automatic transmission

Some diehards will never drive a vehicle with an automatic transmission.

A friend and I were talking cars last week when I was in Arizona.

“Remember,” he told me, “How, long ago, they’d run all those stories saying we’d be running around town in our own little personal helicopters by the 21st century?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“Well you see how that turned out,” said my friend, a car nut who drives for a living.

In that era, in the 1940s and ’50s, somebody always had a plan to put every everyman on wings.

Even today, that theme hasn’t altogether disappeared. Several times a year, it seems, another clever inventor builds a cool-looking car–plane hybrid. And of course they’re trying to raise big bucks to mass produce it so inevitably they tell the camera it’s “just around the corner” from common usage. In most instances, that’s the last we hear of it.

And then there are the autonomous cars. We have them already, right?

Well, sort-of. Almost. Kinda.

A few days ago, I saw a report where Tesla issued another clarification that its autonomous technology is not intended to be totally autonomous; that the driver must pay attention to the vehicle and intervene if necessary. Apparently, there have been a couple of times when that intervention did not occur.

The bottom line—my bottom line, at least, is always read and pay attention to the fine print.

It’s so easy to confuse trends with replacements. I think we in the media have a tendency to do that, particularly in short television stories.

Automation in personal vehicles has been ongoing for decades. Some of it is fine and helpful. Some of it, in my view, isn’t really necessary, but we get used to it and carmakers can charge more for it.

In a San Diego car museum recently, another old pal and I were looking at all the tasks drivers had to do in their cars. For example, in the 1910s and ’20s, there was a hand crank to get the motor spinning, a spark advance lever to control the ignition timing and a hand choke to change how much gas the car got to get going. And on and on.

Did you know that when windshield wipers came in, there were cars with a small knob and the driver had to reach up and turn the knob to make the wiper wipe?

One by one, these tasks disappeared, and driving became easier. That meant there were fewer tasks to learn just to hop in the car and drive down to the store for a loaf of bread.

And that automation continues right to the newest models. Now they sell cars largely on the tech each model carries.

Some of it’s great, a real assist to safe driving. Some seems a tad silly and superfluous, at least to me. But isn’t it nice to have the choice?

So my Arizona friend let me drive his nifty BMW, a Euro model you probably couldn’t register in Virginia. Even the knobs are stamped with German symbols. And the old 4-cylinder mill has been replaced with a fire-breathing inline six. It runs so smoothly. I saw 7800 rpm on the tach in a few heartbeats. Impressive.

And he tried out my old SUV with the 5-speed and a dependable, torquey six in it. Not especially exciting but practical, honest, and fun to drive.

I was listening to a fascinating interview some weeks back on PBS’s News Hour with an authority on automated driving, in all sorts of vehicles.

He was asked just how close we are to true autonomy in vehicles operating on our highways. And his reply, as I recall it, was that the reality of common use of total automation in vehicles remains pretty far off in the future. It is not, in other words, “right around the corner.”

It is one thing to have technologies in test stages and even in highway use under controlled circumstances. It is altogether different to have these technologies in ordinary, everyday use by anybody.

The day when someone can get in their vehicle and fall asleep on the back seat while the car takes them to granddad’s house in South Carolina is not just around the corner.

Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former Free Lance–Star reporter, is a freelance writer. Email him at

Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former Free Lance–Star reporter, is a freelance writer. Email him at

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