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When I started driving cars, at about twelve, I could go for miles on the back roads all around our house. For almost two years, I drove on those roads before I ever met a car coming the other way. I was never the least bit concerned about there not being enough room on those small country roads for the car I was driving, but the first time I saw another car approach I began to sweat buckshot wondering how we were going to get those two cars past each other in one piece.
Around this time my father took us for our first ride on the new Maine Turnpike. I just couldn't believe that such a fine road existed anywhere in Maine. Oh, sure there were moose here and there to dodge, but the turnpike itself was just a ribbon of velvet.
I also remember in school - back then - we used to get the "Weekly Reader" that would tell us about what was going on in the world beyond our school. There was a section each week that told about what things would be like in the future when we grew up - like now.
One week, there was an article aboout roads of the future. It said that some scientists were certain that in the future we'd all ride around on electronic roads and that our cars would drive on these roads - automatically! Next to the incredible story was an even more inplausable picture - an artist's idea of a typical family of the future wearing clothes of the future and sitting in a sleek furturistic-looking car that was speeding along a beautiful velvety futuristic highway with no one at the wheel - and not a moose in sight, so we could tell it wasn't Maine they were talking about.
Considering the amount of arguing it took at our town meetings back then just to get a simple piece of road equipment, I couldn't imagine the day when these fancy futuristic cars would be tooling down an "electronic" Sprague Falls Road in our town.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I picked up the newspaper the other day and read about the nation's first automated highway. No it wasn't the Sprague Falls Road but it was deja vu all over again.
According to the story - which seems as implausable now as it did years ago in the "Weekly Reader" - test vehicles equipped with video cameras, magnets and radar navigated down the nation's first 7.6 miles of experimental automated highway.
The story also said, "Tiny magnets embedded in the asphalt on either side of traffic lanes at four-foot intervals enable the magnetized vehicle to constantly orient itself within the lane's boundaries. Yea, right!
The article never even mentioned the old "Weekly Reader" piece from the fifties, but said the genesis was a federal law that empowered the Department of Transportation to develop "fully automated, intelligent vehicle highway systems." I guess they've given up trying to develop intelligent drivers and now want to turn the whole thing over to computers and magnets. We can only hope the computers won't be on their cell phones while they're going along these automated highways.
Call me old fashioned but I'm just not ready to turn my car over to a bunch of emdedded magnets in the road and a computer under the dash. I have enough trouble these days with things like ATMs and voice mail - and those things don't go anywhere near 65 mph.
No, I'd sooner trust the guys in our town's slow-moving road crew to design a "fully automated, intelligent vehicle highway system," before I'd trust the transportation crowd down in Washington to design me one. First, because the way they work I'll be long gone before they ever get around to installing it; and second, if they ever did install it, at least here in town we can complain to selectmen if things don't go right. How are you going to complain to a bunch of transportation folks down in Washington? By Twitter?
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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