For her 94th birthday, Chantze Butler rode in a driverless car. And while the idea that an autonomous vehicle transported a nonagenarian who remembers cruising in a Model T seems astounding, to the rider it was all rather mundane.
“It was very normal. I was surprised how normal it was,” said the Squirrel Hill resident, whose unique celebration last week was spent squeezed between relatives in a self-driving sedan.
Joining Butler for the Uber joyride was her great-niece, Mollie Butler, and great-great-niece, Lily Karoll, all of Bartlett Street in Squirrel Hill.
“These two were frightened,” Mollie Butler said of her fellow passengers. “I told them we were going to the beach.”
The idea picked up speed after Mollie Butler spun some musings on how to celebrate her great-aunt’s birthday. She thought of Uber and its Pittsburgh presence. Then, through a series of connections, she gained the company’s attention. Finally, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, a white vehicle arrived on Bartlett Street to transport the curious crew.
While friends and family eagerly waited to see where the troupe would travel, the port of call was somewhere near dullsville, explained one excursionist. “We actually went nowhere,” said the birthday girl when asked of their destination. The group merely “drove around.”
Although that activity seemed rather old hat to the elder Butler, the novelty of transport could be appreciated in a different context.
Recalling her earliest vehicular memories, she said that when she was a teenager in Boston, her father, who was a partner in a business, was granted access to the company car. It was “maybe a Model T,” and “it must have been black,” she said.
“It was expensive and luxurious,” but the best thing about it was that “we could actually get in and go anywhere we wanted. It was such a deviation from the life we led.”
Butler remembered that the car could not fit very many passengers and that the family drove it “just around Boston.” But more importantly, she noted, “I walked a mile to school every day in all weather, and there was no such thing as school being canceled for the weather.”
So with that said, apart from being joined by her great-great-niece, who Butler referred to as “my special pal,” going for a short drive around Squirrel Hill in the backseat of a small auto was slightly pedestrian.
However, her fellow passenger disagreed.
“It was fun because it could drive by itself,” countered Lily, who is only 90 years younger than her great-great-aunt. “I thought it was going to be scary,” added the 4-year-old.
In the hours following the excursion, Butler received scores of calls from those intrigued by the experience. But to each inquirer she offered a similarly insouciant assessment.
“It just didn’t feel any different than anything else,” she said.
Perhaps hampering any excitement or even relegating the jaunt to normalcy was the fact that two other travelers accompanied the group.
A gentleman was sitting in the driver’s seat and “somebody was sitting next to him,” said Butler.
For those reasons, “that’s why I feel this is no indication of how you would feel in a driverless car. Perhaps if he hadn’t been there I would feel differently.”
Sounds like the younger Butler just discovered how to improve next year’s gift.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.