Saturday, February 14, 2015

Automotive Musings

I got a new car a couple of months ago.  It's made me reflect on cars in general.  
I'm not a car person.  I have a friend that really likes cars.  Not hot rods or sports cars, just cars in general.  He has three or four cars that he owns and drives when the situation arises.  He likes dogs, too and had six of them.  I'd say he likes dogs more than cars, but its probably more accurate to say that dogs are less expensive to obtain and maintain.  You can get a stray or rescued dog for free, or the cost of shots and spay/neutering.  
The way things are going with cars, you might be able to do something similar in the somewhat near future.  
The last car I bought was about fourteen years ago.  Cars have changed quite a bit since then.  Even though I got a "standard" model, it has features in it that I'm not used to having.  
The gizmo that I spent to most time playing around with: My automatic trunk door opener.  Yep.  I thought that was the coolest thing.  I double-click the button on my key and the trunk pops open with the trunk, tail and license plate lights all coming on.  It was as if the car were a great big dog welcoming me home, begging for a treat.  
"Oh, oh!  You're back!  Let me take those bags for you!  Just put them right inside!"  
Every day for the first week of owning the car, I see how much father away I could be and still make the trunk pop open. It's about sixty feet at a guess.  
Sorry, sorry...  I forgot to tell you what I got.  It's a 2014 Ford Focus.  Black.  Stick shift.  I found out from people at work that the socially correct thing to do when you buy a new car is to tell them you got it the day you drive to work into it.  And you're supposed to take them out to the parking lot and show it to them.  And offer to drive them someplace to pick up lunch.  Why these things are, I have no idea.  I didn't do any of them.  People said I was strange.  
Buying the car was a lot different than before.  When I bought my previous car, a 2001 Chevy Prism, silver-gray, also a stick-shift, I was a bit disappointed in myself.  I compiled a list of cars I wanted to look at, the Prism, the Corolla, the Golf, etc.  I started driving around to the nearby dealerships, thinking to have a look, a test drive and then go home to pick out the one I liked best.  The Chevy dealership was the second one I stopped at.  
I couldn't leave.  I was held hostage.  The manager of the dealership kept me in my chair whilst the salesman I first spoke with guarded the door.  Every time I tried to leave, telling them I would think about it, the manager would ask me, "What will it take to get you to buy this car?"  
My friend that likes cars told me I should have said, "Give it to me for free."  I hadn't thought of that fourteen years ago.  I kept putting out these little things, I'd like to have a better stereo, can I get lower payments, which would have the manager say, "Ok.  Done.  Do we have a deal?"  In the end, I signed and drove off with the Prism.  
It had 285,228 miles on it when I got the Focus.  I've bought four new cars in my life since high school.  The Prism had the fewest miles on it when I traded it in of those four.  I remember someone telling me that it is better to buy a new car instead of a used one because with a used one you inherit the problems the previous owner had with it.  I believe that.  
Buying the Focus was completely different.  First, I found out that there are a lot fewer dealerships out there than before.  Second, they all have their inventories online for you to search through to see if they have the features you want.  Third, they have "internet sales" managers to answer questions about the cars, warranties and pricing via email.  I had my list, just like before, but this time I sent my questions to dealerships, got their answers, had them run numbers, then picked the car I wanted.  I took a test drive, signed the papers, wrote a check then drove off.  
I like this method much better than before.  It's more civilized.  
Why did I pick the Focus?  It was the stick-shift.  Of all the cars listed in my area, about sixty per dealership, it was the ONLY one in any of the inventories that was a manual transmission.  
Unless my next car is some antique or a high-end sports car, it could very well be the last stick-shift I drive.  It just might be the last car I own that I drive, period.  
It was while I was buying my new car that the Motor Trend International Auto Show was taking place in Las Vegas.  There were several news stories coming over the speakers of my new car's stereo.  
One was about a pair of reporters that covered cars riding to the show from Silicon Valley.  Not driving.  The car that took them there drove itself.  The reporter being interviewed talked about the looks he got from kids in other cars waving at him when he waved back at them with BOTH hands.  
One thing they said which hadn't occurred to me was how the owners of the first driverless cars to go out into the street "for real" would have to be better drivers than average, because they would have to be able to assess traffic situations more accurately to know when something happened where they would have to take over directing the vehicle.  This is disappointing to hear since I think the biggest problem with cars today are the people driving them down the road.  It's an irony of how people think, but once driverless vehicles come into widespread use, most people will think it will be safer if they're in control when it's more likely that letting the car take control will make things safer for everyone.  
At the same show, BMW was demonstrating a "remote valet" self-parking feature they've developed.  You go to where you're going, then you go inside while your car finds its own parking and parks itself.  When you come out, click a button on your key and the car returns to pick you up. 
Hearing this made me wonder if cars of the future would be more like a family pet or service dog.  Need something from the store?  Send your order via email along approval for payment, then send your car to pick it up.  It goes to the store by itself.  Its loaded by the robots the store employs for that purpose, then it drives itself home, sending you a signal when it gets back.  
"Oh, oh!  Look what I brought for you!  I carried it from the store all by myself!  After you put this stuff in the refrigerator, maybe I can take you for a ride...?!"  
If your car can't find a parking space, does it just drive around, keeping itself busy until you're done shopping, eating or watching the show?  Can you imagine being a teenager with a self-driving car?  My first sexual experience wasn't in a car, but I did have sex in the first new car I owned (Chevy Chevette.  Dark Blue.  Only manual I've every owned.  It had 335,673 miles on it when it broke down in the middle of Kansas).  I only tried that once and was scared the entire time that a cop of someone would come tap on the glass while I was being what passed for romantic during that time of my life.  You don't have that problem with a self-driving car.  Just like the car do the driving and you can...  Take care of business, so to speak.  
I foresee the day when there might be a posting on whatever social network we use in the future.  There'll be a picture of a car, newly washed, its trunk popping open the way a dog wags its tail.  The caption will read...
"Lost.  Black and Silver compact.  Goes by the name 'Sparky.'  Last seen looking for a place to park near the corner of Del Mar and Colorado.  If you see her, send message to this account."  
Too bad, you'll think to yourself.  It might be time for that person to get a new car. 


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