STEINBERG: Self-driving cars are coming while Balbo Drive is going

SHARE STEINBERG: Self-driving cars are coming while Balbo Drive is going

“EconTalk” host Rus Roberts was talking up driverless cars long before they were better known, writes Mona Charen. | AP file photo

“It’s like shooting a duck in a bucket,” I told my wife, making a pistol with my thumb and forefinger and taking bead on the imaginary fowl placidly paddling at my feet, looking up at me with anatine puzzlement.

In other words: too easy.

I was referring to commenting on the stupidities of the Chicago City Council. Their various edicts and pronouncements hardly matter. Besides, I have my professional pride to think about. We do not traffic in the obvious.

No need to highlight the City Council’s follies for readers. They know. 


But there is futurity to think about. And someday, maybe even someday soon, when the bean-shaped, electric, self-driving cars that we summon with our iPhones, if not simply by tugging an earlobe and wishing it, are gliding silently to our doors, some grinning wit will disinter the comments made this week by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th):

Let’s say a child is playing soccer or basketball in a park and then loses control of the ball and it rolls out into the street, Burke fretted. Would the [driverless] vehicle recognize the presence of the ball or toy and promptly brake?

No Ed, the car would just run over the ball and the child chasing it; that’s what makes this new technology so exciting.

Lest he miss out on the fun, Ald. Anthony Beale chimed in, bemoaning the jobs lost among bus and cab drivers.

Which made me think of automatic washing machines. They also posed a hazard — an arm could be mangled — and put laundresses out of work. Yet they are still found in most homes. Because technology wins.

Not only will self-driving cars spare Burke’s errant ball, but they’ll do so far better than human drivers. That doesn’t mean the cars won’t be resisted. Some 30,000 Americans die in traffic accidents. We shrug them off as the cost of getting around. But the first death due to a driverless car will be a martyr to technology.

Then we’ll stop caring. Chicago’s law, if passed, will be remembered like those laws requiring someone march in front of a Model T waving a red flag at crossroads.

Clinging to the past, never forget, is how a city ends up like St. Louis, whose steamboat interest fought the arrival of trains while Chicago was laying track. The wound St. Louis inflicted on itself endures to this day, while we benefit from the foresight of our ancestors.

Yes, change is hard. I winced when Chicago’s Italian-American establishment, like a rusty music box grinding to life, creaked its defense of Italo Balbo, lest his namesake drive fall victim to the current rage against tributes to Confederates and fascists. Wake up fratelli. It isn’t Balbo you’re concerned with, it’s losing a tribute to an Italian. I get that. But if we could somehow start afresh and select someone worthy of honor, does any among you really believe we’d pick an obscure aviator who rallied black-shirted thugs behind Mussolini and committed war crimes while governor of Libya? Because he visited here briefly in 1933? Is he really the best Chicago could do?

Why die on that hill when graceful retrenchment is so easy? Two words: Enrico Fermi. Fermi Drive. Done. Or Cardinal Bernardin Drive. The Roman column would be apt. I, of course, prefer Dante Drive. Not technically a Chicagoan, though his limning of hell puts him in the proper spirit. (“Here is the difference between Dante, Milton and me,” Carl Sandburg wrote. “They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years.”) I could even endorse Frank Sinatra Drive. He spent more time here and sang “Chicago.”

So in summary: Don’t ban self-driving cars; it will make us look like fools. But ditch Balbo Drive and honor some other suitable Chicago Italian. One more suggestion: Lou Malnati. His invaluable contribution — pizza, for those poor souls so deprived as to not be familiar — enriches our city more than Bernardin, Sinatra and, forgive me, Dante combined.

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