Watch: why take a tedious domestic flight when you could travel by self-driving car? The first thing you see when you enter the Walter E. Washington Convention Centre for this year’s auto show is a four-door Dodge Ram truck as black and shiny as a pool of Texas crude. Lined up beyond that is a cheerful-looking driverless bus called an Ollie. And then you come to a SureFly, which bills itself as the “first American made personal electric helicopter.”
You might as well be walking through one of those posters that starts on the left with a fish crawling out of the sea and ends on the right with an erect Homo sapiens, proudly striding into the future.
But what is the future of Auto sapiens? Are we over cars? Do enough people still love driving for the car to have a future? My Lovely Wife and I are down to one daily driver. (I don’t count my vintage Datsun roadster.) We’ve been thinking about buying another vehicle so we can spare ourselves the calculus of deciding who gets the car when she has a meeting in Virginia and I have an interview in Maryland.
But then I think: Is the car… over?
I love cars. I love looking at them. I love driving them. Or I used to love driving them. It’s not much fun anymore, especially around here. And by “around here” I mean both the Washington area, where traffic can turn a 15-minute run to the mall into a two-hour creep, and planet Earth, which, you may have heard, is allergic to the internal combustion engine. Are soulless autonomous pods our ultimate transportation future? At this year’s auto show I detected an unsettled vibe. It’s downright argumentative in the lower hall, where the foreign automakers have set up shop. Slapped to the doors of a lot of vehicles was a sign stating “This car is not a national security threat.” Others proclaimed “Say No to Tariffs” or, more defensively, “Made in Indiana.”
I walked past the display for Volkswagen, the automaker that coughed up billions of dollars in fines for cheating on its emissions, and into the Kia zone. The Korean company has a new SUV called the Telluride that seats eight and manages a scant 20 miles per gallon in the city.
There, I met John O’Donnell, the president and CEO of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, the group that puts on the show.
Neither of my 20-something daughters owns a car, I explained. By the time I was their age, I’d owned three. A lot of today’s young people would rather grab an Uber or a Lyft ride than drive themselves. And if they do want to drive, they reserve a Zipcar.
John said: “In urban areas, and if you’re young and in college, or just out of college and in your 20s, everything you said is true.” The millionth MX-5 on display at a motor show – will Mazda make a million more? But get married, have a baby and move to the suburbs, he said, and “everything you said is false.”
I walked to the Mazda display where three engineering students from George Washington University were admiring a fetching Miata convertible painted in shimmering Soul Red Crystal Metallic. The car as we’ve known it: yes or no?
“Everyone is excited to stop having their parents drive them,” said 21-year-old Courtney New, who grew up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where public transportation options were thin on the ground. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.”
Andrew Edzenga and Conor Gillespie, both 22, weren’t so sure.
“Cities are changing,” said Andrew.
“We ride scooters, Andrew and I,” said Conor.
Both think it’s madness to believe the car of the 20th century will survive the 21st. Ride sharing services and e-scooters are rapidly becoming the default choices for younger people in urban areas. I met Fred Anderson as he stood in front of his pristine 1966 Ford Mustang, part of an exhibit of the classic pony cars.
“I guess in this age, things change,” said Fred, who’s 80 and lives in Woodbridge, Virginia. “A lot of things I liked, the young people don’t care about. Like the singers and stuff.”
But a lot of things they like, he doesn’t like.
“New cars at a stop light, they cut off,” he said. “The engine turns off. Somebody might like that. Not me.”
Fred drove a UPS truck for 30 years. “Enjoyed it, too,” he said.
But what about the traffic? Those horrendous Beltway jams?
“We got paid by the hour,” he said. “When I’m sitting, I’m getting paid.”
I wandered back to the Miata and sat in it for a third time. The inside fit me perfectly. The outside was as beautiful as a nautilus shell.
“I look at them as a work of art,” said Garrett Cottrell, a real estate agent who lives in Washington. He was at the show with his friend Gary Therkildsen, who lives in Baltimore and works for a nonprofit organization. Between them, they own four vehicles.
“People who love cars are looked down upon,” Gary said.
We contemplated the convertible – not a national security threat – and pondered the future.
“I just hope I’m still allowed to take out my own car,” Garrett said.
The Washington Post