I have a bet with a family member that by 2020 it will be possible for me to catch a driverless car home from work. I was feeling pretty good about the bet until I read that some driverless cars still have trouble differentiating between puddles and lakes and between potholes and sinkholes. I might need to start getting a bit pedantic about what “by” 2020 means, because there’s clearly still a few wrinkles in this technology that need to be ironed out.
Depending on how its guidance systems are adjusted, it seems that my driverless car will either stop at every pothole in the road, confused, or plunge me blithely into the gaping maw of any sinkhole it encounters. Fortunately there are no lakes between my office and my home, but there are plenty of puddles (oddly, not only on wet days), no end of potholes and the constant possibility of a sinkhole. It could be either a slow trip home or an exceptionally lively one.
My bet was not prompted by any love of the new technology. Far from it; it was a reaction to the pace at which new technology is coming at us, whether we’re ready or not. I do understand that driverless vehicles have a great role to play in cases where people are unable or unwilling to drive – the elderly or disabled, say, or after a good Friday night out – and they can help to ease traffic congestion in cities by operating more or less on demand and sitting somewhere else, out of the way, in the meantime. Driverless cars get neither drunk nor tired.
But what if you’re more than just willing to drive? What if you actually like driving? What if being behind the wheel and heading out on the open road (or even trundling around the local streets) is actually something you enjoy? I’m not saying this new technology is not worth pursuing, if you like that sort of thing, and I’d never get behind the wheel when I’m not in a fit state, so there are times when it would be useful to me. But leave me alone to enjoy the buzz I get from downshifting, braking, turning in, hitting an apex, getting on the throttle early and powering out of a corner (maybe with just a dab of oppo) – all to the sound of a popping and snarling exhaust and my favourite music.
“Petrol-head”, I hear you say, as if a petrol-head could construe that as an insult. I’d just as happily be a hydrogen-head, if that were a viable fuel source, or a volt-head, if my electricity could be supplied from renewable sources. There is, after all, a certain pointlessness to driving an electric car and feeling all virtuous about it but then plugging it in to recharge on a grid connected to a coal-fired power station. It seems like a lot of trouble to go to that solves nothing – and let’s not get started on the issue of disposing of batteries.
My point is: the experience of driving. I thought that one of the greatest benefits of technology was to improve what developers like to call the UX, the “user experience”. Certainly, that’s almost the only thing my web designer ever talks about or, at least, it’s the only thing he talks about that I ever understand. Trains, trams, buses and aeroplanes, which to passengers are functionally indistinguishable from driverless vehicles, bore me senseless. I fear a driverless car will do the same. It’s difficult to say categorically that boredom enhances the user experience.
If all goes to plan, then sometime this month a new car will roll out of a factory in Germany, be loaded onto a ship and begin making its way to our shores, with an arrival date sometime in November. That car has my name on it. It has a great little petrol engine in an exceptionally well-sorted chassis and all-wheel drive and I can’t wait. I simply cannot imagine having anything like the same visceral, irrational and unbridled emotional attachment to a driverless vehicle.
But driverless cars are coming nonetheless, although it is debatable whether my bet is safe. We seem constantly to be presented with technological “advances” whether or not we want them. Perhaps there will be time in the not too distant future, during our boring journeys home, to reflect on just what went wrong, and how and when we allowed technology to start removing the joy from our lives.