When I was a young man, I spent $1,800 on a silver 1951 Bentley sedan, which I bought from an Episcopal bishop’s son with alimony troubles. He was a friend of mine, but he was what people used to call “a bad influence”—a recreational alcoholic and womanizer so relentlessly pursued by bill collectors that he kept his telephone at the office in a desk drawer, where the sound of its ringing would be muffled.
The car that he sold me was equally raffish—a handsome, snooty beast designed along prewar lines: among the last of the squared-off and angled Bentleys, not rounded like later “coaches” that Rolls-Royce produced. It had a manual transmission (a laborious gearshift on the steering column, four speeds forward) and a clutch that required about 40 lbs. of pressure to ram to the floor in order to shift gears. Driving the thing was a workout. It weighed two tons. The steering wheel was enormous, like a ship’s wheel, and the dashboard was made of richly whorled walnut. You started the car with a manual choke to get the gas mixture right, and there was a hand-throttle on the hub of the steering wheel. In the back, there were lighted vanity mirrors and a niche for the bud vase, and fold-down walnut picnic tables. The seats were opulent leather.
I crashed the car into the Delaware Memorial Bridge while driving alone one midnight in a rainstorm. I’d been drinking. No one was hurt, but the Bentley was never the same. I was a jerk in those days.
Now I am old, and I drive a 2003 Volkswagen Golf that has 287,000 miles on it. It has a stick shift (five speeds forward) and it drives like a jackrabbit. I pretend it’s a Ferrari. I love the car, which with each passing year becomes, more and more, my objective correlative—patched up but still humming.
I think of the Bentley and the Volks on a June morning as the reckless twenty-first century hurtles on toward God knows where. We have arrived, as they say, at an inflection point. As I write, the world’s cars are being converted from gasoline to electric. The new cars, in their millions, are being automated, so that they will be self-steering, self-braking, self-driving: in business for themselves. Our cars, without our permission, are being turned into robots. Presently they may drive on without us, transporting other robots.
Their task, for the moment, is still to move people from one place to another. But to say that is like saying that the purpose of love between a man and a woman is merely to keep the world’s population in proper trim. Up to now, cars have been capable of something better, something like romance; when properly loved they have seemed to us distinctive, endearing, and even vaguely mythological, with personalities, like our dogs. (Tell the AI people to get busy designing robot dogs.)
Long ago, air travel was like that, fallible but adventurous, romantic—as naïve and exciting as youth itself. Now flying amounts to a mere interval of detention. You sit, close-packed, in a droning auditorium and suffer and presently “deplane” like cattle passing through the chutes. These are familiar points.
I was speaking of cars: there have been a number of accidents caused by robot failure in the new automated models, glitches in their sensors’ perceptions that cause the vehicle to veer or brake in order to avoid what the machine may have “thought” was, say, a pedestrian but turned out to be a turtle. By and by, the bugs will be ironed out. The robots will be perfected. It’s that imminent robot perfection that breaks my heart.
We speed on, nonetheless, out of the Tokugawa period of motoring, as it were, and into the dire Meiji. My aged, valiant VW is one of the last samurai. I would not trade it for a Tesla. Of course, it is doomed.
In the Tokugawa period of American motoring—comparable to the two-and-a-half century Japanese seclusion from the world (1603–1868)—we were blissfully medieval in our ways (driving around with stick shifts, primitive hand signals, triangular vent windows to scoop the breeze, hand-cranked windows, and engines that we understood perfectly by listening to the sounds that they made and paying attention to the nuances that we felt through the soles of our feet as we worked gas pedal and clutch in syncopation. We knew how to fix things when they broke—in any case, we knew enough to tell the mechanic, “I think it’s the alternator.”
The driver was a costar in the drama. It was a grownup relationship. When I hit the Delaware Memorial Bridge, it was entirely my fault. I was a jerk and both I and the Bentley knew it and suffered for it. I suppose that if the Bentley had had automated features—with a sober robot in charge of steering wheel and brakes—it might not have happened.
And I might have driven on through the rainy night to Washington, to meet the beautiful young woman with whom I was in love (as in the last chapter of a Harlequin romance). But the plot took a different turn—it felt more like a John O’Hara story. I slept in the back seat of the battered Bentley for a few hours on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. Then I got the car towed to a garage in Swedesboro, and in the gray morning, I found a bus to take me north again. It made every local stop between Swedesboro and New York City, and the trip took all that Sunday.
Pretty soon, my affair with the beautiful woman in Washington came to an end. That was my fault, too.
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