1984 and all that…
Much has been made in the news this week about the advent of driverless cars, following the announcement that the UK is the first European country to give the green light to the testing of such technologies on the public roads.
In terms of Britain’s engineering and technological expertise, this is great news, as it means we can be seen as a world leader in terms of automotive technology and become one of the standard bearers in what’s inevitably a huge new development. However, as a car enthusiast and passionate driver, I can’t help but feel that the forward march of such things is yet one more nail in the coffin of traditional ‘motoring’.
Allow me, if you will, to wind the clock back over a century. Back when my grandmother was frolicking freely in the Welsh valleys, cars were very much a luxury. Those who owned them had machines that were, in post-Industrial Revolution terms, fairly efficient and easy to maintain, but were an absolute nightmare to control. Anyone who’s ever driven a Ford Model ‘T’, and I include myself in that statement with the footnote ‘never again’, will know that driving, in the early days of motoring, was an art. A skill…
From that skill, we developed motorsport. We discovered that some people had more of an affinity towards motoring than others, and that some people, sadly, couldn’t cope with it at all. As time marched on, cars got ever easier to drive. By the Seventies, we’d pretty much got it licked. And while today’s new models are clearly even more highly developed and technically advanced than those that went before them, anyone who’s driven a modern car can probably handle one built 30 or 40 years previously.
Today’s cars are the easiest to drive, ever. In many ways, it’s a good thing. It makes the least able drivers less stressed and therefore more competent. Plus, as a high mileage motorist thanks to my day job, the low carbon ultra-efficient premium German estate car that my company issues me with is an absolute doddle to pilot from A to B, so much so that you arrive at your destination feeling comfortable and refreshed. That’s not like the days of my old Triumph 1500 or Austin Allegro, where you’d reach your destination having travelled at a reasonably good turn of speed, but needed a good couple of hours to properly unfold your back muscles afterwards…
Furthermore, as someone who regularly drives in excess of 40,000 miles a year (in a former life, it used to be more like 80,000), I believe I have a responsibility to behave appropriately behind the wheel of a car. In recognition of the fact that driving is a skill, and that all skills can be refined, honed and improved, I’m probably my own biggest critic when it comes to driving. If I make a mistake behind the wheel, I feel dreadful – yet we all do it at some point.
In light of my responsibility as a motorist, I’ve voluntarily undertaken three different advanced driving courses, the primary objective of which was to heighten my awareness, learn more about the art and skill of driving and ultimately make myself better and safer at it. I’m no racing driver but, on balance, I’m probably not bad – and I commend anyone who goes out of their way to better themselves. Driving is something you don’t just learn, but derive great enjoyment from learning how to do better.
As a result, 90 per cent of the time, I enjoy driving. If I’m behind the wheel of a car I adore, I thoroughly enjoy it. And it pains me to think that, in an autonomous world, my children or grandchildren may never experience the same pleasure, the same enthusiasm for a particular make or model of car that has turned me into the car nut I am.
Yet that’s where we could be headed. I’m not saying it’ll be a quick process, and I might not even still be around to see it happen, but the autonomous vehicle is potentially a threat to the future of car enthusiasm and, as someone who has dedicated more than my fair share of time to cars and the automotive industry in my 37 years, that scares me a little.
I somehow don’t think the current range of driverless cars will take over, but in a world that appears to be governed by a combination of stupidity, well-intentioned but mis-purposed environmentalism, kowtowing to populist opinion and political spin, we may find ourselves slowly and gradually forced out of the cars we know and love. Even pure electric cars, such as the Tesla Model S (for which I have a begrudging but genuine admiration) are capable of killing people if driven by an idiot. I recall that, during my time working for General Motors, the American media went loony tunes over a house fire which may or may not have been started by the charging cable of a Chevrolet Volt (more likely, it’s suggested, by the homeowner running 12 different devices through one unfused socket, but that wouldn’t have made the national news)…
Better, then, to take our cars off us and instead issue us with personal mobility machines that take us from one destination to another, wrapped in cotton wool and with no manual override or input whatsoever. Let’s allow the computers to control everything, because, let’s face it, they never crash…
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