The driverless car

In this age of innovations and inventions, we are about to be introduced to the self-driving automobile. That calls for a moment of automobile nostalgia.

The automobile era was launched in great part by the Model T Ford. You had to get in front the Model T and turn a crank to start the engine. Sometimes the engine flipped the crank in the reverse direction striking and breaking arm bones. There were two small levers on the steering column. One of them regulated the timing of the spark plug. The timing had to be retarded to start the engine. When the engine started, the driver had to get in the car and advance the spark plug timing lever so the engine would run properly. The other lever on the steering column controlled the engine speed. The driver put the lever in a notch, and that set the vehicle speed—a crude forerunner of cruise control. Changing speed required moving the lever on the steering column to a different notch. There were three pedals on the floorboard. One was the brake pedal. Another pedal made the car go forward, and the third pedal put the car in reverse. The engine radiator (cooling system) was not pressurized and there was no antifreeze, so the water in the radiator constantly boiled away. Filling and checking the radiator was a constant necessity to prevent the engine from overheating.

Improvements in automobile design came rapidly as did competition. The October 13, 1929, edition of the NY Times carried an article about the forthcoming 1930 automobile show to be held at the Grand Central Palace in New York City. Forty-two different makes of American automobiles were scheduled for display. Do you remember these automobiles: Auburn, Black Hawk, Cord, Crosley, Cunningham, De Soto, du Pont, Durant, Elcar, Erskine, Essex, Franklin, Frazer, Gardner, Graham-Paige, Hudson, Hupmobile, Jordan, Kaiser, Kissel, La Salle, Marmon, Marquette, Nash, Oakland, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Reo, Roosevelt, Studebaker, Stutz, Viking, Whippet, Willys, or the Windsor White Prince (Moon)? Ford didn’t display at the automobile show. They said their car was so popular that they didn’t need to be there. Maybe that was correct; Ford is still rolling.

Now, major automobile manufacturers and even the web search engine Google are working on driverless automobiles. They will probably have to negotiate a lot of learning curves before achieving success. But people once talked about the “horseless carriage,” and look what that became.

A newspaper comic strip called Mutt and Jeff ran from 1907 to 1983. In those far away days, most roads were narrow and two lane—one lane in each direction. Passing an automobile required moving into the left lane facing on-coming traffic. That too often resulted in head-on collisions. One of the Mutt and Jeff comic strip characters invented a solution for the problem. He installed springs under his automobile. When he found himself about to collide head-on with another automobile, he planned to release the springs causing the automobile to bounce up and over the on-coming vehicle. He took the car out for a test drive, and when he met another vehicle coming at him head-on, he released the springs. Unfortunately, the other driver had invented the same gimmick, so the two cars bounced up and crashed in mid-air.

Assuming the driverless car technical problems are solved, that leaves a few more unanswered questions. Will parents send their young children places depending on the machine to safely take them to their destination? How will insurance companies and courts deal with collisions? Won’t governments miss the revenue from all of those traffic fines? Will hackers be able to reroute a car? When the traffic signals are out and a patrol officer is directing traffic with hand and arm signals, will the driverless car know what to do? Will it have a horn that it can honk indignantly? Will the driverless car find its own parking space? Will driverless cars put taxicab drivers out of business? Will “eighteen wheelers” become driverless?

“Keep your eyes on the road and both hands on the steering wheel” will be out-of-date advice — except maybe for young folks on a date!

Jack Stevenson served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. I also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). He is a resident of Pensacola, Fla., and can be reached by email at
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