The first car I ever drove was a 2003 Honda Pilot.
It was a silver SUV that I drove to and from high school every day of my senior year, blaring pop music and not giving much of a shit that the thing didn’t have a single camera or screen. By the time I stopped driving it when I moved to the Seattle area after college, it was almost 20 years old. One of the driver-side window panes was a little too blurry to see out of; one of the door locks stopped responding to the remote; the parts under the hood were all rusty.
Once I moved to the Seattle area I got a 2017 Honda Civic. That thing was slick as hell. Not new, mind you — I bought it when it was 4 years old already, and my parents thought I was cheaping out. But it was new as new to me, having caught up on 20 or so years of car technology. I could have Google Maps incorporated directly onto the little screen on the console, and do voice search for destinations. I could say “Hey Siri” and then voice commands.
What impressed me most were the mundane safety and convenience features that suddenly made driving a lot easier. The backup camera gave me a better view than I could ever hope to have craning my neck to see out the back window. I got a camera view of the lane to my right before switching to it. The keys couldn’t get locked in the trunk because the car would sense they were in there. When I walked away from where I parked the doors locked automatically, and the location of the thing was marked in my iPhone on a maps app.
I was amazed not only by how far car technology had come, but also at how prevalent these features now were in all cars. Luxury trim features of yesterday become base model features of today, and eventually are considered so basic that any sane person buying a car would refuse to go without them. Any new car will have device integration, smartphone or otherwise, and cameras, and sensors galore. As long as humanity doesn’t lose all knowledge and infrastructure for car making, we will always have cars this good.
It got me thinking about what made these improvements so permanent. The technology to make these features possible was first necessary. Then, the profitability of putting them in mass-made cars. The first implementations are made, and see wider adoption among car makers. If the safety features are good enough, public policy speeds up complete adoption by requiring them. Backup cameras aren’t just things cars _can_ have, as of 2018 they are things that cars _must_ have by law.
When it comes to making a positive impact on the world, I can only hope that I can contribute to something so obviously and permanently helpful to the human condition. We can argue all day about whether we should even have so many cars on the road, and what better transportation alternatives look like; but in the mean time, before these questions are resolved one way or another, cars are more safe because they are all made with better technology now.
That’s impact I like: something here now, useful today. As long as people keep making things that are a hair better than the things that came before, we can keep shuffling forward in the pursuit of making life a better gamble for everyone. But we can only hope that our improvements stay relevant as the tides of civilization change. Companies grow and die; governments come and go; societies appear and disappear. Maybe even planets will not seem so permanent once enough billionaires start colonizing New Earths. What even stays?
I hope our descendants keep having better cars, for as long as cars are still a thing.