It all starts when you name them. Bessie. Sophie. Fred.
Seems innocuous enough, but once names are bestowed upon motor vehicles they start to think they're somebody, imbued with human personalities and quirks and motivations. They appear to have minds of their own, telling us our doors are ajar when we gosh darned know they're not, then heading out on the open road and careening down the slippery slope -- despite Vehicle Stability Assist systems and anti-lock brakes -- into a future with artificially intelligent computer brains crammed somewhere in the glove compartment.
It's happening, people. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last Tuesday paving the way for self-driving vehicle technology to enter our roadways as soon as five years from now. Google has already been testing such cars, logging nearly 300,000 accident-free miles so far. They're touted as safer than those operated by poor fallible humans drivers. These capable cars can't get drunk or miss signal lights or be distracted by kids in the back seat. It's cartopia.
Really? Haven't we all learned from Stanley Kubrick, Stephen King and pretty much every "Star Trek" episode that machines with such "brains" will inevitably malfunction, develop malevolent tendencies and/or become possessed by the devil and plot a course to kill us all? Didn't anybody see "Christine?" That was King's 1983 cautionary tale in which a really evil Satan-possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury gets in a jealous snit and starts running down friends of her beloved owner and crushing would-be drivers against her steering wheel. Or what about the big rigs that come to life -- allegedly at the behest of extraterrestrial conquerors -- and push Emilio Estevez around in "Maximum Overdrive"?
Or look at "Cars," for crying out loud. Sure it's all Disney/Pixar happy-happy. But really look at it. The autos have a whole town to themselves. There are no people there -- anywhere -- probably because the vicious vehicles have killed them and stuffed them in their ample trunks or buried them under their driveways. That's probably what happened to Hoffa. And it's not just a movie anymore. It's come to life in a theme park ride at Disney's California Adventure, luring humans to their doom in the place next door to the happiest place on earth.
Next in line
Even while humanity still exists, the future world of driverless cars will make "driver" cars seem so quaint. There will probably be a classic 2012 Honda Civic installed in the Smithsonian and parents will explain to their children how people actually used to operate those things, moving a wheel and pushing on little pedals with their feet. "Why, Papa?" a future child will ask, and a future father will say, "I don't know, son. I don't know." Then they'll shake their heads and move on to the iPhone exhibit.
Of course, there could be a silver lining: no more DMV. Sure, it'll be around for a while, keeping itself busy with new driverless-car regulations. But there will be no need for eye tests or questions about the distance for engaging a turn signal when approaching a street corner. Is it 500 feet? Or 300 feet? How do you know what 300 feet is? It's three football fields. But I don't drive on football fields!
Apparently the person sitting in the gratuitous "wheel" position will still have to have some kind of operating permit, but that, too, will fade into the rear view mirror of the past. Patty and Selma will be out of a job and unable to afford cigarettes, but cigarettes will be illegal and/or self-smoking by then anyway.
You go, girl
I got a taste of self-driving cars last week when my husband and I ventured into the aforementioned Cars ride. Oh, it's totally cute. Too cute. We were strapped into a little green sports car (hmm, no steering wheel -- curious) then gently rolled around bluffs and cacti and into the adorable people-free town of Radiator Springs, arriving at the racetrack where we were supposed to ... go! And ... go! And ... why aren't we going? Oh, guess what. There was a "malfunction." A 15-minute one. And oh, guess what. They sent us through again, and there was another malfunction. A 20-minute one. Maybe the adorable little car just didn't feel like moving. Maybe she had a mind of her own.
Maybe her name was Christine.