Steer Crazy: Deborah Paul on Driverless Cars

I hope I am long gone before the driverless car hits the road.

I am afraid to fly. This is a well-known fact to my family, friends, and colleagues. I am proud, however, that I do it anyway, because my desire to go somewhere else is greater than my fear, which I manage through self-medicating, deep breathing, and rational thought: On an average day, 28,537 commercial flights traverse the air over the United States, and most arrive safely. Psychologists blame fear of flying not on the probability of crashing, but on the loss of passenger control. 

Turbulence is what gets my heart racing, but lack of control? Well, maybe. My sister, who is like me in most ways but drastically different in others, travels far and wide and especially enjoys eating in the air. She will pack a bagel with little tubs of peanut butter and jelly, and munch away, happily enjoying the view outside her window. I, on the other hand, am unable to swallow during flight. You see, I must maneuver through the clouds, accelerate and decelerate, and change altitude due to rough air.

I do not have a death wish, but I kind of hope I am long gone before the driverless car—now being tested by Google, Apple, Sony, and Tesla, among others—hits the road. The technological breakthrough has been designed in part for someone like me: over 65, who will likely lose the ability to operate a vehicle safely as vision, hearing, flexibility, and reaction time decline.

Psychologically, however, I make for a poor target buyer. If I can’t sit calmly in a 75-ton aircraft piloted by two professionals who have logged 1,500 hours in the cockpit, can you imagine me in the backseat of a car driven by a computer? Talk about loss of control! I don’t ever want to find myself on a nursing-home bus, and neither do I want to occupy a passenger seat in my own car, hoping to get where I’m going in one piece. Call me a control freak, but I want to be in charge.

And I’m not just averse to losing control, but also to giving up the enjoyment of driving, which most 16-year-olds will tell you signifies the very embodiment of independence. (Likewise, most 80-year-olds will confess that when their insistent children took away their car keys, the defeat was the very embodiment of dependence.) Who doesn’t remember that first time in the driver’s seat alone? I myself took that trip in my mother’s 1963 Buick LeSabre. After picking up my friend Jackie, do you know what I did then? Smoked a cigarette! I had never smoked before and haven’t since, but lighting up in a car I was driving on my own was an act both of defiance and ultimate freedom.

I was no stranger behind the wheel. My father, who owned an auto-parts business and to whom all things related to cars were as natural as the ritual bath he took after each day handling grease and oil, taught my siblings and me to drive when we turned 12. He would take us to the vast Fieldhouse parking lot at Butler University, sit us (well, sit pint-sized me) up on a pile of phone books, and teach us to release the choke, ease on and off the clutch, shift gears efficiently—forward and down for first, out and up for second, down again for third—grip the wheel at 10 and 2, observe with laser focus what lay in front, and roll down the window to hand-signal even though no one followed. He never lost his patience, not once, and the memory is one of my favorites. I could operate a stick shift before most of my friends were allowed to ride their bikes to the corner store.

I was too short to see over the steering wheel before and am likely to be again.

The activity wasn’t just fun, it was motivated by trust. He knew I could handle the task without crashing into a wall or running off the pavement. I did not jerk the car, and, even today, assisted by a six-cylinder automatic transmission, I find myself pressing the brake and gas pedals with two feet—imperceptibly, on and off, smooth as silk.

I have driven successfully for 52 years and still enjoy it. I keep my eye on the road, my hands on the wheel, and the car in my lane, all without technological help. I can glide into a parallel parking space in one try, having perfected the three-point maneuver Dad taught me between imaginary cars in the Fieldhouse parking lot. My husband, who lacks my unflappability behind the wheel, will often turn the task over to me, knowing I’ll fit the car into the space deftly and without delay.

My early training—and, thus, my love of driving—was not unique, especially in Indiana, where cars are king (witness our celebrated Motor Speedway) and where many of our brethren grew up on farms. Do you think all those tractors were driven by adults? Fat chance. A friend relates the story of a police officer observing a seemingly driverless tractor lumbering through a grower’s field. “Who’s in that thing?” the cop yelled, to which the man, shading his eyes, shrugged and answered, “My son?” The fellow was barely 10 and could not be seen over the steering wheel, but no accident ensued, and no one wound up in jail. The act is as Hoosier as de-tasseling corn.

When my 90-year-old mother perpetrated a crash at a four-way stop, we stripped her of her keys. Nonetheless, she insisted upon keeping her big black Caddy in the garage, just in case. My elderly mother-in-law, who had lost most of her vision to macular degeneration, was once stopped by a cop while driving erratically in her neighborhood at 5 a.m. “Ma’am,” the officer said, alarmed, “where do you think you’re going?” “The grocery store,” she said. “We’re out of bananas.”

I don’t look forward to losing either the ability or privilege of driving. I was too short to see over the steering wheel before and am likely to shrink to the same spot again. But I won’t give up without a fight. I would sooner go back to sitting on phone books than let technology replace what I learned, what I can do, and what I love. 

Email Deborah Paul here.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach