What's in a Commute
For many of us, life has changed tremendously since March, when the pandemic hit the USA in full force. I started working from home, moved to a new town, and welcomed a baby boy to the family. Working from home has had its perks, not having a commute prime among them. But I’ve realized, ironically, that not having a commute, daily time behind the wheel, is also something I deeply miss. Sound confusing? Maybe. If you’re at all like me, then you’ve discovered that there’s a certain calming effect to driving your four-wheeled, motorized appliance through a complex maze of cement, asphalt, and nature. I’ve made a point to only ever buy cars that I enjoy driving, because why not make one of the requisites of modern suburban living--driving--enjoyable? In years past, I’ve always looked forward to my drive to and from work. It was a time to catch up on the news, listen to an audio book, destress from a long day of work, process my own thoughts, and to just drive. I deeply enjoy feeling the weight of a car shift and sensing the weight on the steering wheel grow as I make my way from turn to turn. When you are driving every input has a reaction, few things in life provide such a direct sense of control. There are few things in life that I’ve found to be as therapeutic as some time behind the wheel.
My now commute-less life has made me think more deeply about what the future of automobiles may look like. Rather than driving our cars, we will likely be driven around in them from place to place, freeing up time to order groceries, read a book, send some emails, or purchase Christmas gifts. If you’ve driven a Tesla with Autopilot, then you know how impressive it is to be in a car that can merge lanes and enter and exit the freeway all by itself. I admit, when I got back in my own car after my test drive, I felt unsafe. Autonomous features are creeping into more and more cars, Cadillac has their Super Cruise and even my wife’s new Subaru Outback, with Eyesight driving assist, makes freeway cruising a lot less hands-on.
The Changing Dynamics of Driving
At first, this may sound like a relief, less risk from drowsy drivers, less cognitive effort required to drive the course. The problem that we’ve seen so far, and experienced, is that these systems are meant to have an aware driver at the helm. It seems like a bit of a tall order to both remove responsibility from the driver and to ask the driver to stay completely engaged when things do go wrong, able to enter and correct the situation without overcorrecting and causing more harm. I’m deeply skeptical about this shared responsibility and still think humans are better drivers than processors fed by algorithms and cameras when factoring all the variables of driving in today’s world. When we become merely passengers in our vehicles, driving roads may become more nuisance than relief. The curves and undulations that were so engaging become annoying bumps and sways as we try to make purchases on Amazon or enjoy the latest thriller on Netflix, unaware of the world passing us by.
For the driving enthusiast, this sense of detachment is hard to reconcile. As cars become easier to drive, heavier, quiter, safer and more expensive, there's an ever decreasing portion of the population crying for the old ways. Like farmers speaking out against the advent of the automobile, many drivers long for manual transmissions, hydraulic power steering, and waves of engine sound that fill the cabin. The value of such analog driving experiences is evidenced by the climbing prices of analog sports cars. Prices of Porsche’s 993 edition of the 911, produced from 1989-1994 and often regarded as the greatest analog sports car, grew 30% between 2014 and 2017, rivaling, sometimes surpassing, those of brand-new models. Prices on sports cars from the 1990s, the golden age of analog driving experiences, have been rising in general as millennials are now able to afford their childhood dream cars, which are becoming scarcer by the day.
The Driving Road Another aspect we may miss with autonomous cars is a connection with driving roads. What is a driving road? It’s a road that you drive for pleasure, not necessarily to get to any specific destination. It’s a road with dynamic curves and often beautiful views. A road that lets you feel your car and that requires more engagement than cruising in the passing lane on the freeway. Driving roads are often scenic routes. As long as there have been modes of transportation, there have been people using them for pleasure, whether it be boating, riding horses, cycling, motorcycles or cars. There is something about maneuvering something else that appeals to and calms the human mind. Driving in cars especially, protected from the elements, has granted the average person unprecedented access to experience their world. Early in the life of the automobile humanity realized that driving was not only a more efficient means of transporting people and goods, but it was also enjoyable. In the early 1900’s, we began to build roads specifically for enjoyment and to connect with nature. The origin of the scenic route is a bit cloudy, but these pleasure roads started appearing around 1913, largely as a means to experience and preserve natural beauty. The first scenic route, built for driving and aesthetic pleasure may be the Bronx River Parkway, which was finished in 1922. On the other side of the country, Oregon began building scenic roads, both providing access to and preserving the scenic nature of its beautiful coastline and the Columbia River Gorge. Construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway began in 1930, providing scenic views of the Potomac and providing protection to the shoreline and historic sites. Here’s how the National Park Service describes the GW Parkway: "Considered a commuter route by many local residents, the George Washington Memorial Parkway offers the traveler much more than convenience. It is a route to scenic, historic and recreational settings offering respite from the urban pressures of metropolitan Washington. It also protects the Potomac River shoreline and watershed. The Parkway links a group of parks that provide a variety of experiences to over 9 million people each year." Respite. Escape. Refuge. A road that allows people to previously inaccessible scenery, historic sites, and recreational areas, for millions of people each year. That’s some powerful stuff! The sad part is, that for some people, they may gloss over it as a mundane daily commute. Indeed, if you’ve visited any of our nation’s national parks you’ve reaped the benefit of intense planning to create some incredible driving roads. As you’re reading this, you’re probably underestimating your own daily commute. We truly are blessed, today, with some magnificent roads. Our modern vehicles are opening more roads and adventures than at any other time in human history.
A desire to drive seems to be innate in human nature, toddlers are often drawn to Hot Wheels, then to Power Wheels, and most people are excited by the newfound sense of freedom and adventure that comes with a driving license. Many of us have memories of bonding with friends and family over a game of Mario Kart or a birthday party at a local karting venue. Many millennials have already poured hundreds of laps over world famous race courses through the virtual windshields of Forza and Gran Turismo. We love to drive.
Since the pandemic arrived, I’ve done a lot less driving, a key piece of daily emotional therapy has been stripped from my life. To add to the dilemma, I’ve recently moved to a new town, Pleasanton, California, where everything is new to me. Since moving to Pleasanton, I’ve had to discover new driving roads. In Utah the formula was basically, “head to the mountains”. Here, the search is slightly more complicated. Back in Utah, I had a list of go-to driving roads that I could zip down when needing some behind the wheel meditation.
I’ve been pleased to find that, despite the Bay Area’s endless urban sprawl, decent roads are never that far away. Instead of “head to the mountains”, the formula here seems to be “head to the farmland”. Winding through the golden hills and vineyards is often a lesser-traveled winding road. I’ve found the exploration and driving calming for myself, but also for my newborn son, who seems to find the twists and turns the perfect combination for a blissful sleep.
As we are now in the midst of the holiday season, many of us are realizing we won’t be making our annual treks to visit family and friends, another voyage completed with automobiles. To make up some of the difference, I encourage you to hop in the car with what loved ones you have close, check out some holiday lights, and go enjoy some previously overlooked scenery as you search for new roads and sites.
We likely won’t be writing again before the new year, so from us at Deft Auto, we wish you happy holidays and happy driving.