Why steering wheels and car ownership will last forever.
"No one is coming," said my older brother Jack. He was nineteen. I still miss him.
The explosions were coming closer.
"We wait," said Tata. "We wait for the Edelmans."
A neat row of five battered pieces of overstuffed luggage—one for each of us—lined the wall by the front door.
"The train," said Mama. "What about the train?"
"Are they going to kill us?" asked my sister Janette. She was sixteen. She was so beautiful.
"Everything will be ok," I lied. I was fourteen.
BOOM. A glass fell to the floor.
"Dr. Edelman will come," said Tata.
"It's too late for the train," said Jack, pacing around our small dining table. Tata sat at its head, of course. My sister Janette sat across from me, her face white. Mama stood on a chair and reached for something in her favorite hiding spot atop the bookcase.
"Maybe the English will stop them," said Janette.
"Maybe the English Channel will stop them," said Jack. "We can't wait for the Edelmans...I've got an idea. I'll be right back."
The Edelmans had a brand new Renault. My best friend Jojo's father was a doctor. Jojo was so proud his family had a car. I was jealous. When his father got it he even let Jojo and I stencil his name on it: "Dr. Edelman." I painted one door, Jojo the other. When we were done his father came down to look at our work. Jojo's door was better than mine. I was hoping he'd inspect Jojo's and walk away, but instead he just looked at Jojo's angrily and shook his head.
"I didn't spend all those years in medical school," Dr. Edelman had said, "just so I could drive a car with my name on the door calling me Mister."
That had been a month ago. Last night, Dr. Edelman promised Tata to pick us up on the way out of Brussels. We were all going to Paris together. Tata had friends there. Tata said they had room for the Edelmans, and Dr. Edelman said he had room in the Renault for us. I didn't think either was true. I wanted to believe Tata was right. Jojo would come if it was up to him, but Jojo was only fourteen, like me. But his feet couldn't reach the pedals. And he didn't know how to drive.
The windows exploded, the heavy drapes billowing inward, and Mama fell to the floor.
Wailing in the street. Wailing down the hall. Footsteps bounded up the stairs.
"We have to go!" Jack yelled. "German planes are coming!"
I thought Mama was dead, but closing the heavy drapes had saved her life. That had been Jack's idea. He was always so smart. He and I lifted her by the arms and carried her into the hall. She gestured at the luggage. Tata shook his head, and the five of us slowly descended to the lobby.
"What about our bicycles?" said Janette.
"There are five of us," said Tata.
"We only have three," I said.
"Maybe we could all fit onto them!" said Janette.
"We only have one," said Jack, "someone stole the other two!"
"I told you," Tata glared at me, "to lock them up."
"Everyone wait here," said Jack. "Andre, come with me."
"Where are we going?" I said. "Dr. Edelman—"
"Forget them," he said, wheeling our remaining bicycle out onto the sidewalk, "and get on."
We rode east through streets filled with broken bricks and glass. People stared at us through windowless panes. "Turn around!" someone yelled. "You don't want to go that way! The Germans—"
But we did. Because Jack had a plan. He always had plans. And the further and faster he pedaled, the more I knew he was going to save us. I loved him so much. Everyone did. I could see the Citroen dealership in the distance. We were going to steal a car! Then a man ran out, but not from the front door. All the windows were smashed, but not by bombs. Another man ran out, and another. We skidded to a stop.
All the cars in the showroom were gone.
I could feel the rumble of heavy vehicles. The drone of distant planes. I could feel the light inside me going out. I would never see Paris. None of us would.
"Follow me!" said Jack, dropping the bike. I stumbled after him as he ran inside. There was a brilliant star inside him. I chased him into the garage. There was one car that wasn't in pieces. It had to be at least ten years old. It had a hand crank. He was already behind the big steering wheel.
"You can drive?" I said.
"When did you learn to drive?"
"Trust me," he frowned at the gauges, "I can drive."
"But can you drive...THIS car?"
"It's old." He played with the knobs. "I drove a new one once."
"Is it the same?"
"No." Jack peered at the pedals. "But I'm a fast learner."
"But can you...start it?"
"I don't know," he said, checking the lever.
"Can I help?"
"I can't do it without you."
"Sit in the drivers seat and do exactly as I say." Jack jumped out. "And I'll turn the crank!"
Jack. My poor brother. He saved us all. I still miss him.
That's as far as my father could go—sixty years later, right before he died—without bursting into tears. I filled in the gaps from other family members. Jack and my father picked up Tata, Mama and Janette, and joined tens thousands of refugees on the road to the French border. They caught up with the Edelmans, but the Luftwaffe strafed the defenseless convoy and Jojo died in his father's Renault. They made it to Paris, then drove south to Toulouse, where Tata sold the car for forged visas that might get them into Spain. Mama and Janette were captured by the Gestapo and disappeared. Tata, Jack and my father made it to Madrid, then Lisbon and Canada, where Jack joined the Air Force. He was shot down and killed over Germany. My father joined the US Army, received a Purple Heart in Germany, then returned to New York City to open a car dealership. He imported a wide variety of the European cars he loved, starting with the French brand that saved his life.
He rarely left the island of Manhattan, but he owned a car for the rest of his life.
What is the future of transportation? Self-driving evangelists and "experts" would have us believe it is made up of vehicles that are connected, autonomous, shared and electric, or C.A.S.E.. Steering wheels and car ownership? Finished. Some have even claimed the last generation of children who will need a driver's license has already been born.
