"The car industry is slowly but surely engineering me out of the process of driving"

Engineers and scientists are falling over themselves to create the autonomous car, but who actually wants one, asks Meaden

It stands to reason that a magazine dedicated to The Thrill of Driving should find the growing industry (and media) obsession with the autonomous car profoundly unsettling. Rarely a day goes by without a press release or statement from a major manufacturer proudly proclaiming greater and greater commitment to a self-driving future. If news from the US is anything to go by, that’s only set to ramp up further now that the artificial intelligence system piloting Google’s  self-driving car could be considered as the driver under federal law. 

Law, not tech, has always been the single biggest barrier to autonomous vehicles gaining approval for use on public roads, but it seems that even that hurdle has been at least partially removed. Confirming as much in a recent letter to Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it agreed with Google that its self-driving car will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers for the last hundred years or more.

There are still many legal questions to be answered and precedents to be set before cars can become truly autonomous. Knowing the legal profession’s propensity to drag things out for as long as possible, this gives me some hope that humans won’t be entirely legislated off the roads any time soon – but still there’s a horrible feeling of inevitability about the rise of the machines. Or, rather, the rise of Google. 

I love cars and I love driving, but of course there are times when I wish I could get in, fall asleep and wake up at my destination. Jet-lagged returns to Heathrow spring to mind. Or soul-destroying commutes. But having the occasional rotten journey is a price worth paying for the freedom to drive where I wish, when I wish, as fast or as slowly as I wish.  

The question that keeps churning in my head is who asked for autonomous cars? Did you? Nope, me neither. Yet such is the extraordinary amount of energy, investment and fevered conversation in the industry and media, you’d think we’d all been lobbying for them for years. Of course, the challenges of making the technology work are intoxicating catnip to scientists, programmers and engineers, whether they work for Google, Apple or Audi. For them it’s an Earthbound space race, the final frontier. 

> Roborace: an autonomous racing series

There’s been a drip-drip-drip of autonomous technology for years, but it’s only now that the apparently innocent introduction of parking assist, self-parking, radar cruise control and lane departure and blind-spot monitoring can be seen for what they are: a suite of ‘semi-autonomous’ driver aids to soften us up for fully autonomous vehicles. Being old-school, I despise things like lane assist, but, being contrary, I quite like blind-spot monitoring. Do I rely solely on a little yellow warning light to tell me I’m about to change lanes into a hidden car? No, I still turn my head and use my eyes. Just as I look as far down the road as possible to see how the traffic is flowing and adjust my speed accordingly without panic braking. It’s called being in control. 

The problem with driving is, it’s a skill. And, like any skill, you need to practice it, not just to improve, but simply to maintain a certain level. That’s what you and I love about driving, but most couldn’t care less. As the process of driving is dumbed down, so, inevitably, are most drivers, for the less we have to think about, the less we seem to think. That would certainly explain why driving standards are slipping further as mainstream cars are fitted with more and more semi-autonomous technology. 

It all leaves me feeling a bit confused. Betrayed, actually, for it’s the car industry – creator of the machines I love with a passion – that is slowly but surely engineering me out of the process. Road fatalities are frequently touted as grounds for taking drivers out of the loop. It’s hard to argue with the human cost of the estimated 1.2 million who died in road  accidents globally in 2010. But it’s developing countries with poor infrastructure, non-existent driver training, ageing cars and less advanced emergency health care that account for the majority of these deaths. 

Look a little closer to Silicon Valley and you learn that last year guns killed more Americans under 25 than cars. In England, donuts are the danger, obesity accounting for 6 per cent of deaths compared with 1 per cent for road accidents. And this from data gathered in 1998, since when cars have become safer and people fatter. Cars have become the target because it’s easier than tackling the tougher social – and therefore political – issues.   

No-one really knows quite what the autonomous future holds, but we do know Google has a habit of getting its way. Just look at its HMRC tax returns. I’m the first to concede driving isn’t always a pleasure, but it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I’m convinced by a future where autonomous cars turn us all into passengers.

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