My phone buzzes silently notifying me the car I’d arranged the night before has arrived. It’s not a minute early or a minute late, it’s exactly on time. I leave the house and walk a few steps towards to a silently waiting car. It seems like a normal car at first glance, just like every other car on the road until I climb on board.
The first thing I notice is space. There is no steering wheel, no gear stick, just a beautifully lit cabin with plush seating and an uninterrupted panoramic view. I’m greeted like an old friend, not by the driver, but by a digital interface which has already calculated the quickest route, how long it will take and it has also prepared the latest episode of House of Cards which it knows I’m currently watching and now have time to watch. As journeys go, it is pretty non-eventful. No congestion, no selfish white van drivers and definitely no road rage.
I arrive at work calm, relaxed and ready for the day with the added bonus of being fully up-to-date with the goings on in the White House.
Of course, this is a fictional scenario I’ve made up. This is a pipe dream, right? Something only experienced in science fiction movies, but what if it wasn’t? What if we believed the hype and what if this was the ultimate automotive pleasure? Is the future of motoring closer than we think? Will we be saying goodbye to the pain and drudgery of the daily commute as we know it? Will we all be saying ‘home James’ with a smile on our faces whilst google works out the scenic way home? To some people this sounds like pure pleasure, the perfect solution. No more stop-starting in traffic or second guessing whether the Audi in front is going to cut you up. To others, this could take away the actual experience and thrill of driving and the emotional connection of owning a car. Whether we are for it or against it, will automation become our pleasure or pain?
Looking back to see forward
I’m trying to picture the scene at the turn of the 1900s. The notion of a horseless carriage wouldn’t have been a sought out pleasure, it would have seemed ludicrous to us, but when the first cars rolled off the production lines, they changed the face of history and defined a century – for the good and the bad. Will the era of self-driving cars follow suit and nullify all the painful aspects of driving and create a world of happy motorists? The difference being this time round it doesn’t feel so ludicrous.
For decades, manufacturers have been drip-feeding us innovative ways to make our time in cars seem more pleasurable, slowly automating our driving experiences, power steering, ABS, electric windows and more recently Ford’s self-parking function. By the year 2020 all the major automotive manufacturers aim to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road and by 2030 it is estimated that 25% of all new cars sold will be self-driving and this is expected to rise to a staggering 75% by the year 2040. The driving force (pun intended) isn’t solely for our pleasure, but safety is paramount. It is estimated that human error accounts for approximately 90% of all road accidents so the answer seems obvious?
Driving a vehicle is too dangerous for humans and will be outlawed when autonomous cars are proven to be safer
Elon Musk, Tesla founder
Remove humans from the equation
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, recently claimed, ‘Driving a vehicle is too dangerous for humans and will be outlawed when autonomous cars are proven to be safer’ and chief designer at McLaren, Robert Melville, has been quoted as saying that “…his studio is already anticipating a future where cars are legally obliged to operate autonomously in urban areas.” To create a fully autonomous road network, the leap from where we are currently would be astronomical.
I doubt as mere mortals we appreciate the technological advancements and spending required to create such a world. Nevertheless, testing of these new autonomous systems is well underway worldwide and have been for a number of years. Even if self-driving cars are predicted to reduce road accidents by a whopping 80% and create a collision free future, is this technology all too much too soon and will this take away the ‘real’ pleasure and thrill most people experience when driving?
I’m sure we can all give examples of innovations or technology that have brought both 2 pleasure and pain to our lives. The internet? Mobile phones? My personal favourite was SKY+, being able to watch what I want, when I want. Life-changing. These small technological revolutions didn’t happen overnight, we eased into them. We didn’t just switch on the electricity one morning; this took years of trial and error, some led the way, others followed, but we all got there in the end.
Sometimes, if we look to the past we can find reassurance that these huge technological leaps are actually positive. The Internet turned out to be a good thing - mostly? Looking back to the horseless carriage scenario, theoretically, horses came out of the switch from carriage to cars better off. Sure, their numbers dwindled, but horses are now past times, hobbies something to enjoy on the weekends. Will our relationship with cars mirror this trend and ultimately become more pleasurable.
Will we enjoy driving more if it’s a choice rather than a necessity
In a recent interview when asked about the pending transition, Andrew Barraclough, VP of Design at GSK and automotive enthusiast commented “I still think I would need two cars, one which would solely get me from A to B where I can watch a movie, work, read, skype, my very own personalised train, plane, tube’ with regards to the pleasure he went on to say ‘then I need something that brings me driving pleasure. I want the thrill, the noise, the feeling of an experience. Maybe it would be a classic racer or a new sports car where I don’t need to compromise on MPG or boot space. I can focus on pure motoring passion.”
With this in his mind he goes on to predict a possible rise in clubs giving you access to a range of cars purely for weekend pleasure.
How will the fully autonomous experience affect different generations of motorists? Whether you’re male or female, will the fact that you have been driving for thirty or fifty years influence your opinion? What if you don’t even have your licence yet? What if you have impatiently counted down to be seventeen so you can experience the joy of owning your first car and the freedom of hitting the open road?
A question of control
Joe Hawley is seventeen and already has hesitations about not being given the chance to get behind the wheel. ‘I think there are clearly some big advantages to this technology, but first I have a small reservation. As a learner driver, I actively enjoy driving and being in control of the vehicle, and am not sure whether a driverless vehicle would give me the same satisfaction when driving. Despite the fact that the novelty of driving will probably wear off, I still think that being a passenger wouldn’t quite offer the same travelling experience.’ Joe really appreciates the need to decrease the number of accidents on the road due to reckless driving and would even welcome the possibility of getting onto the road sooner without the need for the tests, but you do get the sense that this would take away the enjoyment of learning to drive for Joe.
Joe’s grandfather, Gary Hawley, is 80 and has been driving for 55 years so you would guess he’s ready to hand over the reins and enjoy a well-earned rest from driving. He has an extremely pragmatic approach; ‘Age is catching up with me, resulting in me being not quite so alert. This may limit my capability to be safe even though I have been driving for over 55 years with only one minor accident. So a self-driving car may be necessary, subject to what it is designed to do. However if I am not at risk to other road users I would still prefer to be in full control of my car.’
Here you have two opposite ends of the spectrum and two drivers from completely different eras of motoring that both share the common view and hesitation of surrendering full control and the potential pleasure of driving. That said, the notion of a fully selfdriving future will still enable us to be mobile and independent and on the surface should be a positive change to our lives. Ok, so we may potentially lose some of the pleasure and thrill of motoring, but I’m sure we can all agree this painful step will be worth a safer, collision-free future?
Ultimately, whether we see a fully autonomous future as a pleasure or pain, change is inevitable and it’s our ability as a society to adapt and evolve with technology that will decide how pleasurable or painful the transition will be in the long term.
In the meantime, keep your hands on the steering wheel, keep your eyes on the road and definitely expect your taxi to be late!