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Euan McColm: Humanity on road to nowhere in driverless car

The interior of a driverless car, set to be introduced in 2015. Picture: PA

The interior of a driverless car, set to be introduced in 2015. Picture: PA

  • by Euan McColm
 

WHEN the extension to the M74 motorway opened in 2011, environmental campaigners lamented its creation.

Friends of the Earth described the decision to build the road as the most damaging one taken by MSPs since the dawn of devolution. The Green Party said it was a dark day for Scotland.

On the other hand...

Shortly after eight o’clock on the night the new stretch of motorway opened, I joined it. I was driving an aged black Nissan, borrowed from my mother for this ceremonial journey.

As I pulled onto the smooth, fresh tarmac, I stuck a CD into the player and accelerated as Kraftwerk’s Autobahn started up.

I cruised towards Glasgow, seeing some parts of the city for the first time, and familiar points from new angles. I tapped the brakes on a surprising camber near the Gorbals and tapped the steering wheel along with the music.

Then I got chips and went home.

This may seem a portrait of mid-life crisis in play and to that charge I will only answer that you should see some of the other pitiful things I get up to.

But, when I was driving that new road with that music playing, I may have recognised the daft boyness of my escapade but I also felt like I was celebrating the car, with all its liberating possibilities.

It was not that I did not agree that the concerns of those who protested the construction of the new stretch of motorway might be valid, it was that I did not care. Yes, the road might have come with an environmental cost but look at the way it curves round the southern edge of the city and then swoops to join the M8. Isn’t it a joy to drive?

I love cars. Not in the “what are you driving, these days?” party bore and watching Top Gear kind of way. I don’t spend weekends polishing hub caps, I don’t know how to change the oil, and I’m unmoved by details such as engine size, the implications of which I don’t fully understand.

However, I do relish the simple pleasures of driving, the feeling of dancing up through the gears and finding a line through a corner. I love the ability to change direction on a whim, to go wherever the notion takes me.

So it was with a heavy heart that I learned last week that plans to introduce driverless cars are at an advanced stage.

Within months, they will be legally permitted on our roads.

And after that? I dread to think but I see nothing but black ice ahead.

Cars are not just boxes to take us from A to B, they are – for the time being – so much more than that.

Driverless cars will rob us of the great rite-of-passage that is learning to drive. Who wants to live in a society where fathers and their sullen teenage offspring can’t find some brief moment of connection, grinding a Punto round in circles in an industrial estate car park?

In those moments, dust flying and gearbox squealing, bonds are forged.

And when, finally, that licence is obtained, are we to deny generations the sheer pleasure of turning up at a sweetheart’s house, and waiting, engine ticking over, right elbow resting on the window frame and left hand caressing the steering wheel? Are we to eradicate the question “where can I take you?”

Driverless cars are a good thing, apparently, because they’ll make the roads safer and cut down on congestion. Using sensors, they’ll interact smoothly with other vehicles. We’ll travel roads free from traffic jams, with pollution cut.

This certainly sounds a picture of modern efficiency, part of a utopian dream world of jet packs and three-course meals in a pill.

I’m no Luddite. I eagerly embrace innovation, from the microwaveable chip to the private internet browsing option. But I’m also well aware of the limitations of technology.

Driverless cars might promise safer travel but what a leap of faith is
required on the part of the passenger. I’m not quite ready to take up a pitchfork against this confusing and new development but I would feel considerably more comfortable about entrusting my life to wireless signals 
if it was possible to get phone reception in the Shawlands district of ­Glasgow.

There are two types of driverless cars. Some have steering wheels, allowing the operator to seize back control in the event of trouble. But technology is racing ahead and there are now cars which don’t even offer that option. We jump in, enter our preferred destination, and sit back. At least, I suppose, there is the chance one will have dropped off when the technology fails and the car flips off a flyover to be crushed beneath the wheels of a driverless lorry.

Progress, damn it to Hell, will create a future where the roads are not filled with drivers but with passive passengers, trundling along in what will amount to little more than conservatories on wheels. Is this what we are come to?

I may have delighted in the construction of the new motorway into Glasgow but I’m not without sympathy for the case for reduced – or at least less environmentally damaging – car use. To love the car is not necessarily to be an unreconstructed petrol-head.

There is more to be done to make biofuels an option for motorists and to make the use of electric cars more convenient.

And, of course, investment in public transport could always be increased.

But let’s not embrace progress for progress’s sake.

By all means, make our cars more efficient and cheaper to run. That sounds absolutely dandy, thanks.

Don’t, though, take from us the simple, enduring pleasure of driving a car. Don’t remove the connection between human and machine.

A world of driverless cars is a grim prospect. I will give you my steering wheel when you pry it from my cold, dead, string-backed gloved hands.

 

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