Horseless–And Driverless–Carriages

Not long ago the Budweiser brewery in Fort Collins loaded about fifty thousand cans of beer onto an eighteen-wheeler and sent it hurtling down I-25 to Colorado Springs with no one at the wheel.  There was a live “observer” on board, they say, and I’ll bet sitting on his hands while that semi navigated Denver’s Mousetrap was a thrill a minute.  The beer truck was being driven by a computer, and for the sake of the folks on the interstate that day I’m glad it was better than the one I’m using to write this, since it tends to crash and burn whenever a thunderstorm rolls out of the nearby foothills.

Budweiser’s achievement is a harbinger of the day when roughly five million professional drivers could be replaced with microchips and circuit boards–a somewhat bitter irony, considering how many of those drivers like a cold Bud after work.  On the plus side, though, driverless vehicles could well be a blessing for the tiny old lady I watched last week as she slowly and painfully parked her Ram crewcab pickup in front of our local convenience store.  It was like watching the QE II trying to dock without tugboats.

I haven’t much room to talk; if I cling to the twig long enough the day may come when my daughters confiscate the keys to my gracefully aging Crown Vic in the interest of public safety.  Not looking forward to it, naturally.  I love driving, and I have loved internal combustion chariots of every description since time out of memory.  (I have before me a small shapshot, taken when I was two or three.  I’m wearing a sailor suit–which is weirdly prophetic in its own right–standing with one foot on the fender, the other on the running board of a car like the one James Herriot drove in All Creatures Great And Small.  Most English cars in the 1940s were relatively small and thin on the ground.  Nevertheless, I had a Labrador named Vino who managed to survive getting hit by one on three separate occasions.  But that’s another story.)

A good part of my working life was spent in what the Brits call “the motor trade”.  More than half a century ago, I started out on a used-car lot in New Orleans that backed up against a red-brick cathouse whose working girls used to lean out the windows on long, hot, slow afternoons just to chat and pass the time of day, with nothing suggestive or off-color on either side.  The first-rate Cadillac store where I ended up forty years-on was infinitely classier–but not near as entertaining.  I’m not sure how many cars I sent over the cub in my time, but I suppose it’s somewhere north of a couple of thousand.  And enough of them have survived life as a daily driver to become “collectible”, making it hard for me to watch those classic car auctions on cable-TV.

I’d like to believe driverless cars will never become the norm, but I suspect I would be on the wrong side of history, like the cowboys of old who scoffed at horseless carriages.  Of course, they weren’t entirely wrong.  There were about 20 million horses in America in 1880; today there are only about half as many, but that’s still a helluva lot of horses, more than any other country in the world.  Near the end of Tom Selleck’s remake of Monte Walsh, Selleck on horseback is confronted by the nebbish accountant who closed down the ranch, sending Monte and his cowboy pals to the unemployment line.  The nebbish and his fiancée are sitting in a horseless carriage mired in a mudhole.  The nebbish demands, rather than asks, Monte to throw his lariat and pull them out.  Instead, Selleck puts spurs to horse and leaps cleanly over car, nebbish and fiancée, then rides away as the fiancée shoots him an admiring glance.

It’s a great scene, with a bittersweet irony.  But doesn’t change the fact there’s a helluva lot more cars in the world than horses.