This is a good moment to talk about cars. Plenty of people are. Environmentalists point out the damage they do. Hard-pressed care workers note that, without petrol, they cannot do their jobs. Country people acknowledge that there is a bus they could catch – but only once a week, on market day.
All of the above is important – but it is the future that concerns me. A future in which Big Tech has plans for us all. A future of algorithms not alternators, in which traditional car companies find themselves challenged, overtaken even, by technology firms whose expertise trumps the overall-clad, oily-handed big names of the past.
This is an industry on the cusp of dramatic disruption with consequences for us all that some believe are so much bigger than electric chargers and range anxiety. It is about who we are.
I hired an ultra-modern car recently and marvelled at its “assistance” of my driving. In particular, the cruise control that, in effect, linked my vehicle to the one in front on the motorway: when it slowed, we slowed and when it sped up, we did. I did very little.
That is modern motoring: the car is taking over. Or, more precisely, the car maker is taking over. Like a gathering wave, it begins with my fancy hire car but it ends with what the tech folk call “level 5”: full automation.
Someone once said we overestimate the impact of technology in the short term but underestimate it in the long term. The immediate future of motoring is still visible to us, and not as changed as some companies claim. For all the talk of zooming along with our hands off the wheel, the reality is more likely to be clunking and all-too-familiar: clogged roads and pricey parking. Even my fancy hire car got stuck in the roadworks on the M4.
But the longer term? Automation could change every aspect of modern life, in ways that are hard to foresee.
Some examples: when automation happens, there will be very few car accidents. That will have implications for the kind of injuries presented in hospitals, and thus the kinds of specialist doctors we need. It will also change how cars are constructed: why bother with all that crash-resistant stuff when the car will not crash?
And you won’t have to park your car: you can summon it when you need it. As a BBC Horizon programme pointed out a few years ago, there are 100 million cars in America and they spend 97 per cent of their time parked. What if they were on the road? How does that work? What do they do with car parks?
And when they do crash, as occasionally of course they will, who will be responsible? You? The Stanford-educated algorithm designer who now lives in Bora Bora? And will the car hit the old man on the left or the young woman with a baby on the right? Will you be able to programme it to choose?
Nor will you be able to opt out of this world. As someone who had to insure 17-year-old twins, I know something about the way insurance companies set prices – and they are not going to favour you if you insist on cranking up the Austin-Healey and banging into lamp-posts when your Ordnance Survey map gets blown in your face.
In other words, once the technology is with us, it will be unavoidable.
And here is where we are beginning to see some serious objections. Matthew Crawford – described as a philosopher and mechanic – wrote a brilliant book last year about the future being planned for us and whether we might decide we don’t want it that way. In Why We Drive, he points out that driverless cars “are one instance of a wider shift in our relationship with the physical world in which the demands of competence give way to a promise of safety and convenience”.
We become passive. Administered. Coddled. And – this is the crucial bit – we are deprived of the ability to do something physical that is not hugely difficult but does require a bit of effort. Driving is good for our minds; being driven is not. We replace the co-operation currently required in driving with machine-generated certainty – with, as Crawford suggests, the atrophy not just of our skills, but also our moral worth. Automation reduces us. We will end up living in “a techno-zoo, for defeated people”.
I am not sure Crawford is entirely right. I quite like technology and I certainly like safety. But in a world of petrol shortages and fuss about battery ranges, it would be no bad thing to open up the debate. Motoring in some form is here to stay and, given mounting public suspicion about the behaviour of the tech industry, perhaps we ought to work out the route ourselves.
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This week I have been…
One of the great joys of writing a book is that the publishers send you copies of other people’s efforts, creating a kind of micro-community of fellow strivers after sales, but also strivers after readers, and of recognition of the effort involved. I would not necessarily have picked up London Clay by Tom Chivers or Sad Little Men by Richard Beard but both are works of gorgeous, subtle humanity. I am making a mental note that when the freebies stop, I must carry on buying books, and spend time thinking about them. Not understanding opera and being embarrassed by theatre (all that declaiming), it is the only proper art I can relate to.
Talking of art, thank goodness for the new rugby season, now finally under way. What a pleasure to turn to BT Sport’s excellent coverage and see stadiums full and blood flowing. I love rugby union beyond any ability to explain it. It is something to do with the combination of balletic spinning of bodies out of tackles and into space and the clatter of large men into each other when the spinning stops. I love, too, the fact that at a Bath-Bristol local derby, 24,000 people can go to the match and not be segregated. Rugby is civilised in a way that other sports are not.
I have loved trains since I was little. I don’t collect the numbers, but I love the idea of train travel and the sight of the engines and carriages. It’s odd: as with rugby, I can’t really explain it, but I live with it and occasionally even in later life it takes over. So there I was at the opening of the new London Underground Tube station at Battersea Power Station, which I found much more interesting than the development itself. And now I am gearing up for the big one: next year the much-delayed Crossrail will be opened in London and I intend to use it to get home even though it goes nowhere near where I live. It’s called suffering for your art.