Jim Duffy: Putting the brakes on a driverless vehicle future

I don't want to hit the autopilot switch and then pour a coffee from my flask, says Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth.
I don't want to hit the autopilot switch and then pour a coffee from my flask, says Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth.
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You may recall that BMW ran a long-standing marketing ­campaign that focused the ­consumer’s mind on the technological prowess of the cars that it manufactured. The strapline was “BMW – the ultimate driving machine.”

This was, and still is, a powerful piece of branding that has been successful for BMW. Many other manufacturers stress the oneness of the car with the driver. Porsche is explicit, saying: “There is no substitute.” And of course Ferrari leads on, “Only those who dare, truly live.” They have built vehicles that we love to drive. Vehicles that excite us as we hit the bleep bleep and open the doors. So my questions now is – where is the excitement in a driverless car?

As the testing of driverless cars goes on around the world, you may be oblivious to it. Certainly, you hear the odd story of a driverless car crashing or killing someone.

But funnily enough, it does not get as much air time as one would expect. Is this because the likes of Google, who are ­testing driverless cars and who own so much of the news content, can rank these stories way down the pecking order? Nevertheless, the testing goes on as we approach the era in the next few decades of driverless cars.

But do you really want one? After Aston Martin recently announced that it will go for growth and is planning a flotation next year, potentially joining the blue-chip FTSE 100, I just cannot see 007 sitting motionless in the driver’s seat while he escapes from the baddies.

At a valuation of up to £5 billion, Aston Martin is certainly on the upward ascent, selling high-end cars that owners just love to drive. “Drive” being the constant throughout the narrative of buying and owning a car like this.

Of course, there will be the lazy among us who will be happy to sit and do nothing while a driverless car rolls down the road. But, I would take a big bet that many of you actually enjoy your car and the art of driving it. I certainly do. It keeps me alive, sharp and focused. Not to mention it fuels my need for some challenge in a non “boy racer” sort of way. I like to drive and want to be engaged with the car.

So, why is it that in a few years I will be offered driverless when I know that I don’t want this style of transport in my life?I do keep asking myself the question as to who wants to put driverless cars on the road and what is in it for them? Innovation and entrepreneurial flair is all good and well as we develop new ways to get around.

But, I, like many of you, still want to feel I am in control of my own cockpit. I don’t want to complete a pre-take off checklist like a commercial airline pilot. I don’t want to hit the autopilot switch and then pour a coffee from my flask. That’s not proper driving, is it? Then there is the beloved road rage that will disappear forever. I’m not talking about aggressive road rage where people are physically and verbally abusive. No, it’s the subtle road rage that goes on in my head as I rate other drivers’ performance and use my reasoning abilities to judge what I would have done differently if I were them. It’s estimating distances and knowing what oomph my car has should I need to deploy it.

It’s turning a corner knowing that my 18” tyres will cope with the stresses that I am putting on them. This is what driving is all about, and we must be careful that we do not give up our rights to “drive” and enjoy our cars.

Looking into the furniture, one might have a driverless car for the daily commute and a regular car for the weekend.

But, then again there will be “Sunday” drivers out at the weekend in their driverless cars sauntering along, blocking the roads, as you try to have some fun with your regular car.

The big car manufacturers will no doubt offer some form of driverless.

But, it will take a huge shift in marketing to switch our mindsets from the driver at one with the car experience to passive passenger.

Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special