Here’s a gift idea that is wheely, wheely practical

GREG BEAN

Idon’t know about you, but I’ve reached the point in my life where I’ve got pretty much everything I need, and with a few exceptions, so does my wife.

This is a pleasant circumstance for the two of us empty-nesters. We’re content, we live very simply, and on the rare occasion when we need something – like new socks or a coffee pot – we go out and get it.

It’s not such a pleasant circumstance for our kids, however, who have been burning up the phone lines to me lately with the question, “What does Mom want for Christmas? You’ve got to help me out.”

They’ve been burning up the phone lines to her with a similar query, “What does Dad want for Christmas? You’ve got to help me out.”

They aren’t particularly content with our stock answer, “The pleasure of your company will be present enough,” so I figure we ought to suggest something a little more concrete. And after reading an article in The New York Times science section last week, I finally know what I’d like to find under the tree. Maybe if they pool their money, they’ll be able to afford it.

In his column Findings, and under a headline that read “In the Future, Smart People Will Let Cars Take Control,” writer John Tierney first pays lip service to those old futuristic predictions that by 1960, we’d all be traveling in self-driving automobiles at 100 miles an hour like the Jetsons. Then he spends the rest of his column informing us that the technology for self-driving automobiles is advancing at such an incredible pace that they’re already a reality on a small scale, and in 20 years, some experts believe that half the cars on the road will be capable of driving without the input of a back-seat driver, in this case the actual human being behind the wheel.

Frankly, I can’t wait for 20 years and I’d like one of those self-driving cars right now, even if they have a few bugs.

For one thing, my commute to work each day is about 45 minutes each way. Minus weekends, vacation and holidays, that means I spend about 350 hours a year just getting back and forth to work.

This is not unusual. According to a recent story by The Associated Press, the nation’s drivers spent 4.2 billion hours tied up in traffic in 2005 (the average driver spends 38 hours a year). And while they were tied up in traffic, those drivers wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel. According to the AP, the cost of that lost time and fuel comes to $78.2 billion a year, and that’s just while drivers were experiencing gridlock.

The costs are exponentially higher when you factor in the value of the time spent on the commute itself (which is getting longer nationally every year) that could be put to more productive use, like earning a living.

Figuring out what to do with myself during all that time on the road has always been a problem for me. I don’t like to yak on the phone; talk radio makes me frustrated because I can’t argue back; I can never remember to bring a fresh CD to listen to; and the last time I tried to learn a foreign language from tapes while I commuted, I was so infuriated by the other drivers I only learned the swear words. As a result, I figure I can cuss out another driver in five or six languages, but that wasn’t really a productive use of the time.

I finally reached a livable solution when I discovered books on tape, and then books on iPod. How many times can you listen to the entire James Bond collection before you start looking for something new, however? I’m even getting a little tired of Stephen King.

But if I had a car that not only knew how to drive me safely from Point A to Point B, and never got lost in the process (because cars with sophisticated GPS systems don’t have to stop and ask directions, and they never have to argue with their wives because they refuse to do so), I could actually do something new and more useful with the time.

I could write another novel (I quit writing novels because I didn’t have enough time). I could play my guitar or start an oil painting. I could learn ancient Greek and read Homer in the original language. I could take up sculpture. I could finish my Christmas cards. I could get an extra 350 hours a year of sleep a year.

There are many other benefits to selfdriving automobiles. For one thing, because the computers in the cars talk to each other, they seldom get in wrecks or even fender benders. And because they aren’t relying on fallible human experience and reflexes, they can drive a lot closer together (10 or 15 feet between cars), which means you can put a whole lot more cars on the road and make those roadways more productive. According to Tierney’s article, we wouldn’t even need traffic lights because the cars will be so smart they’ll figure it all out for themselves.

This would be great news in New Jersey, where the only thing our government can come up with to make the Turnpike and the Parkway more profitable (we need the money because we’ve screwed our state finances up so badly) is to either sell or lease the roadways to an independent contractor, or raise the gasoline tax and the tolls. Nobody is sure which way Gov. Jon Corzine will jump on this issue, but he’s scheduled to unveil his big plan in January.

Some critics, meanwhile, point out that in order to pay off the state’s massive debt without leasing the toll roads, he’d have to raise the gasoline tax considerably and triple the tolls on the Turnpike and Parkway. At that point (remember, they’re predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline in the near future, and increased taxes would only make it more expensive), it would almost be cheaper to fly.

If we could safely put 10 or 20 times the number of cars on the road and eliminate traffic jams at the same time, we wouldn’t have to raise tolls, because we’d collect on the increased volume, and our crippling state debt would only be a memory. That’s assuming, of course, that our politicians wouldn’t squander this new revenue stream like they’ve done in the past.

Fat chance, right?

Oh well, even if these cars aren’t the answer to our state’s financial woes, I’d still like to have one, if for no other reason than I’d never have to argue with my wife again over who should drive. I wonder if they have one of those cars with racing stripes and wire wheels. If it looks like a minivan, they can forget the whole thing.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.