When my wife and I leave the house, she usually does the driving. I am at that age where my reflexes and judgment are an issue. She’s only a year younger, but I fell asleep at the wheel on the Beltway a few years ago, denting the car alongside me. I don’t bother arguing about our relative competence.
Someday our three children, one of whom lives with us in Pasadena, California, and regularly witnesses our driving, will sit us down and have the conversation nearly everyone our age fears. One child is a journalist. Another is a lawyer. There will be questions. How do you feel about your driving? Are you sure your long trips up the coast are a good idea? How did that bumper get so bent?
Eventually, after listening to our feeble answers, they are going to drop the bomb, the end of life as we know it for California freeway kids like Linda and me. They will want us to stop driving. I have long worried about this. But it recently occurred to me there is a new answer to their sharp questions. We can say Herbie will take us around.
Herbie is the name I am going to give our self-driving car. This stems from my fond memories of the film “The Love Bug.” Linda and I saw the movie in Honolulu during the wonderful week of my 1969 Army rest-and-relaxation leave from Vietnam. Herbie was a Volkswagen Beetle, my father’s favorite car. Herbie had a driver, but he could drive himself.
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When I first read about the self-driving cars now under development by Google and others, the idea of handing my life over to a computer frightened me. But the prototypes are doing fine on the trickiest roads of the San Francisco Peninsula, where I learned to drive. The progenitors of my future friend Herbie have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. They have swerved down Lombard, the famous steep zigzag San Francisco street.
So, Joe, Peter and Katie: When you ask me for my keys, I will go get Herbie.
Linda is not entirely in agreement with my embrace of this technology. “It freaks me out,” she said. I see her point. We usually reject change. We don’t own iPhones or iPads. We don’t use Facebook or Twitter. Four newspapers – made of paper – are delivered to our doorstep every morning. The many young people on our street full of apartments give us strange looks.
Linda is not sure Herbie and I will be safe puttering off to one of my favorite destinations, such as the bookstore, the golf course or Baskin-Robbins. But she’ll need Herbie, too. Our children don’t have time to drive us everywhere, so Herbie is it.
AARP the Magazine has called self-driving cars “a godsend for older Americans.” The mainstream media have not yet gone deep into the consequences of 45 million seniors driving around with no human at the wheel. Give them time. The District of Columbia has already made testing such cars legal, as have California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan.
I still have questions. What happens if the Lord takes me as Herbie is driving me back from my favorite local diner, where I have finally consumed one super-thick chocolate shake too many?
Never mind. A new industry needs our business. Hello, Herbie. He will be, I hope, a more alert and more cautious driver than senior citizens like me will ever be.
The Washington Post
Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Post.