So how will smart tech shape mobility? When driving becomes more and more data driven, what will be left of the rebel roads of our youth?
Piloted driving is a promise
The future of driving
Indeed, to some people it may seem as likely to happen as the idea of the automobile one day completely replacing the horse would have seemed to my grandfather when he was a young boy. Yet before we think ourselves oh-so-clever and sophisticated, we should realize that we, too, are using machines in our daily lives that will one day, in the not too far distant future, be regarded as antiquities. The other day, I was walking around a huge, state-of-the-art car showroom, full of modern technological wonders, albeit all of them equipped with a steering wheel, with a friend and his one-and-a-half-year-old son in his push chair. "Brrm! Brrm! Brrm!" came the excited cries as the little boy’s sticky fi ngers reached out to touch the tantalizingly close gleaming metal - reaching out, it seemed, to touch the future. And yet it is not going to be the future, for by the time he is old enough, cars will probably be equipped with a high level of autonomy, if indeed they are not completely autonomous. Like it or not, that modern car showroom is already a museum.
Highly automated driving
There is no doubt that as such autonomy increases it will bring huge benefits. Things are going to change and they are going to change fast. But how will this autonomy change our emotional responses to cars? Will the car just become another domestic appliance, generating little more desirability than a cooker or a washing machine? And how will we even talk about cars? After all, asking each other "What do you drive?" will become completely redundant. One wonders what we shall ask instead, if indeed we still fi nd the question interesting enough to ask. What drives you? What are you driven in? Will little boys - I know sometimes it is little girls, too - still go "Brrm! Brrm! Brm!" when our roads are filled with self-driving, silent electric or hydrogen powered cars?
Adrenaline rush behind the wheel
After "Mummy" and "Daddy" the first word my oldest nephew uttered was "digger." When my second nephew came along, he was just as fascinated by anything with an engine. He used to love sitting on my knee in a parked car grappling with the steering wheel, until he worked out that he needed to get the key out of my pocket. Obviously, I never let him have it, but not all guardians are as careful. Recently in West Virginia in the United States, two young brothers, aged two and five, managed to get the keys to their mother’s car. They promptly set off along a windy country road, one operating the steering wheel and the other the pedals. They made it three miles (4.8 kilometers) before crashing into a ditch, happily without injury.
I had to wait a little longer before I got behind the wheel, although I waited not one single second longer than I had to. On the night before my seventeenth birthday, I persuaded my uncle to drive to my parents’ house, leave his car there and then drive the van my father used for his garage business to my uncle’s house with me in the passenger seat. We stayed there until the clock struck midnight and I turned seventeen, the legal age to drive in the UK when accompanied by an adult license-holder, and then off we set, only this time with me behind the wheel. And was there ever such a drive? The run through the pitch-black country lanes burns bright in my memory like it was last night, not thirty years ago. I’ve been very lucky for someone who grew up going "Brrm! Brrm! Brrm!" I’ve got to write about cars for a living and driven many an Audi, Bugatti, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and the like in many exotic locations all over the world. And yet sometimes I wonder if there was ever a moment that equaled the sheer physical and emotional thrill of that very first time.
When I was younger, I would have dreaded a world where cars take control.
But do I want one? Not now, if I am honest. Yes, there are plenty of times when I am stuck in horrible traffic that I would dearly love the car to do the driving, but most of the time I get too much enjoyment from the physical sensation of driving. After a long, stressful day at my desk, the last thing I want to do is spend more time checking emails while the car does the driving. On many occasions, especially if I have not been behind the wheel for several days, it is the actual act of driving that helps me unwind. Get in the car, switch the phone off, switch the radio off, switch the whole world off and just concentrate on every gear change, every accelerator and brake input and every turn of the steering wheel - for me, that’s where the pleasure is. So one day, yes, definitely, I would like an autonomous car, but not just quite yet thank you.
Audi is convinced that the car will play an important role as a personal assistant.
The other day, I was listening to a radio play, a modern interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. The heroine was having a conversation with her self-driving car. "Have I got time for a coffee before my next meeting?" she asked. The car replied, "Yes, certainly, your next appointment isn’t until 15:00 and I could do with a quick charge while you are having your coffee." What was interesting to think about was the relationship the heroine was having with her car; it was almost as if they were looking out for each other, the driver getting a coffee and the car an electric charge. Audi is convinced that the car will play an important role as a personal assistant, and this function will surely only increase dramatically as cars become ever more intelligent, until they become our confidants, our friends. But can you imagine the terrible day when you have to tell the car to drive itself back to the dealership because its replacement is on the way? It would be more tear-jerking than a scene from the film Lassie.
Life could also get tricky in other ways, too. Even today I have to be careful on long trips with a normal car. That’s why I always let my partner take the wheel for the first part of the trip, and then I will take over for the second part after lunch. About 15:30 I always suggest we stop for tea and cake. Miriam always makes the argument that I have had a perfectly fine lunch and that it is much better just to keep going. But, as I am in charge of the vehicle, I pull over into the next motorway restaurant. However, with a fully autonomous car I will have no chance. The car will take my partner’s side, every time. On we will whizz, past motorway restaurant after motorway restaurant, getting to our destination faster and living a healthy lifestyle - but without any tea and cake for me.
The way I remember my grandmother, I am sure she would have tried to control my grandfather in a similar fashion, but knowing my grandfather, he would have just ignored her and done as he pleased. And he would have got away with it, because despite my grandmother’s many talents, not even she could give a horse instructions.
Because let’s face it, that’s what the car has always been about: freedom.
Because let’s face it, that’s what the car has always been about: freedom. I know that, you know that and those two little boys in West Virginia know it, too. The car gives us the chance to break away from everyone else, to go where we want, to do what we want and to be just a little bit of a rebel. If we are lucky and live a long and healthy life, we can keep enjoying that freedom for many, many years. But eventually there will come a day when our reactions are too slow, our eyes too poor or our nerves too frayed to drive a car on our increasingly busy roads. Some countries are already looking at the idea of forcing drivers over a certain age to take their driving tests again, and if they fail, that’s it - no more breaking away, no more freedom, no more rebellion. But perhaps in the future, as long as we still have a breath of air left in our lungs, we may never have to surrender that freedom, not if the car is doing the driving for us. No matter how old we get, autonomous cars will enable us to roam the half-forgotten rebel roads of our youth once again.