'Going mobile' can no longer be what it once was

More than 40 years ago The Who sang: "I don't care about pollution I'm an air-conditioned gypsy."

The now iconic English band, in "Going Mobile," wrote a lighthearted hymn for a fundamentally American religion -- the love and lore of the open road, the incomparable freedom an automobile provides for exploring the vast beauty and wonder of the American landscape and the American experience.

For generations, a car has represented not just a cherished and much-anticipated passage toward adulthood, but a nearly lifelong freedom to go anywhere, any time.

Now, according to a study by the Michigan Transportation Research Institute, our long romance with the automobile is gradually fading for U.S. teens and young adults. Fewer and fewer people in that large demographic clump are even getting driver's licenses.

The study suggests that part of the decline is due to "virtual contact" through social media and other Internet links. That sort of gives me the willies, because I've never encountered "virtual" anything that didn't rankle. Ever since "virtual reality" burst into the language it has seemed the ultimate oxymoron.

Since then, television has pretty well finished destroying any coherent definition of "reality" as well. When absurdly contrived and artificial situations are created specifically to elicit the most outrageous behavior from people who know they are on camera, and we call that "reality," we've pretty much lobotomized the language.

But that's beside the point -- which is that telecommunication, for all its magic and its essential practical value, represents isolation as well as contact. It's not so different from the effect of air conditioning, especially in the South, when we began bunkering ourselves in electrically cooled comfort instead of sitting sociably out on our porches and greeting passers-by like characters in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Come to think of it, the first "Mockingbird" character who comes to mind on a porch is Mrs. Dubose, who except for Bob Ewell and Old Man Radley is the meanest person in the book. Maybe I should pick a better example.

Anyway, the digital revolution can't be the only reason fewer young people care about cars. The soaring expense of fuel makes driving less affordable, and hence less appealing, for one thing. For another, young people in urban areas -- most of them, sadly, not in the South -- have grown up with good and eminently affordable public transportation. If you live anywhere near Washington, New York or Chicago, for instance, you have little reason to drive, and a few million reasons not to.

Still, against all economic, environmental and commonsense evidence, there's something a little sad about this slow sea change in the culture. When you can fly from coast to coast in four or five hours, I still prefer doing it behind the wheel in four or five days -- something I've done twice now, and loved almost every mile-by-mile, motel-by-motel moment of it.

(OK -- truth be told, I'd welcome any teleportation technology that could spare me, car and all, eight to ten hours of Kansas. Other than that )

Two Stephen King phrases about the internal combustion engine -- "Good old Detroit rolling iron" and "the last obscene toy of the unwinding fossil fuel age" -- capture the contradiction. Whatever the obvious benefits of fewer drivers (especially bad ones) and fewer, better cars, the thought that America is falling out of love with the automobile and the Route 66 romance of the road evokes wistful nostalgia.

Next time I'm stuck in Atlanta traffic among 50,000 single-occupant cars, it will be hard to remember why.