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What's our idiotic infatuation with self-driving cars and can't we stop?

Published Aug. 2, 2016 -

FILE PHOTO - Columnist Mikel KellyThis morning on the news, there was yet another report on the apparently looming prospect that all of us will soon be gliding around in cars that drive themselves.

This particular story had to do with a truck company that was evidently on the verge of unveiling a big rig that can operate without a driver — which, of course (or so the reporter intimated), would mean an end to the need for long-haul truckers, that noble and highly romanticized breed of character who, if we are to believe the country songs of the 1970s, kept our society intact through thick and thin.

The latest wrinkle (about the trucks, that is) is supposed to be as upsetting as the fairly recent rash of accidents involving self-driving cars in which computer programming proved not quite up to assuring the safety of drivers — even ones who spent about as much on state-of-the-art electric cars as I paid for the house where I live.

Let’s stop right here to recap what I see as a very basic philosophical divide in our culture. I firmly believe that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have a deep, abiding faith in technology, and the rest of us.

I, of course, am one of those who do not have such faith. I do not trust any mechanical device to do what it’s supposed to. A toaster, in my humble opinion, is just as likely to give me something resembling a charred piece of roofing tile as it is to produce actual toast.

I know, I know. I’ve heard it all before. One of my dearest boyhood friends (a nerdy brainiac named Chuck) could not help but point out that failure to get the desired effect merely indicated a failure to properly set the stage. He adored tinkering — with remote control boats and planes, with motorcycles and cars, with cameras, watches, computers, etc. — and (like the truly dedicated IT folks of today) he was always surprised when something didn’t work as planned.

I, on the other hand, was surprised when something DID work. And, I might add, I do not like tinkering.

Chuck, for example, would have found fault with my ability to set the dial on the side of the toaster correctly. And he would have been right, but so what? My toast is still burnt. And that electric car driver is still dead.

Now, I would like to point out that I’m not a complete fool in this regard. My fellow (though senior) media curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, was famous for his rants against progress. How he could prefer pounding on his old manual typewriter, when the modern computer allows you to fix your mistakes or make yourself sound even more brilliant or more hilarious — with little more than a flick of the finger — makes no sense.

The last three cars I’ve owned all came with air conditioning, automatic door locks, power windows and cruise control. Those were all things I thought were needless luxuries, but I couldn’t live without any of them now. I can’t even imagine rolling a window all the way down now with my puny little arm. And don’t even get me started on driving without AC.

I’m old enough to remember how, back in the 1950s, they were predicting that some day we’d be zooming down the freeway in these giant cars that drove themselves. They even showed pictures in magazines of an entire family gathered around a card table in a sort of glass bubble (both Mom and Dad with their backs to the front window), all of them grinning with idiotic glee about how they didn’t need to pay any attention to the traffic around them.

I was no visionary, but even my little underdeveloped country-boy brain knew this was utterly insane. That’s a giant crash just waiting to happen, I told myself — and that assessment has not changed one iota in the past six decades.

Hell, I don’t even trust human, non-mechanical drivers who are facing the right direction and doing everything in their power to keep their vehicles on the road. And why is that, you ask? Because nobody seems to appreciate how easily a car CAN leave the highway and careen into the bushes, over a cliff or whatever. It happens way too often and with drastic consequences.

And it doesn’t give me even the tiniest bit of comfort to know that it’s always human error causing this injury or loss of life.

Mikel Kelly is the former chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.