My Car Still Needs Me

For years, I loved the idea of a self-driving car. I could hardly wait until they were available because so many friends my age (over 80) had been forced to give up driving. I didn’t want to be next.

Most older people outlive their ability to drive by six to 10 years. Autonomous cars could rescue all of us from the inconvenience and the isolation that are the lot of so many older Americans who no longer have wheels.

While I waited for a car that could manage without a driver, I got around in a perfectly good 2005 Honda Accord. But as I watched car ads on TV, I was often envious. My self-confidence had begun to slip when I was behind the wheel. I was comfortable on local streets, but every time I had to drive a major highway, I was nervous beforehand and breathed a sigh of relief when I finally reached my exit ramp. If I had a car with some of the new safety features, I thought, I’d feel better.

Then Tara, one of my daughters, suddenly needed to replace her car, which gave me the perfect excuse to trade up: I’d give her the Honda and buy one of the cars I’d coveted.

Once I started browsing on the Internet, I was amazed at all the available safety features. With all the technical terms, I felt at times as if I were struggling with a foreign language, but I found a government website that was particularly helpful in decoding and explaining the new technology.

After hours of research, I decided that ?blind spot monitors were a must. I also wanted automatic emergency braking (AEB): if you’re closing in too quickly on the car ahead of you, your car will first warn you and then, if you don’t respond, apply the brakes for you.

Armed with a list of the features I wanted in my new car, I visited dealerships and road-tested possibilities. I found a model with blind-spot monitors, but I had to give up on automatic braking. At the moment, AEBs seem to be available only on bigger cars that cost more than I can afford. Five years from now, things will be different. Thanks to a pact signed by almost all automakers, AEBs will be standard equipment by 2022. 

I decided I wanted a Mazda 3, so Tara took over and taught me that car-buying is less intimidating than it used to be, provided you use the internet. She emailed all the Mazda dealers across a swath of the state, told them exactly what I wanted and asked them to give us their best price. We got a couple of very good offers. I chose one of them and bought myself a car.

I love everything about my new Mazda, but especially the safety features. I’m completely surrounded with airbags, which wasn’t true of my Honda. And the blind spot monitor does its job beautifully. When I hit my turn signal before shifting lanes, my car dings repeatedly if there’s a vehicle where I can’t see it.

I’m also safer in parking lots. The other day, I was backing out of a parking space where bulky SUVs blocked my line of sight on both sides. The rearview camera showed nothing behind me, so I put the car into reverse—and the same beeping started immediately. The sensors on the Mazda’s rear cross-traffic alert had detected an approaching car that neither I nor the rearview camera could see.

My new car also monitors its own tire pressure, keeps the temperature inside at a steady 75 degrees, adjusts the speed on its windshield wipers according to how much rain is falling and turns down its headlights automatically at night to avoid blinding an approaching driver. It has so many other bells and whistles that I may never get around to trying all of them.

The car doesn’t drive itself, but it’s likely to keep me driving—safely—for quite a few years.