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Tom Purcell

Tom Purcell: Tech making 'car guys' endangered species

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, 7:03 p.m.
1968 Plymouth Barracuda
Wikimedia
1968 Plymouth Barracuda

My Uncle Jimmy would’ve hated the late-model SUV I rented for a recent trip to New Jersey. I sure did.

You see, this modern SUV boasted “smart” technologies designed to keep me safe and happy.

It made me miserable.

Every time I switched lanes, the white stripes on the pavement triggered safety sensors, sending annoying vibrations to the steering wheel. It felt like the struts had just blown out.

Hey, automakers! I don’t need alerts every time I change lanes. And while we’re at it, I know when to turn my windshield wipers on (when rain starts) and off (when rain stops) — so I don’t need your computer deciding that for me.

Same goes for high beams. I don’t need your computer for that, because I already have a powerful one: When I’m on a dark road, my retinas send signals to my optic nerves, telling my brain to tell my left hand to flick on the brights.

And what’s with your center-console touch screens? I had to pull that SUV over twice to figure out how to play music — because some “safety” sensor shut me down for trying to play music with the car moving.

Maybe you “modern” automakers have forgotten this, but for years, cars had a brilliant system for playing music: left knob for volume, right knob for radio stations. The knobs worked even if I had gloves on, and I didn’t need to take my eyes off the road to use them — unlike touch screens.

You automakers are overthinking cars. And in these divisive times, I fear that yet another fault line is forming — between those who love driving and want complete control over cars, and those who see cars as just another app (Uber, self-driving cars, etc.).

That brings us back to Uncle Jimmy.

Jimmy, like me, was a “car guy.” He loved building and talking about cars. He understood cars’ unique contribution to American culture and history.

A few years before he left us a decade ago, Jimmy spent five years restoring a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda fastback. He even upgraded it with a monster Hemi engine. Restoring cars was his art.

And boy, did he love that Barracuda, his dream car as a 1960s teen. That Barracuda helped him relive his youth. To him, it symbolized freedom — the ability to go anywhere, become anything. And he enjoyed nothing more than driving that car after restoring it with his own hands.

Sadly, “car guys” like Uncle Jimmy are a dying breed.

The Atlantic says fewer people — especially younger people — are getting driver’s licenses. In 1983, nearly half of teens had a license. Today, fewer than a quarter do.

The Chicago Tribune explains why younger Americans are falling out of love with cars. One big reason, particularly when they have massive college-loan debt, is the expense of buying and maintaining cars.

Another reason is the easy accessibility of ride-sharing options such as Uber.

What it comes down to is that fewer young people are “car people.” They just don’t enjoy driving. They’d rather do something else, such as run apps on their smartphones.

I was lucky to attend a few car meets with my Uncle Jimmy. Dozens of car lovers would arrive in their classic rides, mingle, sip cold beer and talk about the artfulness of classic American cars.

I can’t imagine people ever getting together to do likewise at “smartphone meets.”

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at TomPurcell.com.

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