Nonsense. Ask anyone who escaped Hurricane Irma if they'd bet their children's lives on a self-driving Uber showing up.
I LOVE technology. I make other first adopters look slow. But I'm for technology as a means, not an ends. I support technology that augments human will, not that which limits it.
Technology changes, but human nature doesn't. Even if the evangelists are right, self-driving cars work perfectly, cost-per-mile plummets, and pollution, traffic and safety are solved, steering wheels and car ownership will survive, and deserve to. Why? Because history repeats itself, cultural memory is long, modern society is brittle, and the survival instinct doesn't care about efficiency or cost.
The war that killed most of my family 78 years ago wasn't an anomaly. Wars, floods, fires, volcanoes, and earthquakes happen all the time. For those who haven't read thousands of years of religious texts or watched Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before, and will happen again. From Hurricanes Irma and Harvey to Fukushima, the California wildfires and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, a car is often the difference between life and death.
Not a car you summon with an app. Your car. Waiting for you. Outside.
There is no freedom but the choice of life or death. When convenience is conflated with improvement and wants are mistaken for needs, survival rests on a brittle surface.
Let us suppose the Ubers, Lyfts and Didis of the world execute perfectly. Autonomy is a fact. Two mobility providers have exclusive rights in any given city. In other countries, it might even be one. No one owns a car; it's cheaper not to, or maybe it's illegal. Street parking has been eliminated for bike lanes anyway. Garages? Too expensive. Mass transit has been gutted and largely replaced by shared fleets. All vehicles are electric, so pollution has been moved elsewhere. Road deaths are now zero. Traffic is when a child runs into the street and everyone stops so a parent can retrieve them. We love the strangers we meet in shared vehicles. Small single-seat vehicles can be summoned. If we want a whole car to ourselves, we can pay a surcharge. Rides are discounted or free, if we're willing to watch ads. No one owns bikes or scooters either, because they're available through the same app as cars.
Life is good.
Then something happens. Insert Outside-Context Problem (X). Lava. Alien attack. Zombie horde. Plague. ISIS. 9/11. Cyberwar. EMP weapon. It could be as simple as a blackout that lasts too long. You may not even know what's happening. You need to get out of the city. As fast as possible. As far as possible. You try to summon a car on Uber, Lyft or Didi. You can't get on a plane if you can't get to the airport. But you can't afford a ride to the airport if surge pricing is 100x. Or if there aren't any cars available.
Even if cars are available at any price, will an autonomous car drive through a fire to reach you? Gunfire? A flood? Debris? Rocks? How about a crowd of screaming people?
Will an autonomous car let you pack your third child inside? What about that niece who showed up? Will it be like Sophie's Choice? What about your neighbor's family?
Does everyone die in the crisis zone if one of the sensors is covered or damaged?
Will these cars even operate if the power is out? Without connectivity? If not, why are so many insisting upon self-driving cars that require external infrastructure?
If shared autonomous vehicles are owned and operated by third or even fourth parties, will they risk them to evacuate passengers who would otherwise die? Will fleet insurers reimburse for damage or loss if a fleet manager sends the vehicles into a danger zone to save lives? If not, what will that fleet manager do? What is the company policy, and will they disclose it?
These nightmare scenarios will not prevent the inevitable rise and popularity not only of self-driving cars, but of mobility apps aggregating everything from subways to bikes, cars, ferries and even air travel. I'll be the first to sign up. Who wouldn't? I'm absolutely convinced the future of civilian transportation will look like a hybrid of cell phone plans and medical insurance, mostly for better, but definitely for worse.
What's the "worse" part? The second-order consequences of giving up not only ownership of mobility, but access to it. A rentership society based on maximizing efficiency and convenience is the most brittle of all. The further removed we are from generations like my father's, or the victims of the California wildfires, or Katrina, Irma and Harvey, or refugees from wars anywhere in the world, the more we unconsciously retreat into the fantasy that modernity equals robustness.
Those too far gone may find shared bicycles and scooters to be wonderful, but without connectivity they are as useless as shared autonomous vehicles. How do you unlock a shared bicycle? A dockless scooter? You don't. Forget about fixing them.
Connectivity, autonomy, sharing and electrification all have bright futures, but they're not on the same timelines. Someday, in unison, they may even reduce problems that have been plaguing us since Roman times. But there's absolutely no reason they can't safely coexist with steering wheels and ownership, if we get creative. The utopians will claim we won't reap the full benefits of going all in with technology, but that only highlights the limitations of their thinking, which is as myopic as the Luddites who would deny the inevitability of progress. Beware the seductive power of technological panaceas, for binary thinking is slavery.
The utopians don't get out enough. Or maybe they're too young. Or maybe they haven't seen system wide failure on a societal level. Convenience is a thief that can make no promises. For every disaster that exposes the increasingly brittle life of comfort we take for granted, there are survivors who would trade a lifetime of conveniences for another day with a lost loved one.
Here's a scenario for the utopians: force people into shared autonomous fleets, price them out of car ownership, compel them into mobility plans, then cut their power and connectivity for 72 hours. Anyone who shorted the shared fleet providers will make a killing. So will anyone long Ford and GM's human-driven car divisions, which will have been spun off by then.
I can't wait to buy my first Multi-Pass, but no matter how much money I save, I'm going to have a bicycle in my Manhattan apartment and a car at a garage within biking distance.
Because you can't put a price on your loved ones.
Because sometimes, no one is coming.
Alex Roy — Founder of the Human Driving Association, Editor-at-Large at The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver — has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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