I’m not a gear head. Twice, I took my Volkswagen for service only to learn the rattle I heard was caused by loose change in the cup holder. Twice. So, suffice it to say that I know very little about cars. Yet, even I can sense there are major changes going on in the automobile industry that will have a monster-truck sized effect on how we commute in the future.
Sadly, we are not flying cars the way I’d hoped when I was growing up watching The Jetsons. More sadly there is no Rosie cleaning my house, but I digress, that is another blog post altogether. So while we’re still earthbound, cars today are quite a bit different than the wood paneled station wagon of my youth. Cars are safer because of air bags, anti-lock brakes and rear-view cameras. Climate control may now include heated steering wheels, air-conditioned seats and ambient lighting.
Google has a car that drives itself, Ford has one that parks itself, Volvo has one that stops itself and minivans the world over have doors that open and close themselves. It’s a good thing that cars can operate on auto-pilot since our drivers are more distracted than ever with gadgets. Although I believe there is a trend afoot away from onboard installations, a move to docking external devices like a tablet or a phone, time will tell. Either way, it is impossible to imagine a future without the GPS I use in my own city because it alerts me to traffic delays ahead and recommends a faster route. Hands-free which paradoxically means both hands firmly on the wheel, has forever changed the way I switch the radio station and answer a phone call.
When I was little we took Kill-Me-Now, God-Forsaken road trips. Preventing mutiny, my mom would leave gifts on the backseat for me and my brothers from a fictional character she made up called the Roadrunner. These gifts were word puzzles and embroidery floss to make friendship bracelets. And they were the only thing to look forward to while long-hauling through Nebraska. Boy how things have improved in the backseat for kids today. Our portable entertainment makes it more tolerable to endure an hours-long commute. Our entertainment is location neutral; Radio Disney is always on channel 115. As we neared the only rest area for miles we were asked, “need a potty stop”? Now, Road Ninja and other apps “see” ahead for services at upcoming exits and predict time-to-toilet pretty accurately.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m still not a fan of the road trip. And, I imagine that old saying that, “It’s a great way to see the country” is going to be a funny relic like “talk fast, it’s a long distance call”. Who actually sees the country when you’re busy binge-watching a full season of Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia on the iPad from the backseat? Note, if you actually looked out the window in Philly you’d see it is often overcast. Me, I lose my mind somewhere around hour 3 in the car. That’s when I take to staring out the window.
You see a lot more than a nose-pick when observing other drivers.
Cars are an expression of our fashion sensibility, an extension of self identity. BMW and Audi market certain models as accessories, like a big fancy purse. Fiat is to Prada as Ford is to Eddie Bauer. Should I imagine Jaguar’s Luxury Long car is the auto-industries version of Big & Tall? We live in a customized and personalized world (iced decaf grande soy latte, please!), one where it is totally normal to custom paint the hood of your Mini-Cooper.
Speaking of self expression, the back bumper and windows continue to be the prime real estate for political candidate stickers and boasting about your kid’s honor roll achievement. Baby on Board has made an unexpected comeback. I can’t quite understand the trend to include a row of stick figures representing the family, but I appreciate that a lot more than a dangling nut-sack from the hitch.
Somewhere there is a landfill full of uncouth auto accessories from yesteryear like The Club. Over time, front bumpers everywhere were liberated from those bizarre bras that were once worn. And spoilers are now actual spoilers.
So as cars get cooler, it is puzzling as to why people are buying less of them. Single car households are more common, and enviable. Urbanites and students on University campus rent Zipcars for that occasional trip to Ikea. Car sharing services enable you to pay a nominal amount to use your neighbor’s pickup for a couple hours. Are we buying fewer cars because we’re poor? Or, has the perceived value of a car diminished as alternatives to ownership become more readily available?
Either way, nothing can substitute for the exhilarating feeling of driving through Napa Valley last weekend with my husband. The vineyards were wilted in vibrant fall colors, the top was down on our German sports car convertible, heat was blowing from our headrests as contrasting crisp November air raced overhead. Because we know my road trip limitations, we tacked our way in short bursts from tasting room to vineyard, loving the journey together and the sweet ride with no commitments, for our car was a rental.