a 60 mile course in real traffic situations, on an Air Force base. The empty cars had to park, idle, yield, merge, stop, go....There was one accident, but still...
“Within five years, it’s totally feasible to build an autonomous car that will work reliably in several limited domains,” says Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist at Stanford and head of its racing team, which won the 2005 Darpa competition and finished second in last month’s. In five years he expects a car that could take over simple chores like breezing along an expressway, inching along in stop-and-go traffic, or parking in the lot at a mall or airport after dropping off the driver. In 20 years, Dr. Thrun figures half of new cars sold will offer drivers the option of turning over these chores to a computer, but he acknowledges that’s just an educated guess. While he doesn’t doubt cars will be able to drive themselves, he’s not sure how many humans will let them.
Five years. Ten years. Twenty years.
Looks like this will be perfect timing.
Just as the more sensible aging Boomers are taking themselves off the road, just as the sons and daughters of the less sensible Boomers are diming them, we'll have driverless cars.
I think it will take some getting used to.
Maybe they'll still equip cars with a steering wheel - like the little plastic ones that they used to suction-cup onto the dashboard so that a little kid could pretend to be driving.
Maybe they'll had a few switches for us to flip.
But the roads will certainly be safer with fewer people like my Grandmother Wolf on them, that's for sure.