A new way to look at automobiles

Let's perform what is sometimes called a thought experiment: Imagine that in a parallel universe William Ford and Mary Litogot never met, married, or produced, on July 30, 1863, a son, Henry Ford.

Let's perform what is sometimes called a thought experiment: Imagine that in a parallel universe William Ford and Mary Litogot never met, married, or produced, on July 30, 1863, a son, Henry Ford.

In the real universe in which we live, certainly someone else would have invented the assembly line that led to the efficient production of the many millions of affordable automobiles that have done as much as anything else to create the fabric of our nation.

But we're in the parallel universe of our thought experiment. Imagine that the energy, creativity, and money that have gone into the development of the automobile and its vast supporting infrastructure had somehow been channeled toward a system of transportation that doesn't depend on privately owned and operated vehicles.

I'm guessing that the centerpiece of such a non-automobile-based transportation system would be something resembling the high-speed rail systems currently found in Europe and elsewhere. But with the application of resources and creativity on the scale that the automobile infrastructure has enjoyed, it's not hard to imagine we could create a transportation system perhaps 50 to 100 percent better than the best that Europe has to offer.

Don't let the possibilities be restrained by our current preference for the personal automobile; it doesn't exist in this parallel universe.


The present world's best trains already suggest the potential comfort and convenience of a networked transportation system that could transport us from the center of one city to the center of another at speeds approaching those of airplanes. En route, you could read, sleep, surf the Internet, and walk down to the club car and have lunch and a martini.

But the best way to appreciate this parallel universe would be to imagine the political party that might propose to replace the imaginary high-speed rail network with personal automobiles.

The primary selling point in the party's platform would be freedom: with your own car, you could go just about anywhere, just about any time. You could take a trip alone, or with just your family, rather than with strangers in a train car. Drive-in theaters would be invented. Teenagers could discover the backseat as a convenient place to have sex.

On the other hand, you would have to perform the task of your own driving. No more reading, sleeping, or surfing en route. Some people might enjoy driving, but the man-hours wasted in this trivial chore would soon mount into the billions.

Proponents of the personal automobile might present other appeals, but critics would have a lot of ammunition. Personal automobiles are inherently inefficient, they would argue, no matter how they're powered, largely because most of the carrying capacity would go unused on most trips.

Furthermore, the most immediately feasible fuel would be petroleum; our supply isn't unlimited and our dependence on supplies in other countries would lead to wars and treacherous international relations.

And the most far-sighted critics might predict that emitting enormous amounts of automobile exhaust could cause long-term damage to the environment.

There's more: not only will you have to drive it, but owning an automobile requires considerable money and time. You'll pay taxes, insurance and registration fees. You'll have it inspected every year.


You'll spend some Saturdays at the tire shop, and others having your car repaired or having the muffler replaced. Don't forget to change the oil and windshield wipers and recharge the air conditioner.

And critics might mention that if the parallel universe traded in its fast, comfortable and efficient communal transportation system for one that depends primarily on the private automobile, about 125 Americans will be killed every single day and many more injured, victims of irresponsible driving and the ordinary physics of running into each other at high speed.

In our real universe, we made a different choice years ago. But, as long as we're imagining, I wonder if it's too late to change our minds.

-- Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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