Rundles wrap up: Freedom?

I am currently engaged, for the sixth time in my life, in that wonderful rite of passage known as the learner’s permit. I haven’t been this attentive as a passenger in a car since that night about five years ago when, just beginning the return trip after a dinner outing, I suggested to my late-80’s father that it would be a good time to let me have his car keys. Permanently.

It wasn’t the first time I had made the suggestion, and I wasn’t the only one, but for some reason this time he said nothing, handed them over, and got in the passenger’s seat. My learning son only does that when it’s time to pull into the garage. That’s what my life has come to: I pull out of the garage, and I pull into the garage, and then I ride, relatively terrified, wherever we are headed.

But I am, and was, sympathetic to both my son and his grandfather, because as rites of passage go, getting one’s car keys, and ultimately giving them up, are two of the biggest moments in a person’s life, particularly in a man’s life. A long time ago, for a paper I wrote in college, I interviewed about 40 adults, mostly my parents’ age and older, and asked them what came to mind when they imagined “the good old days.”

To a person they all became wistful, smiled and looked skyward, and then it diverged along gender lines: Almost all of the women talked about being little girls, 9 and 10 years old, but the men – to a man – recalled their first car. I ended up titling the paper “Freedom.” My professor gave me an “A” and added a note that his first had been a ’53 Chevy Bel-Air Coupe, baby blue, with a 115-h.p. Blue-Flame six-banger and Powerglide Auto tranny.    

For my generation, baby boomers, and really the two before that, that’s how it was. Getting one’s driver’s license and then a first car – and all the freedom that represented – was a big, big deal. With anticipation, even anxiousness, long about 11 or 12 we boys got to know every car on the road, most of the specs, and even the “D” students could give Ph.D.-worthy dissertations on the relative merits of the Chevy 287 and 309, or the Ford Big-Block 385. To be honest, those boys, all now in their 50’s and 60’s, still have these “discussions,” and the ensuing decades have only hardened the opinions.

That’s it then. I love cars, I love to drive – going for “a drive” is a preferred activity – and I am hardly alone. But a sea change has been underway now for nearly 10 years. Since just after World War II Americans drove more miles each and every year – until 2004. Since then there has been a decline each year. It could be gasoline prices, I suppose, but my research indicates that the main culprit in the change is the so-called Millennial Generation, or Gen Y, those people who came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For the first time in the modern era a generation has noticeably delayed getting a driver’s license, drives much less than previous generations, and – to the consternation of automobile makers and economists alike – is eschewing car ownership. This is a generation that prefers public transportation, bicycles and even the short-time use of those tiny pay-for-use-and-leave vehicles you see all over town. 

In the midst of this comes the news that the Japanese automaker Nissan is planning to bring “multiple affordable, energy efficient, fully autonomous driving vehicles to the market by 2020.” Cars that drive themselves. This will solve the problem of texting-while-driving, I guess, and in widespread use could make driving far less hazardous, and it could make I-70 on a Sunday palatable. But when my grandchildren are asked to muse on “the good old days” will they wistfully remember their first iPhone with a driving app? 

To my way of thinking, if you never have a learner’s permit you will never learn anything. Frankly, I don’t want a self-driving car; I want a self-driving kid so I can have my car back – and drive.