The toll booth takes an exit
We have bad news for you people who just bought a coin organizer, or worse, one of those coin guns guaranteed to score a bull's-eye in the middle of the smallest toll-booth basket.
The toll booth, as we have known it, is on the way out.
Even as the rest of us fumble for quarters, dimes, and nickels, the fast lane to obsolescence is being set up in Hong Kong, of all places. It seems that the British have invented a smart code plate that attaches underneath an automobile. When your vehicle rolls over electronic loops buried in the road, the plate is read to a central computer, revealing type of car, owner identification number - maybe even the flavor of gum you're chewing. Your bill is in the mail in the time it takes to pass that refrigerator truck, cleverly straddling those two lanes in front of you.
Should your automobile lack a plate - or present a false identification number - the computer will command a nearby camera to photograph you, with absolutely no regard for your good profile.
We're not certain what the proper response ought to be to the imminent decline and fall of the toll booth. Should we all mourn the special driving skills about to vanish? Can the civilized world of the superhighway survive, for instance, without the last-minute lane switcher? This, of course, is the freewheeler who roars aggressively to within a couple of yards of an exact-change booth, then peels off at a right angle like a disoriented crab, seeking the sanctuary of the booth reading ''Any Vehicle.''
And what about the gate crasher, who turns toll booths equipped with a barrier into a sporting event by not wasting a split-second in speeding under the upraised arm? The highways are full of splinters from gate crashers who misjudged by thatm much.
We can't claim we'll really miss these adventurers. Nor can we work up a sob for some of the impassive toll collectors who seem to think they're auditioning as robots - and succeeding.
Nostalgia, as they say, isn't what it used to be. These days we keep going sentimental because the semi-automated gets replaced by the totally automated. What sort of future shock is that?
The French historian Jacques Ellul, author of ''The Technological System,'' would know what to make of the Hong Kong toll collector at the end of everybody's road. He has explained as well as anybody that once you begin fooling around with Progress, it's hard to stop. You hammer together a nice, simple horseless carriage, and the next thing you know, there's all this paved road and a whole culture built around the automobile. Then you install toll booths to pay for paving - and repaving - the road. Then you install exact-change booths to make collection easier. Then you install the Hong Kong charge plate to make it easiest of all.
As Ellul views the process, one invention leads to another in this fashion until the last machine creates a world suited only for other machines, ''trapping and displacing men.''
According to Ellul's script of technological ''Totalization,'' the final scene on the toll pike would find the Hong Kong computer reading the plate on a car driven by another computer, in which you ride as a passenger - if your robot permits you to.
We reject this conclusion - not because we doubt the advent of the Hong Kong toll collector. But we don't foresee the futuristic landscape as so exclusively a ''technological system.'' Then, as now, we see Queen Anne's lace bordering our toll road. Then, as now, we see a goony seagull circling and swooping, as if the cars lined up below were a school of fish.
Above all, somewhere between the old exact-change booth and the new electronic loops, we seem to visualize Charlie Chaplin, twitching his mustache and updating ''Modern Times.''
Until a robot can be programmed to see the funny side of technology, the human race, we are convinced, remains indispensable.