I’m sure you’re as riveted to the TV as I am when a commercial appears featuring a young man, his girlfriend, and their Waymo driverless car. The couple is amazingly pleasant and personable. “Nice young people,” you might think. Then you learn that the well-spoken, confident young man is blind. “Isn’t that a shame,” is your next thought, “Because that so limits him.”
But then you learn he’s not so limited. He swam to Alcatraz, for example, and climbed Mount Everest -- both of these accomplishments, I’m sure, realized with a companion to guide him. Indeed, guiding him is why he and his girlfriend are on TV. They’re on TV to advertise how pleased they are with Waymo driverless cars. These cars can, he points out, get him to wherever he wants to go even though he’s blind. The ad is charming and delightful and, I expect, bring smiles to the faces of those who watch it.
They also reminded me that there have been driverless vehicles for at least a century. I know because my Uncle Norman, who was born in 1909, told me that he “drove” one.
Turns out that when Uncle Norman graduated from high school in Chicago in 1917, he needed a job and so called his paternal grandfather who owned Northwestern Dairy. And so he became a milkman in Chicago. And the vehicle he drove was powered by a horse. Forgive my not recalling the horse’s name.
Uncle Norman would show up at Northwestern Dairy first thing in the morning, hitch up the horse, fill the wagon with the required number of full bottles (made of real glass) of milk, chocolate milk, cream, and whatever else his customers wanted, so he and the horse could head out.
When he navigated them to the neighborhood he served, he’d guide the horse to his first stop, call out “whoa,” and as the milk wagon stopped moving, he grabbed the necessary bottles, hopped off, and headed to the rear of the building where his client lived, and delivered them, returning to the cart with the empties. He’d stow them where the empties were kept, grab the reins, and head out to his next stop — which was often next door.
Once there, he’d repeat grabbing the fresh bottles, collecting the empties, and heading on his way.
Sounds a little tedious and monotonous to me. But, he assured me, with a big smile, that it was anything but.
What made dropping off full bottles and picking up empties fun? A number of things. First among them being that he often met and chatted with his customers, learning over the years about them and their families, such that he almost felt like a relative in asking after the family’s kids, how things were going with the parents, and … well, I’m sure you can imagine.
He also learned something else. It wasn’t long before his horse needed neither guidance nor encouragement. Once Uncle Norman and the horse left the barn and got to the neighborhood, the horse recognized each stop, knew to wait until he returned, and then headed on to the next stop. And she did these things without being asked or told to, and, once the horse learned each stop, where to go for the next delivery.
It didn’t take the horse long to learn that occasionally there were new clients and so new stops to be made, and that old clients were sometimes dropped from the route. Neither of these changes bothered the horse, unlike some people Uncle Norman knew who didn’t deal well with change.
The only thing I don’t know is whether the horse joined Uncle Norman and my other uncles and aunts in enjoying a good joke or a clever remark. I do know that the horse and cart became self-driving and so made Uncle Norman’s early mornings more than pleasant. Indeed, judging from the smile on his face when he told me of his early morning adventures in his driverless vehicle, he looked forward to working with his four-legged partner.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.