I miss my Walkman

SONY DSC

I work all day on an amazingly slim laptop computer that is maybe half as heavy my first computer. (That was a Commodore 64, which looked a whole lot like a fat keyboard. It had a separate disc drive — big ol’ floppy disc — and the whole shebang was hooked up to a small black-and-white TV. I had a word processing program on the disc. And I thought I was living and working on the Starship Enterprise.)

I carry in my pocket now an even lighter computer that is probably just as powerful as my laptop. I don’t use it quite as much because … well, you know; battery life, a tiny keyboard, maybe it’s not quite as powerful. And the fact that, some days, the screen looks like a dang postage stamp.

A postage stamp. You put it on an envelope to mail a letter or a bill?

Never mind.

A week or so ago, I did a shortie on semi-autonomous and autonomous cars for HowStuffWorks — the piece is here, if you want to read it — and, after some research, I came away with something that many people already see as a given: We are going to see self-driving cars in the very, very near future.

In fact, they’re already here. Google has been tooling around with what is commonly called a “driverless” car for a while. You can buy cars, right now, that steer and brake and park themselves. You can summon them from the garage. (Teslas.) And there are other cars that can do it all, without any input from a driver, that you’ve never probably heard of, like this one:

Point is, they’re not just some future technology. They’re on our streets. Now. And soon — well within my lifetime, I think — they’ll be popping up all over, jockeying with regular cars on streets and highways. And when cars all have either autonomous or semi-autonomous tech — the difference between the two, in my definition at least, is that you can take control of a semi-autonomous vehicle — they will absolutely change the way we live. In major ways.

How? In a few words: We will get around easier. Faster. Safer.

It’s crazy to think how these things will change our lives. In the next 10-25 years, traffic congestion will be eased as cars “talk” to each other, wrecks are avoided and the space on the roads is used more efficiently. With more efficiency comes less time wasted. With better efficiency — fewer cars idling in stalled traffic — and a move toward more electric vehicles, we will have cleaner air (and, maybe, eventually, cooler summers).

We could get to the point soon — we should, in fact — where you forego the car ownership thing altogether, and just call for a fleet car (from that computer in your pocket) to come pick you up whenever you need it. Car insurance, for non-owners, could be a thing of the past. Your daily dose of stress would ease as you take a little snooze in the back of your autonomous Uber on your way to the airport.

These aren’t dreams. These aren’t flying cars or The Jetsons. This is now.

Here’s a really nice short video on the whole idea from Time:

Now, there are some hurdles, as the guy says in the video above. Legal hurdles. Societal hurdles. We’re going to have to pry the steering wheel out of the hands of some drivers, no doubt. GM and Ford might object some.

But the fact is, it just makes too much sense for this not to happen, and soon, for all the reasons listed above. And we can do it. It’s being done right now.

Just think about that, would you? Driverless, or semi-driverless, cars. And trucks, too, by the way, like 18-wheelers. They’re now being tested on the road as well. If you’re under 50, you’ll for sure see them all over, in your lifetime. Unbelievable, eh?

Well, it shouldn’t be unbelievable, really. That computer in your pocket, that big flat-screen TV, GPS (honestly, I’m still in awe of Google Maps every time I use it). I have three full days of music on a little device no bigger than — well, a postage stamp, I guess — that I listen to every day when I work out. I’m still amazed at that.

It’s hard to talk about the neck-breaking pace of technology without sounding like some crotchety old bastard. But, the fact is, it moves fast. Faster than ever now. Faster than any of us.

Smartphones weren’t a thing when my son, Luke, was born 18 years ago. Neither were iPods. Neither were flat-screen TVs. DVRs. Wireless. Streaming movies. Social media.

So in the next 20 or 30 years, what?

Drones delivering packages? (Little outfit named Amazon is all into this.)

A human on Mars? (NASA is aiming for a landing in 15-20 years. Unbelievable, isn’t it?)

Artificial Intelligence that could lead to robots destroying mankind? (Really. Seriously. Don’t laugh. Some very smart people, including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates — that’s a power trio, eh? — see a Terminator-type future as a real threat if we’re not careful in how we handle AI.)

watchWhen I was a kid, I was fascinated by LED watches that showed the time in red, block numerals. I remember the first calculator I used, and the stupid riddle that led to the answer 710 77345. (It spells something upside down … it’s all in the link there.) I have, in the top of my closet in my office, a box full of old cell phones, my first iPod and a Palm Pilot, among other tech trash. On the floor in there, I have a 12-year-old laptop that is almost as thick as that Commodore I once used to write a story on the Honolulu Marathon.

Now, of course, that stuff is practically prehistoric. Heck, a 2-year-old iPhone is tragically un-hip now.

So it will be, soon, for cars that don’t think. And, hopefully soon, drunk drivers and bad drivers. And rush-hour traffic and hopelessly congested highways and road rage. All quaint memories. Soon.

And when that time comes, you won’t have to pry the steering wheel out of my hands. I can’t wait.

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