Afterthoughts: What if We Didn’t Have to Drive Anymore?

Driving in Honolulu traffic sucks. Cars that drive themselves could help streamline traffic.
Photo: Courtesy of Google


This month marks the second anniversary of me buying my car. I’ve got a little celebration planned—nothing over the top—an oil change, a wash-and-wax, and maybe a weekend drive out to the North Shore. I want to make sure my ride knows it’s appreciated.


I really do love having a car. After a decade of having only two-wheeled transportation in Honolulu, the car has made both grocery shopping and relationship-having easier. Rainy season is no longer soggy-Mike season. And, as an apartment dweller, being able to blast my car’s stereo as loud as I want is a luxury that never gets old.


But owning a vehicle hasn’t changed my life as much as I expected it to. As I pass the two-year mark, I’ve logged a grand total of 5,000 miles on the odometer! That’s a little low, I take it? At this rate, it would take me 40 years to drive 100,000 miles. And, with most modern cars able to top 200,000 miles with proper maintenance, I could conceivably drive this thing for the rest of my life. I’ve become that proverbial old grandmother who only drives on Sundays, to the supermarket.


Maybe I just came to car ownership too late. After the age of 30, people get set in their ways. They’re less likely to get a first tattoo, or explore new genres of music. For myself, the new King Street bike lane is just so fun and easy to ride on, I often find myself biking places instead of dealing with the perceived hassle of traffic and parking my car. Even TheBus remains a tempting option, especially paired with noise-blocking earphones and a phone full of interesting podcasts. If I ever moved to Kailua or Kapolei, or had a kid, all this would change, of course, but, as it is, my default tendency is to leave the car parked in its stall.


I realize I’m an outlier when it comes to cars, and I don’t mean to be precious about my transportation preferences. But, judging from a bunch of news reports I’ve been reading lately, I might soon have a lot more company in my “take it or leave it” attitude toward driving.


The topic of these reports? Cars that drive themselves.


Yes, it seems that the 21st century is going to bring us not jetpacks or flying cars, but autonomous vehicles that will ferry passengers from place to place without anyone laying a finger on the steering wheel. Computers, cameras and sensors will do all the work of navigation, leaving us to sit back and relax.


Working prototypes of these cars already exist, in the labs of Google, General Motors, Tesla, BMW, Nissan and others, ranging from cute little rolling jellybeans that look like they’re out of a Pixar flick to honest-to-god sports cars that whip themselves scary-quick around racetracks.


None of these prototypes are ready for the general public, but tech companies and journalists alike are already throwing out breathless predictions. Google and Tesla both promise fully autonomous cars by 2020, which is right around the time O‘ahu’s rapid-transit line is scheduled to be pau.


You’re right to be skeptical of all of those project timelines, but think about how much the technology could change O‘ahu’s roadways: streamlined traffic! far fewer accidents! no more circling the lot to find parking! Instead of paying thousands of dollars a year for a vehicle that’s parked 95 percent of the time, you’d be able to hop on the train or simply summon a self-driving car to pick you up whenever you needed. Dinner reservations in Waikīkī on a Friday night? No sweat.


It’s easy to feel a little bummed at the prospect of giving up our personal rides. We are a car culture, after all, and so many ideals—independence, power, excitement—are tied to the idea of having our foot on the gas pedal.


But I think this might be a revolution we surrender to pretty easily. When you’re a teenager, owning a car feels like freedom. As an adult, you spend more time worrying about paying for gas and repairs. And, be honest: When was the last time you really had fun driving in Honolulu? You have to escape to the Tantalus loop or the Windward Side to find any kind of open road. Otherwise, it’s all a bunch of stop-and-go traffic and stress.


Maybe, in the future, we’ll have cars for weekend fun, and get chauffeured around the rest of the time. I could get used to that.


Read More Stories by Michael Keany