David Bouchier: A Wilderness Of Cars

Oct 16, 2017

The driver’s side window of my car stuck in the open position during a rainstorm last week, so I drove rather damply to my usual mechanic. He inhabits a workshop in one of those areas where automotive businesses seem to cluster, rather the way doctors’ offices cluster around a hospital. It’s reassuring in a way. If one practitionar can’t fix your problem, the one on the next block probably can.

My mechanic, who has kept my old car alive for years, has staked out his territory alongside a stretch of highway on which sick and broken vehicles seem to be the main and only business. Each automotive establishment flowed into the next – general repair mechanics, the appropriately named body shops, tire shops, brake specialists, rapid oil change wizards, wholesalers of spare parts, and even a couple of used car dealers selling the wrecks that had been patched up by all the rest.

It was a wilderness of battered and broken cars, and it set me thinking about how we came to depend on them so much, and the price we pay for it. Here in the suburbs, many of us can scarcely even buy a loaf of bread without getting into a car. They are as essential as fresh air, not that we have much of that alongside our busy highways.

Every repair shop seemed to have a dozen or more vehicles parked outside, most of them quite new. Like mine, they had all failed in some small but important way. I can remember when car engines sometimes blew up or wheels fell off. This rarely happens now. It’s the small stuff that brings the big bills and my mechanic confided that much of it is not mechanical at all, but electronic. In other words the car’s computer has failed.

Another lesson came from the body shops. A stroll through half a dozen fields of expensively smashed vehicles should be a compulsory part of every driver’s education. The cars we trust so much are appallingly flimsy tin cans on wheels. Here you see them ripped apart in every possible way, crumpled, flattened, and reduced to unrecognizable heaps of metal. I don’t know whether body shop owners are exceptionally careful drivers, but they certainly should be. Their daily work is the kind of memento mori that it must be hard to ignore.

This automotive carnage shows a lamentable lack of driving skills. It makes the idea of self-driving cars all the more appealing. With computers at the wheel we are assured that no errors of judgment should be possible and accident rates should drop to zero. What worries me is the intermediate period, when half the cars will be guided by infallible computers, just like the one you have at home, and the other half will still be driven by the kinds of lunatics whose wreckage fills the body shops. Who will sort out the battles over legal liability? Who will pay the insurance? You already have to post a $3 million bond to let one of these autonomous cars loose on the highways in Nevada, and there’s almost no traffic in Nevada. Imagine what it would cost in New York. There’s no Affordable Car Act, but we’re going to need one before we all get grounded forever.

Copyright: David Bouchier